After a Jewish holiday induced day off, yours truly is back. Today I'd like to cover the topic of Tijuana in Baja California or if you prefer, Mexico. Tijuana has this reputation of being the place where sailors, marines, and college kids go to party. More recently, it's been the scene of drug-related violence. Tourists love it because they feel like they're in Mexico proper and pick up cheap tchotkes for the folks back home. However, there's change afoot. On Sunday May 12, 2013 the Los Angeles Times published an article by Reed Johnson on Tijuana's comeback. Local entrepreneurs and artists are propelling a cultural revival along the city's main boulevard, Callejon de la Sexta (Sixth Street), near the main boulevard Avenida Revolucion, in an effort to move beyond the drug-related violence.
As recently as six years ago, the main area of Sixth Street was in the middle of a commercial dance of death, as brutal drug-related violence swept across Mexico enveloping the border cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. However, about three years ago a group of tijuanenses began to reclaim large tracts of their hometown. The fire sale rental rates allowed young entrepreneurs and artists to move into abandoned buildings and convert them into thrive nightspots and trendy retail businesses. Guess what? It brought back the people. Mr. Johnson quotes Ramon Amezcua a.k.a Bostich of the norteno-electronic fusion group Nortec Collective, "In 2007 we were afraid to go out in the night to the bars, to live the night-life style of Tijuana...But here, starting with Sixth Avenue, the people started to take back the streets."
Tijuana has had a colorful history. Beginning with Prohibition, vice seekers made the trip down to the border town in search of forbidden alcohol and licentious activity. When World War II broke out, the flow of pleasure seekers stopped. The Great Depression slowed to tourism to a turtle's pace. The September 11th terrorist attack the attendent tighter border controls had a similar dampening effect. After each boom-and-bust cycle, the city rebounded. What's different this time is that the artists and entrepreneurs are reclaiming districts like downtown Zona Centro and Colonia Cacho for themselves, not the tourists. Quoting Luis Ituarte, director of La Casa del Tunel, an art gallery and performance space that now occupies a former private that contained a drug smuggler's tunnel, "Now when I go to Avenida Revolucion, and I don't see a [foreigner], it's shocking to me. Now it's packed with Mexicans." So what's going on? I doubt that the drug-related violence stopped. In fact earlier this year there were a string of homicides that swept the city, which recorded forty-two homicides in January. However, the homicide rate has fallen dramatically since 2010, when the official murder rate spiked at 844.
Tijuana's latest reincarnation began about two years ago after the January 2010 arrest of reputed crime boss Teodoro Garcia Simental and slow dismantling of the Arellano Felix cartel, which, according to the police, was pushed out by the rival Sinaloa cartel. According to most accounts, the first indication of Tijuana's re-emergence was the 2009 opening of La Mezcalera. Cesar Fernandez, estimated that ninety-five percent of his clientele are from Tijuana. This facilitated the opening of dozens of funky-chic cantinas such as Moustache Bar, squeezing out older establishments such as La Estrella and Porky's Place. The dance clubs, such as Las Pulgas, are also packed especially on the weekends when it draws swarms of young factory workers.
The current revival isn't just centered on the bars and dance clubs. Alternative art galleries, performance spaces, high-end restaurants, organic cafes, new and vintage clothing stores are sprouting up on Avenida Revolucion (La Revu) and La Sexta, as well as in the nearby Colonia Cacho district. Pasaje Rodriguez and Pasaje Gomez, once grim downtown alleyways, have been transformed from from tourist traps to modest cultural start-up zones. If that weren't enough, the jet setting foodie tribe have christened Tijuana the new culinary hotspot. The logic behind this revival was simple, the tourists weren't coming so the locals took over the abandoned spaces. Thus, picking up where it left off before former President Felipe Calderon cracked down on the cartels prompting a vicious cycle of violence that claimed an estimated 60,000 lives since 2006.
In the late nineties and early 2000s, the city was gaining a reputation as a vibrant center of cultural production. For example indie rocker Julieta Venegas and the punk-ska band Tijuana No! gained a cross-border fan base. Nortec Collective blended traditional norteno instruments: trumpet, tuba, and accordian with electronic dance music. Hmmm, this sounds interesting. Maybe I should check them out on spotify. The DIY approach is evident today at places such Otras Obras (Other Works), an art and performance space in a former hair salon. Two Southern Californians, Adam Mekut a college student from San Diego and Andrea Noel a native Angeleno and photographer who's lived in the city since 2008, are part of a growing number of younger Californians drawn to Mexico's creative potential. However, outsiders remain wary. Quoting Ms. Noel, "there's also a sort of counterpart of young people" who've assimilated by giving a wide berth to the criminal element. If this is urban pioneer movement follows form, then eventually we'll see the same thing we have in Downtown Los Angeles. Young professionals, the creative class, and older couples moving to the area, creating a demand for certain amenities and services.
Quoting Ms. Noel again, "It was kind of interesting timing to come in right before this resurgence which has sort of come in waves...It has its really up moments and then it has sort of these standstills where nothing much really happens." The growing bar and gallery scene has helped push forward the city's second-wave homegrown music industry, including emerging artists like Madame Ur and La Ballena de Jonas. I definitely see similarities in the Tijuana experience with those of Downtown Los Angeles and Brooklyn, New York. Locals taking over abandoned buildings and creating spaces for themselves. The rock-bottom rents enable urban pioneers to set up studios and spaces to make and display their work, retail and commercial spaces follow closely. It's interesting that Reed Johnson didn't pick up on this. However, unlike the young urban pioneers of the late eighties and nineties, the internet has played a large part in the movement.
The members of avant-garde electronic dance music collective Los Macuanos first met via the Internet during the years when many young tijuanenses stayed home and socialized online. Jason Fitz, a photojournalist, Tijuana resident since 2009, and author of Tijuanalandia blog has suggested that the young creative class will benefit from seeing themselves as part of a larger, Internet-linked global movement. They're no longer pigeon-holed as "border" artists but now linked beyond the fence that separates the United States and Mexico. The new generation of artists don't define themselves by the border city but as part of the world community. Not anchored to the United States, but part of a larger global vision.