As a family we were invited to participate in TJinChina, an art and cultural exchange program in Tijuana, Mexico headed by (g)local artists Daniel Ruanova and Mely Barragan. Traveling with me and Corrie Slawson, a Cleveland painter and print maker, is our three-and-a-half-year old son, Ira. We’re here for three weeks, meeting artists, exploring the city and issues including how Cleveland and Tijuana can learn from each other.
Being in Tijuana has heightened my awareness of differences—between east and west and ‘first’ and ‘developing’ nations. Bottom line, we live in many ways a life of privilege in the United States and enjoy a standard of living the envy of the world even if we cannot always see it ourselves.
I have seen a lot of how ‘the rest of the world’ lives in our short time here, and can say unreservedly that we complain too quickly in Northeast Ohio about everything from the conditions of our roads, traffic, food, water, and people (OK, we might have reason to complain about our weather).
This trip has opened my eyes to so many ‘first world’ problems—from slow Internet to friends posting too many cat videos. If you have a ‘too many videos’ in your Netflix-Hulu-DVR queue that isn’t a problem on the same scale as explaining to your young child the 50-foot tall steel fence that cuts right through your city, right through the beach and into the ocean.
The next time I feel like complaining about a pothole or the five-year-old HealthLine bus being too crowded or a little dusty, I’ll remember the ancient Blue Bird school bus that’s painted green—there are hundreds of them operating as a private taxi service that young and old here must climb in from an unmarked stop as the clang and clamor of traffic makes your teeth rattle.
I would like this post to be more than an expression of ‘first world‘ guilt. It should be an appreciation for how good our lives have become and how hard people here in Mexico work to make that possible. There are jobs here in the maquiladores, or foreign owned factories making guidance systems or solar panels for export markets. And a Tijuanese can make a decent living ($960 a month in disposable income) in them. Rents and (very tasty) food are considered affordable. But add in transportation costs to housing and 30-50% of that disposable income is greatly reduced. Like many cities in the west, Tijuana is designed almost solely for use by car. Their version of Cleveland’s Flats, Avenida Revolucion, and the cultural area, Zona Rio, which grew up around the Tijuana River after it was buried under a concrete aqueduct, are the only two areas that you might call pedestrianized.
We’re walking in Tijuana, a thing unheard of even among the most disadvantaged it seems. With sidewalks and curb cuts in the purview of each private property owner, the sidewalks crumble and curbs end abruptly. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some steps to the street. Curbs are so tall that it takes two adults to lift a child in a stroller down at each intersection. Many times sidewalks simply end or are replaced by pull-in parking in front of commercial spaces. The last time I experienced this wholesale disregard for the pedestrian was in Austin, Texas. But I wasn’t pushing a stroller. A few days of this and we’re exhausted, but we’ve seen a lot of the city.
Daniel says half in jest that it would cost the same to buy a car here as what we spent on our stroller. Walking is done out of utter necessity or at the end of a car trip. But there are a few pedestrians like us who dodge racing cars on 4 to 5 lane boulevards and intersections that are as wide as the Ganges. There is no citizen group speaking up for those without the resources to buy either a car or a stroller, and so the infrastructure gets more beat up and more pedestrians are killed by cars (TJ has a high pedestrian fatality rate and I’m not surprised seeing the aggressive driving).
As AMATS director Jason Segedy said recently about sidewalks, their condition is evidence of a society that is taking care of the least able and the most in need of our help. Admitted corruption and a lack of political will and power at the local level puts issues like walkable streets low on the priorities list. If as architect Bill McDonough says design is the first signal of human intention, what is the intention in the West and how will it adapt as the demographic wave of Millennial-fueled return to urban living makes its inevitable migration here (more on this question in another post)?
Before I’m accused of being a snob from the east, I will quickly add that Tijuana’s streets are not much worse than in Cleveland’s most neglected neighborhoods. It’s just that less walkable places of our region put a heavy tax on the most in need. We walk and bike and take transit in Cleveland because we have the luxury of living ‘car light’ but honestly, we had to travel 1,500 miles to feel more empathy for Cleveland’s walking poor.