San Ysidro feels very much like a place without a present. There’s little there that lends itself to now. The was is represented by the smattering of shops that have been family owned for generations and are inseparable from their own histories. It’s here that black-and-white photographs adorn the walls alongside portraits of the town’s founders and prominent citizens, and an anecdote full of used-to-bes is never more than a prod away. Alternately, signs announcing construction projects, playgrounds, art corridors, and cultural spaces are slapped up in front of weed-ridden vacant lots and buildings buckling under the weight of time. These signs promise that the San Ysidro of tomorrow is only as far away as the bureaucratic cooperation necessary to actualize the future. But as for right now, it’s hard to imagine anyone outside of the residents who live here having much of a reason to stop in.
The great irony in this is that so very many people pass through on a daily basis; the first handful of exits just north of the border wall often nothing more than an opportunity to mash the gas after an hour(s) of inching along car length by car length to show one’s papers and enter the promised land. To the pedestrians, it’s little more than a trolley stop on the way to work. I’m guilty of this myself. My stops in San Ysidro are almost exclusively to solve emergency bathroom situations or refill empty gas tanks.
It’s not too difficult to imagine San Ysidro as a side-effect or a symptom or an outgrowth of the orgiastic monolith to America’s military might that forms the hard edge of its southern border. To stand on the spot where E. San Ysidro Boulevard becomes W. San Ysidro Blvd is to find oneself nestled in a tourniquet of highways, surrounded by gas stations, money exchange shacks, and gridlock. To breathe the air is to choke on the exhaust of the thousands upon thousands of idling cars slogging their way back and forth across the fence. But San Ysidro is not a shrewd border outpost capitalizing on the commuter funnel like an impulse-buy aisle at any given retail shop. San Ysidro was there first. If anything, in relation to the militarized border, San Ysidro is a victim.
San Ysidro started out in the first decade of the 20th century as The Little Landers Community — one of America’s first communes. Some fellow named Smythe — memorialized along with many of the town’s other patrons with a street named after him — handed out land an acre or two at a time along with a slogan more or less synonymous with “a bird in hand is better than two in the bush.” The community pooled their crops, sold them in the city of San Diego to the north, and shared in the fruits of their collective labor until the powers that be destroyed their utopia with a flood.
Armed with nothing more than this flimsy bit of historical trivia courtesy of Wikipedia, I thought a good place to begin my quest for the ticking tock of San Ysidro was the fertile soil of Suzie’s Farm. (Given its location west of the 5, Suzie’s Farm is technically in the Tijuana River Valley. Or maybe it’s Nestor. Look, outside of a district map or the brain of someone with intimate knowledge of the boundaries, most people are hard pressed to explain exactly where San Ysidro begins and ends. Some say 5 forms the western boundary, but that would exclude Plaza Americas mall, which is unanimously considered to be part of San Ysidro, so please forgive my traipsing and this wandering digression.)
Suzie’s organic farm lies just south of Tocayo Avenue in a place where the blacktop crumbles away to dirt and the speed limit signs are replaced with warnings of the comings-and-goings of tractors and horses. It would be easy to imagine this place as the middle-of-nowhere. But the helicopters from the Naval yard to the west and the hills of Tijuana crowded with houses insist that you are sandwiched right between two countries.
I meet Fe, the farm’s official tour guide, in a grove of eucalyptus trees around which are carved the acres and acres of rows and rows of beautiful produce. Fe’s is an effortless and contagious friendliness, and when she tells me that she taught young children in a previous life, I can’t help but think that those were some lucky kids. We sashay through the kohlrabi, turnips, radishes, broccoli, and sunflowers, plucking them right out of the ground, wiping off the dirt on our jeans, and popping them into our mouths. Everything is delicious. Fe tells me how the land is government-owned, and that the farm is there in lieu of any sort of commercial development or housing as a stipulation to minimize the casualty potential if and when one of those helicopters were to come tumbling down. Food for thought as I depart with my bags of produce to smuggle home to Tijuana.
Back east, back in the sprawl, back in San Ysidro proper, I meet Thomas Cuen — esteemed long-time San Ysidran and proprietor of San Ysidro Feed & Supply. His mother bought the place back in 1934, As far as local landmarks go, this red barn on San Ysidro Boulevard has got to be one of the most recognizable. It lies deep in the V created by Interstates 5 and 805 merging a mile north of Mexico. Cuen is an undeniable character, a pleasure to shoot the shit with, and a man who harbors little doubt as to the source of the unnecessary squeeze on his well-being — elected officials. He tells me that his business is suffering thanks to Mexico’s revised (as of September 2014) custom laws. Between 90 and 95 percent of his business comes from south of the border, and as of late, his customers are getting turned away as they try to cross back into Mexico. They return to the shop, armed with a slip of paper from the Mexican government rejecting the import of their goods, and he’s left with no choice but to return their money and restock his wares.
