READINGS

ILLICIT ACTS OF URBANISM

By Rene Peralta

"We have different legal systems, but the basic rules are the same,"
    -Tijuana Mayor Jesus Gonzalez Reyes (2001- 2004), on the Mexican laws that U.S. tourists break.

Tijuana is primarily a result of illegal or illicit acts.

Since its conception, the idea of illegality has been the driving force behind its dystopian condition. Instances of violent processes exist within a framework of illegality that until recently was the modus operandi of urban transformation.

An illegality separated from morality and sometimes from need or necessity - a way of life.

An illegality that constructed heterogeneity, a perception of the city that used chronological events not to reveal a history but, to the contrary, liberated a Deleuzian diagram that did not represent but produced a new reality.

The first plan of the city, drafted in 1889, became the ideal form to unlawfully alter. The grid, paradigm of urban space, became the instigator for illegality. When the Beaux Arts plan was laid out, diagonal boulevards traversed the orthogonal parcels and connected a series of plazas. Violent confrontations arose in places where the diagonals touched a parcel. Landowners began to transgress the axial paths by building into them in order to obtain a greater amount of land. By 1921, the diagonal boulevards had become a crippled desire of order and control, a failed plan to produce Cartesian logic.

Today, the only remnant of the diagonals is Plaza Santa Cecilia, located on the border of decency between the prostitution area of the Zona Norte and the "family" oriented Revolution Street.

In 1915, while San Diego was organizing the Panama Pacific Exposition and constructing the false buildings of Balboa Park, Tijuana came up with its own version of a world's fair, featuring cock fights, alcohol, gambling and many other prohibited desires of Californians, corroborating once again, while San Diego was nostalgically looking for a past, that Tijuana is where the fun is. The Tijuana Race Track, financed by Californians, came into being during this time and since then has been part of a violent and unlawful history.

During prohibition in the United States, Tijuana promoted bootlegging and drunkenness by serving as an oasis of bars and liquor stores. The period saw the origins of Mexicali beer, "La Ballena" (considered to have the longest bar in the world), saloons, prostitution and other illicit acts that accompany inebriated recreation. The Baja California wine business was established to quench the intoxicating needs of the gringo; today, the wines of the Valley of Guadalupe are world-renowned. All of this thanks to prohibition; once again, Tijuana took advantage of the act made unlawful by its neighbor and developed a successful business enterprise.

In 1928 American entrepreneurs, trying to make a profit by making Tijuana an early Las Vegas, founded the Agua Caliente Casino. The Casino pampered Hollywood celebrities such as Buster Keaton and Rita Hayworth; had racehorse jackpots in the thousands of dollars; and encouraged the opening of bars and hotels. The Casino was such a success that the U.S. government, trying to stop its citizens from enjoying themselves, began closing the border at 9 p.m. every night, which only helped the local hotels in Tijuana as more and more Americans stayed overnight. Even during the Depression the casinos and the commercial strips of downtown Tijuana flourished economically, but all of this came to an end in 1939, when by presidential decree gambling was prohibited in Mexico and the Casino was converted into a school.

At the beginning of the Second World War, the entry of a majority of young American men into military service left the fields of California without hands to work the land. The Bracero program of 1942 became another incentive to immigrate to Tijuana and work in California. Immigration quadrupled the city's population in a decade and created the phenomena that still plague it: uncontrolled growth, squatting, and illegal immigration.

Even after the war, Americans continued to hire illegal workers in agriculture, construction and low-paying service jobs. Many of these immigrants settled illegally in different parts of the city, but one of the most heavily settled areas occurred in the River Zone next to the border, referred to as cartolandia or carton-land. Displacement of people from this area became a twenty-year endeavor, ending in violence and destruction in 1979. The heavy rains falling upon the city at the time caused the Rodriguez Dam to accumulate a large reserve that, according to state officials, needed to be released; without notice, the Dam was opened and water swept away the cardboard shacks.

The Tijuana River Canal memorializes this event today, a deep cut dividing the city in two, a voie triomphale of concrete and sewage. The canal was part of a project that included boulevards and other infrastructure that was intended to forcibly Mexicanize Tijuana. The first phase of the canal ran from the border all the way to the Lazaro Cárdenas Education Center, formerly the Agua Caliente Casino, connecting two major sites of illicit action. The canal violently disrupted the urban fabric of the city and is now a place for addicts to sell and consume drugs, an area that stinks due to the untreated water that spills into it. Today inside the inner walls of the canal, gigantic images from local artists are displayed as a misconstrued symbol of individuality and acculturation. Once again, the Tijuana River area has become a place of forceful intervention and imposed rhetoric of progress from outsiders.


Modernization and progress were supposedly what foreign industries were to offer Tijuana.

Maquiladoras are manufacturing plants that take advantage of cheap labor and the government's relaxed regulations regarding the dumping of hazardous material. Acids, solvents and other poisons are released into the environment near the industrial parks of Tijuana. The Maquiladoras promoted jobs and security to an incoming population that settled in the eastern part of the city, with some of the communities beginning through the illegal settling of land. Today developers are building under the flag of social housing, but building homes that even the U.N. calls unfit for dignified living. In comparison to these communities, the illegal development of squatters is greener and has improved in the past years. What began as an act of illegality has been transformed into a positive outcome. Where the fundamental precept of mens rea does not apply, the "legal" constructions of greedy developers are a product of faulty government codes where loopholes become the main conduit of shady legality.

Today, the Agua Caliente Racetrack is once again the site of illegality, at the forefront of illegitimate construction, drug trafficking, and the other typical endeavors of this city.

In the elections for mayor in August 2004, Tijuana voted for Hank Rhon, the son of a well known PRI politician. Rhon took over the racetrack back in the 70s, fired most of the laborers, did away with horse racing, and converted the building into his own private zoo and polo club. Today, Rhon is mayor and celebrated his political triumph with a huge party at the racetrack. Rhon also developed an area of the racetrack grounds-—still the property of the federal governemnt—illegally as an upscale housing development known as Puerta de Hierro (Door of Iron), home for many of the wealthiest citizens of Tijuana. The only problem is that the development is considered as illegal as the ones in the hills of the city, since the properties are not registered as legal parcels with the municipality (a technicality that would probably be "legalized" when Mr. Rhon takes office).

Tijuana is a battlefield where the processes of power and social life are always in play, or as Henri Lefebvre points out, "the city and the urban sphere are thus the setting of struggle; they are also however the stakes of that struggle." The city's urban condition is always producing spatial bifurcations, its formlessness a combination of Koolhaas's junkspace and Piranesi's Campo Marzio, where "the unmasking of the contradiction is an act that in itself might offer a ray of hope for a culture condemned to operate with degraded means." (Tafuri).

Illegal or illicit urban manifestations have been until now the product of an ineffective system. They are used for planning and development that are more about the bottom line than promoting social manifestations with an ability to foster mediated urban processes, a mediated city, or as Virilio has pointed out, "building mediated structures, conjointly, circulatory and habitable, with stratification of uses according to the necessities of time and the masses".

Rene Peralta is an architect and principal of the Tijuana-based firm Generica. He is the reporter for Worldview: Tijuana.

Mexicali Beer Hall - home of the longest bar in the world.



Tijuana River Canal