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Where the suburbs put you at a disadvantage

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/20/14 @ 11:00pm

Tijuana and Cleveland share more in common than you might think. Cleveland’s economic boom came early and went by the mid-twentieth century; Tijuana’s manufacturing boom started in 1965, got a boost from NAFTA in 1994, and continues to be the dominant force shaping the city today.

Outward push<br />Tijuana's cinco y diez (five and dime) neighborhood is about an hour ride from the center on the private busThe rural city<br />Tijuana's Florido neighborhood is about an hour bus ride from the city center and still not the end of the line.El Centro<br />The center of Tijuana is Revolution Avenue where storefronts are at a premium and a local cultural scene is emerging.Local color<br />Tijuana is a vibrant colorful city on the move outward but with much energy in the center.

But, in the middle of this sprawling metropolis, a small group is trying to be the tail that wags the dog; they’re laying down tracks to reinvention while posing a new narrative about the city being more than a playground for non-residents.

More than anything, Cleveland and Tijuana have systematically erased nature with concrete, highways and a haphazard pattern of development. Tijuana takes some cues on land use from neighbor San Diego where hills are scraped and sliced and topped with housing subdivisions.

A glimmer of an alternative may be emerging: Investing in culture, if not green space, as a spark to a place-based strategy. It is dawning on Cleveland and Tijuana that the city is where to concentrate people and their ideas instead of catering to the day tripper from across the border who may spend $20. Opportunities line the streets in storefronts around this colorful town.

I ask Tijuana natives Rene Peralta, Director of Woodbury University in San Diego’s Graduate School of Architecture, Landscape + Urbanism, and Dr. Tito Alegria, director of COLEF, an institute at Woodbury that focuses on land use in border cities about Tijuana’s antidote to sprawl.

“Tijuana is typical of a Latin American city that has a center and rings that move out,” Peralta begins.

“The city is not sprawling as fast as you think. The most value is in the center. It is the edges that are being abandoned. It can only grow east. But there’s a limit and I think that limit is the cost of transportation and labor.”

“Manufacturing is really important. The city realized it when it came in 1965, they put it at the border, but workers had trouble getting there from the city center.”

Then manufacturing moved to the periphery to be closer to the working neighborhoods.

“A lot of planning, so to speak, was done by globalization,” Peralta says. “(The city) didn’t think about the transportation issues.”

As a result, those with lower incomes have less access to places to work and to consume, says Alegria. “A woman who wants to go to the hospital has to travel an average of one hour. It’s because public services follow a private cycle of land uses.”

As members of the para-governmental body, IMPLAN, which produces the city’s master plan, their hope is to see the city take a more substantial role in creating a public transit system. Those who cannot afford a car rely on private taxi services, which include a fleet of old school buses. Peralta says this privatization of a public service is inefficient and disadvantages seniors and others on fixed incomes (30% of income goes to housing and transportation. Tijuana’s rents are considered affordable, so transportation takes a toll on the working poor).

It's another sunny and 70 degree day in Tijuana and I’m taking a ride on a private bus from the city center to its sprawling east side. Helping interpret the ride is Sarah Alvarado, an art student at the local university. She lives with her mother in a 2000s public-private development east of the city called Sante Fe where 500,000 people were promised a new life. She rides one of the city’s informal transit routes served by retired school busses that comes through the subdivision every day. For 10 pesos (about $0.80) she gets halfway to the university before she transfers at an unmarked but predetermined street corner to catch a ‘collective’ or shared taxi ride for 11 pesos. Like many folks out here in the West, Alvarado considers her 1-hour one-way trip to be about average. She feels the private bus and collective taxi system is affordable for most people in the middle to lower middle class. She agrees that the low-density land use here would make it virtually impossible to create a citywide public transit system.

The government has been in the business of giving away land at the periphery for development, she says, and the 40-minute bumpy ride in an old school bus reveals the rings of outmigration -- from 1970s-era avocado green high-rise ‘social housing’ on the hills to the dusty, end-of-the-line low-rise developments that have a discomfiting urban and rural feel at the same time.

She says their previous house, built in the 1970s closer in to the center, had more space and felt more comfortable than their newer, single family home of around 50 square meters. I ask Sarah if she had the choice of living anywhere in Tijuana where she would choose. She says downtown or the university neighborhood called Otay.

“Both are more walkable, and feel more connected,” she says.

Three factors that attract public services—higher income, density, and diversity—are all located in the center, Alegria says. If lower income folks are at the periphery here they’re at a greater disadvantage.

“Downtown is still very active because its a transportation depot. If you want to go anywhere it starts here,” Peralta adds.

Density and history as an entertainment mecca have made it a natural stage for a select few sons and daughters of the elites to reinvest in a creative culture pursuits. If supported, it could grow the city from the inside out.

Since the violence with the drug cartels ended around 2011, tourism has cooled. The relative quiet brings to the foreground the locals with capital and social mobility: Young professionals working in management in the factories, college students who live here for the affordability but cross the border daily, musicians (the city had a boost to its music scene about five years ago with groups like Nortec Collective storming the international charts), and recently a culinary school and an art school. As young creatives find spaces to experiment, downtown’s offering is getting more diverse.

