Puerta Mexico, a.k.a. La Concha (“the shell”), a googie-esque immigration office on the Mexican side of the San Ysidro border crossing, was demolished in 2015 . Constructed in 1961, the structure also served as a pedestrian bridge for the thousands of people who walk to the border, but the building was decaying, and the government decided to tear it down to build much-needed lanes for vehicles. The increase in lanes made the border-wait shorter by an hour or more, on average. Instead of a maximum wait of four hours like years before, currently the maximum wait hovers around two hours.
Before Puerta Mexico was demolished, I used to walk over the bridge to cross the border almost on a daily basis. I had suffered the long lines regularly, so I was happy they did something to improve the border-wait, even if it meant destroying the iconic building. In its absence, pedestrians now have to play Frogger to access the border entry. At first, cops were in position to direct traffic and help pedestrians cross, but with time the cops became apathetic and stopped. Sometimes there is no cop in sight. Impatient with the line, drivers tend to not respect the pedestrians crossing.
For me, the Shell was of no value, except as a pedestrian bridge to the border. It was ugly and crumbling. But many Tijuana locals wanted to protect the building as a historical landmark. A Facebook page to defend the building was created by a group that went by the name Arquitectos en Defensa Puerta México. The space where the Shell once stood is now car lanes, but somehow it feels like the building lingers as a ghost.
Puerta Mexico is not the only ghost building in Tijuana. Others still linger in spirit, though their earthly bodies have returned to dust. El Viejo Toreo, known as El Toreo (the bullfighting ring), was built in 1938 and demolished in 2007. It stood in the uptown district of Colonia Cacho. Tijuanenses still call the area by its old name, though nothing remains except a small traffic sign that indicates El Toreo is up ahead. The building was demolished and for almost a decade it has remained an empty lot. People talk about a possible park or a mall occupying the space.
Then there is La Comandancia de La Ocho — the old police station, cell blocks, and fire station on 8th Street. Built in 1971, the structure was demolished in 2011. It was announced in June 2015 that the government of Jorge Astiazarán will turn the empty lot into a park with an investment of 15 million pesos (roughly a million dollars).
“La Concha was constructed by one of the best architects Mexico has ever had, Mario Pani,” Miguel Buenrostro tells me on an early afternoon inside another landmark of Tijuana, Hotel Caesars.
“It might have looked ugly to you, but it used to be the first building you’d see when crossing into Mexico. It definitely had historical and architectural value. The problem is that they didn’t give it any upkeep. That’s why it looked rusty and forgotten.”
Buenrostro is the creator of Reactivando Espacios, an organization that aims to save historical buildings and bring them back to life.
“I am not an architect,” he says. “I call myself a ‘ruinologist,’ but, you know, es de pura mamada [my choice of terminology is insignificant]. I am a filmmaker, and some people say I am an activist.”
Buenrostro’s latest effort was to save the old Mexicoach bus station, a building situated between 6th and 7th streets on Revolución Avenue. Over a year ago, Buenrostro and his partners turned the old station into a co-working space called HUBSTN (Hub Station). Uber’s first offices in Tijuana as well as Yelp’s were located in the space. A pizza joint and a coffee shop in the building and a callejon (alley) nearby came to life in the form of Colectivo 9; a food court that started with nine restaurants has since grown to include many more.
I had met Buenrostro before but had little interaction with him. It was not until I attended his birthday party at Mexicoach on July 15 of last year that I heard him talk about his projects. Back then, he gave the sad news that the building we were celebrating in was going to be demolished two weeks later, on July 29.
I did not have a chance to chat with him that day, but I scheduled an interview after the demolition. I had plans to be there during the demolition to film and take pictures, but the wrecking crew arrived earlier than the date given and started by breaking the stained-glass ceiling and taking away the Mexicoach and HUBSTN signs.
“In the 1930s, before it became the Mexicoach station, it used to be Pasaje Contreras,” Buenrostro relates. “The pasaje was full of life, kind of like how other pasajes — shop-lined corridors between streets — have more life now. It was really a prosperous place. The stained-glass ceiling was built in 1983, but when tourists stopped coming, the station closed and the place was virtually abandoned. With Reactivando Espacios, we identify vulnerable spaces. We approach the owners and make a proposal that helps the building gain value again. Not only economical value, but also value to make this city stronger.”
Buenrostro’s plans backfired. The Mexicoach property value increased and the original owners sold the space. He and his partners fought to save a building they and many locals treasured. But since the building was private property, the owners decided to sell it as soon as a good offer came in.
“We had a very romantic approach when trying to save the station, and we have learned from our mistakes.... I do not want to talk about the new owners, and I have no problems with the previous owners that sold the space. I understand that it was a private building and not a historic building. They were free to do what they wanted. I take it as a learning experience, and now I have the opportunity to film it all and make a documentary that hopefully will open eyes so that this type of practice stops happening.”
Buenrostro declined to comment on the future of the space, but it is known that the new owners are the brothers Ruiz Arretche, who own Las Pulgas, the most profitable bar in Tijuana. The same brothers tried to buy the empty lot where La Commandancia used to be. Las Pulgas is not the only bar the brothers own: they own a bar a block away by the name of El Copeo, another by the border named Le Conteiner, and others sprinkled throughout the city, as well as restaurants and hotels, including Hotel Ticuán.
“We have recognized more than 40 spaces throughout the city that can be reintegrated without the need to demolish them,” Buenrostro says. “For now, I am putting all my efforts on making the documentary of the demolition of Mexicoach happen. I filmed the demolition for five days: watching how they demolish something so beautiful is almost poetic. If no one does anything, buildings will continue getting demolished. The problem is that architecture and the esthetic is not respected. There is no conscience of the region’s patrimonial architecture. Because the city is so young and because there is no one pushing the issue, it seems like it doesn’t matter. The only ones that are conscious of the subject are architecture academics and historians.”
On the flip side, we were having this conversation at Hotel-Restaurant Caesars, built in 1927. Caesars is not the only prosperous business in an old building. Mamut Brewery grew into the building that used to be the Foreign Club, a hotel built in 1924 situated on Calle 3. Mamut turned their nanobrewing operation into a microbrewery and they keep growing. A favorite hideaway bar, Bar Nelson, has been there since 1949. The bar just got their ceiling remodeled, yet it still feels like the 1970s inside.
“None of the new buildings really intrigue me,” Buenrostro says. “They have value. They are investing in the city and showing interest in developing the city. But, architecture-wise, I don’t think they are anything new. There’s no real vision. They just seem like buildings that want to give it el gatazo moderno [a modern cosmetic overhaul]. However, there is potential. There are a lot of great architects in the city. But a skyscraper that really intrigues me? No, not really.”