Monday, November 12, 2012

A Retrospect on My Interest in Mexican Urbanism

When I was a child I used to look at the hillsides of Tijuana from my bedroom window. Sprawling with what I thought at the time was impossible density; I looked at the clusters of ramshackle construction through the smoggy air with fascination. Spending much of my life on the divide between Latin and Anglo America I was lucky to have my feet in several worlds both north and south, east and west. When I wasn´t living in Miami or San Diego, I was living in Las Vegas which was experiencing a rapid urbanization of its own, albeit more controlled than the one occurring in Mexico. It was this juxtaposition of responses to a common problem, existing under different political realities that drove my interest in urbanism and the environment.

Unlike most border kids, I wasn't just content looking at the other side. I had to experience the neighborhoods by myself, unsupervised and on my own terms. So without the approval or knowledge of my parents, I hopped on the San Diego Trolley and several short stops later I walked across the border and entered into México; 13, alone and completely naive. The political realities of the United States were different during the 1980´s and a child with no identification could pass easily between the two countries. This simple reality allowed me to explore a fascinating new world; and explore I did.

At first I kept it simple. I would spend hours walking around downtown and the older portions of the city. I was enthralled at the chaotic nature of the city. Thousands of people were walking the streets and the sidewalks were alive with vendors selling everything from food to tourist goods. The sounds, the smells, the colors and the very life of the place, filled me with an excitement that I had never felt before. But soon I grew accustomed to the noise, the frenetic pace and even the zebra painted donkeys. At the end of Revolucion was a giant red neon coca cola sign. It acted as a magnet for me, bringing me out of my comfort zone; so I followed it. The sign sat on the edge of the hills and eventually I started to walk into those hills. It was the hills that were the most fascinating thing for me, bringing me into a brand new environment in which I had never experienced before.

Unlike the more planned areas of Tijuana that were built during a time when the government actually had a handle on development, the hills were filled with informal settlements that were for me both scary and intriguing. Most buildings looked incomplete. Raw concrete and jagged rebar were as common as the use of old tires and pallets as construction materials. The infrastructure was hodgepodge or nonexistent. Litter filled the dusty streets. On the streets that were paved, potholes were the norm not the exception. Abandoned cars were everywhere as were piles of garbage left behind from illegal dumping.

What was most evident was the reality that this region was actually a desert and not an irrigated Garden of Eden, a stark contrast to even the poorest areas of San Diego. While I noticed the contrast, and was aware that the settlements were unplanned, I didn´t think much about why these areas were different. I just accepted it as the way things were. It wasn´t until later that I understood the reasons why these areas were built and with what environmental cost, as well as to why they never had an equivalent on the other side just a few miles north.

It was during this time that I realized that such rapid unplanned/organic growth had consequences. Untreated sewage poured into the Tijuana River out into the sea, only to be carried back into San Diego beaches making my trips to the beach a much more dangerous proposition. Hillsides collapsed during the winter rains, taking many poorly constructed homes down with them. Lowlands flooded and summer fires routinely burned the wooden homes to piles of cinder and rubble. Each situation had a human cost as well, but taken as a whole, I became even more absorbed by the dynamic nature of the region. In the Tijuana laboratory, who knew that I could learn so much?

My unsupervised trips into Tijuana without identification only lasted about a year. Eventually an immigration agent thought it suspicious that an unaccompanied minor was passing back and forth from Mexico to the United States. Unsure of my citizenship and with no identification to prove that I was from the United States, I was put into temporary custody until my father could pick me up. Needless to say, he wasn´t impressed with my adventurous nature. For the next two years, my trips into Tijuana were supervised by my parents……which means for a purpose and much more boring. Once I obtained my drivers license however, I began to resume my explorations into what was at the time, the most wildly different place I had ever been.

Admittedly, my time in Tijuana became less of a study in urbanism and more of a study into alcohol soaked sociology. An 18 year old drinking age coupled with my adventurous spirit became too seductive of a reality for me to ignore. So I did the usual rite of passage for any border kid and I partied like it was 1999. But even during this partying what I saw and experienced had worth. In my beer infused haze I saw contradictions of poverty and inequality coupled with a vice and corruption that exposed the darker aspects of the city. Rather than make me cynical, its tangible energy only fueled me towards a more comprehensive understanding of the unique complexities of the border environment.

In my thirst to know more about the dynamics of such an intense place, I eventually made Tijuana my home.....beginning a guided chain reaction that has allowed me to gain an intimate knowledge of the country, its culture, its history and its most pressing challenges…..sparking in me a passion that has pushed me towards education and careers in urban development, geography and the environment. Always new and always interesting it is a life path that I have never come to regret!

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