The issue they must resolve is with their city and its expectation that the tourists from the north will return, says Alegria.

Tijuana likely won’t see the deluge from San Diego which is investing in its own downtown as an economic attraction strategy.

San Diego's regional planning agency (SANDAG) has a smart growth approach, and was a leader in the re-creation of downtown,” says Alegria who adds that IT firms are the target market. “A convention center, middle class housing, a sports stadium and public transportation have all gone downtown in the last 20 years.”

Many upper-income families from Tijuana prefer to spend their time and money in San Diego. They contribute to San Diego’s world-class infrastructure but not necessarily their hometown’s.

“The elites being focused across the border, spending their time there, is an important factor in why they don’t consider green space a priority here,” Alegria says. “And big parks attract investment.”

Tijuana (like Cleveland) continues to define itself narrowly as a manufacturing town. Meanwhile, their culture industries are a platform for employment and have a creative multiplier effect.

Take food, for example. Cleveland’s about five years ahead of Tijuana in its celebrity chef culture, a “small ball” approach to be sure that is often invisible to economists despite its efficacy in boosting local economies such as supply chains for regional agriculture. Tijuana at the sea boasts some of the tastiest and most affordable food on the continent. It’s easy enough to find delicious $2 octopus, salmon or fresh marlin tacos conjured by Tijuana culinary school grads, like Kokopelli, who are lighting up street corners in food trucks and in restaurant spaces that once served beer by the bucket to tourists.

Chefs and artists represent an emerging presence in downtown Tijuana where beer halls and curio shops that went dark have started to be reactivated. There are the pasajes named Rodriguez and Gomez, which are pass-throughs between streets or buildings that were built for trinket shops in the 1980s and are now being re-programmed for art openings and performances. Or the TJinChina Project Space, a clean, well-appointed residency space and gallery for contemporary art right in the heart of the action on Avenida Revolucion. It is hosting artists from around the globe (and yours truly) to exchange ideas and build on Tijuana as launch pad for all things international.

Some Tijuanese artists work on both sides of the border, while others reject the notion that Tijuana is a border place preferring to see it stand on its own. Like MacArthur “Genius” grant winner Teddy Cruz whose Hybrid Postcards offered to recycle discarded material from across the border into pre-fabricated housing and commercial spaces that artists would use in Tijuana. “Cruz advocates urban complexity, hybridity in opposition to the homogenous, sterile suburban sprawl that is threatening to dominate the landscape,” writes Strange New World: Art and Design from Tijuana.

I ask Peralta and Alegria how Western cities that have been designed more for cars than pedestrians will adapt to the coming demographic wave of Millennials or artists who prefer walkability?

They say Tijuana, which has no public transit or transit agency, has launched a plan to build a three line bus-rapid transit system like that in Mexico City. When I tell them Cleveland has a successful BRT, they stop and think about what kind of leadership it will take to move the plan into reality.

“The maquilas (foreign owned factories) took jobs where people live because the owners took on the task of labor and transportation,” explains Alegria. “The city is aware of the problem with sprawl. But, the main voice is the state government because they produce the roads.”

In other words, the government has been creating land value for the private market which builds cheap housing at the periphery. Adding to the mixed picture of what translates into suburbs here is a history of squatter settlements that were created when the city cleared the river in the city center of its carto landia (land of carton) dwellers. Every city lives with the past decisions of its leaders but in this case it was the federal government who pushed for the river to be buried in concrete and the zone turned from residential to commercial. It literally paved the way for the city to turn its back on the river and push outward. There may be no end in sight to the sprawl as Tijuana and nearby Tecate are being pushed together as a metro region.

"We had a commission, CONAPO, that looked at where does a metropolis begin and end," Alegria explains. "They decided the limits are based on labor markets, who is working where. The maquilas keep bringing the factories out further to where people are living."

Meanwhile, the existing areas built in the 1960s look like they're in need of a massive upgrade. But, despite the strong upcyling economy here—where discards from the States make it into giant flea markets or, like homes, are moved down here on trucks—rebuilding existing places appears to be happening much slower than building cheaply (for the private developer) at the public's great expense of putting in new infrastructure in the rural hillsides. Alvarado tells a story of ten houses in an upscale neighborhood that sustained damage in a recent, minor earthquake. Their owners completely abandoned rather than fix them.

With rents at the center high, there are questions about who and how many can participate in Tijuana’s emergent cultural scene. We visited a few artist’s studios while here, like Jaime’s a painter and printmaker who works in an unrenovated second floor space in the Centro zone that was a former shop and is by far the largest space we’ve seen. But Sarah’s living situation is a reminder of how many live far from the center and, if they’re in a position to go to university, will pay for the privilege of making their work in a studio.

The children of the elites are the ones at the center of a high Bohemian scene. “They want to live in Tijuana because they can live like Sultans,” says Alegria. “For the rest, the impulse is to survive. Social capital is important, but in Latin America having a home is the most important. Many kids live at home with their parents. In Mexico, the family, and starting your own, is very important. "The urban environment then is not where the government wants to invest," he concludes. "It doesn’t spend on this local economy. Until they don‘t have the attitude that the tourists aren’t coming back, (the focus on urban renewal) won’t change.”

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