Pointing to the shadow of Interstate 5’s overpass in front of the store, he tells me how the City of San Diego wanted to put in a glorieta (or roundabout) in order to facilitate the ebb and flow of border traffic. The town hall fought the city off for now, but for Cuen, the battle is illustrative of how out-of-touch the government is regarding relevant issues and practical solutions. “It’s not that they’re... they just don’t have any common sense,” he says.
Or is it that the City of San Diego doesn’t really care much about it one way or another. It was annexed by San Diego back in the late 1950’s in some political maneuvering that soon bore witness to the yoke of highways now embedded in the community’s scenery. One of the most fascinating victims of this development and road expansion was the passion project of a certain Allen Parkinson: gondolas (skybuckets like the zoo’s and Seaworld’s) meant to connect San Ysidro with downtown Tijuana. Look it up. Like most land grabs historically, (especially when they’re contested, as this one was by the residents of San Ysidro; twice) San Ysidro’s annexation smacks of an attempt to expand and exploit rather than to engage and incorporate.
Though he never said anything of the sort, I’m inclined to believe that David Flores of the nonprofit Casa Familiar would agree. A man who answers the question, “Where are you from?” with “the Southwest border,” Flores exudes a sort of community-advocate spirit, though he exhibits none of the tell-tale signs of your average organizer — no bags under the eyes, no slumped shoulders, and none of that cynicism that’s bought and paid for with piles of thankless work. Flores is full of cheerful energy and is as proud of what he’s helped accomplish as he is excited about what the future holds.
It’s only when he tells me how he is always having to explain that homelessness manifests itself differently in San Ysidro that I begin to infer that he harbors those familiar sentiments of frustration with an indifferent city hall 16 miles north. Over 90 percent of San Ysidro’s population is latino, and rather than people living on the streets, there are extended families living on top of extended families all squeezed into overcrowded housing.
So how does one unwind after a day of fighting the good fight in San Ysidro? What do the kids do for fun? What kind of night life is up for grabs? “What night life?” says Cuen. “Let me give you an idea,” says Flores, “unless we are having an event at The Front (an art gallery on the main drag), everything is closed by six.”
He’s not kidding either. There’s nowhere to eat that isn’t a fast food chain. Nowhere to get a coffee or, god forbid, a beer. Nowhere to see anything like live music. At least nothing with any interest in being easily found by someone like me.
There is an old church from the 1920s, though. Casa Familiar’s plan is to renovate it and turn it into a black box around which an artist collective can form alongside a training program for young baristas. They’re calling it El Salon, and as of this writing, the ribbon cutting seems like a long way off. There’s also plans to develop a quarter mile of an alleyway into a pedestrian friendly artist corridor. This is a start, but it’s a lonely start. There should be ten new places opening. A cafe. A taco truck. A tattoo parlor. Places owned by locals and serving the community. Instead, the place feels like it’s fizzling in place. Like any opportunity for innovation or art or entrepreneurial enterprise shrugged itself into oblivion long ago. It’s inarguable that the struggle of the day-to-day in the wealth gap reality of modern America requires all time and all energy, but indifference to place is a mating call for gentrification. Or, even more prescient and dangerous in the case of San Ysidro, justification for the powers that be to turn the whole place into an international on/off ramp.
I know that I’m an outsider — damn near a foreigner on the average SoCaler’s rubric — and what I think is worth about as much as stacked shit. I’m also one to root for the underdog, and I’m inclined to believe that San Ysidro could do a lot more for itself if it reached back into its own past and yanked its beating heart out of the black-and-white nostalgia and into the realities of the present. What I mean is that it’s troubling when the question “What can you tell me about San Ysidro?” is met with shrugs and requests to be more specific.
Sure, it’s hard to be a quiet and autonomous community when there’s an international border crossing in your backyard, just as it’s equally hard to be a destination when you don’t have much more to offer than any given interstate exit in the country. But a self-proclaimed identity can’t be something that exists only in the past and the hopeful future. And in San Ysidro’s present, it feels like someone stole their cake and is eating it in front of them.