Remnants of the old Tijuana are easily neglected. The “old” pales in comparison to the tasteful glass and steel palette of Citibank-Banamex and the stately rows of palms along Paseo de los Heroes. The up-scale fascinates and demands our attention.
Yet I’ve noticed that huge, garbage-strewn empty lots are also popping up everywhere in the city. Tucked away behind the posh new structures along Sanchez Taboada and Boulevard Agua Caliente, the emptiness of an abandoned lot is easy to overlook. Yet I’m beginning to see that this absence is also a product of the city’s rapid growth.
A post on Facebook this morning reminded me of this contradictory dynamic. A friend re-posted an article by local architect and urbanist Rene Peralta who last month noted the passing of the old Tijuana Jail and fire station on Calle Ocho y Constitucion. “The Tijuana Jail Tale” Shortly after Christmas last year, Peralta reports, the Tijuana City Council voted to sell off the land on which the old jail and firestation stood. Mayor Carlos Bustamante ordered the demolition of the buildings, and within a week, they were gone without a trace.
Peralta laments the lack of appreciation for collective memory among city leaders, the failure to understand the role that the feelings and memory of community members play in the continuity of history. Peralta writes:
Sometimes when we think of preserving structures, “time” is reduced solely to dating buildings. The Tijuana jail and fire station were built in the 1960s, but this fact defines only part of its historical legacy. The mayor of Tijuana mentioned that his decision to demolish the buildings was because they were old and had structural damage, a questionable assertion (no documents of the structural survey were ever published). Yet, the mayor didn’t consider that collective memory also plays an important role in the legitimization of a building as a historical artifact.
Bustamante also added that the history of the building was evil and “tiene muy malas vibras” (“it has bad vibes”); therefore, its continued existence would only serve to promote the negative image of the city…as if the act of demolishing the buildings eliminates the negative image of a shady government and its notorious under-the-table deals.
Since I moved to Tijuana last year, I’ve been fascinated by the very existence of unbelievably decrepit structures, trash-strewn lots with signs admonishing the residents “Prohibido tirar basura” (Throwing trash here is prohibited). When I stroll the callejones and abandoned streets of in La Zona Norte, many of my friends, and most residents who I talk to there don’t understand the appeal. In the eyes of many, Tijuana’s “dead spaces” contribute to the “mala vibra” of a city that seems to be always falling apart.
However, if we look closer, there’s another way to see it.
Norman Klein, a Los Angeles urbanist, calls these empty spaces “phantom limbs.” He notes that these remnants of the past not only bear witness to once lively communities but continue to generate stories, personal histories and mythologies, accounts provoked by the very absence of what was once there.
Klein reflects on the nature of history, the generative quality of empty space, and the challenges of bearing witness:
The “phantom limb” is often an empty lot where a building once stood, perhaps on Sunset Boulevard. Scraps of lathe and facade mix in piles with broken brick. The foundation is momentarily a ruin, like a photo of someone’s toothless mouth held wide open. The grading left by the bulldozer’s form ridges along the dust. It seems that if you could simply rest your ear close enough to the point where the blades have sheared away the joists, there might be the faint echo of a scream, or a couple talking at breakfast. Your imagination tries to see those people, based on the evidence, but doesn’t find enough at first. A car passes. Someone watches through the windshield for an instant, as it they knew who used to live here. But no conversation is supposed to take place. The cars graze at the light, and disappear.
Klein’s insights have helped give me a little direction as I try to apprehend the enormity of Tijuana and document its rapidly changing landscape. As I read, I encounter photos and remnants in museums and archives that bear witness to the beautiful built spaces that are now gone.
But in the absences, too, there are stories to be told.
*Norman Klein, from his book “The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the erasure of memory” London: Verso. 1997.