The Image of the (Failed) City : Spillover

After years of being off the radar, Mexican border cities are finally making headlines in the U.S. again. Violence and vice "spilling over" from Tijuana or Laredo or Juárez into the wholesome and "safe" American Southwest is the latest (and paradoxically also one of the oldest) of foreign menaces pointed at by the media. What Fox News won't tell you though, is that the root of the systemic degradation that is tearing Mexican bordertowns apart, both from a contemporary socioeconomic perspective and in terms of historically entrenched factors, actually lies on the American side of the border. The spillover is nothing but a backlash.

The last massive wave of americanización (extension of U.S. power and influence into Mexico) to hit the border before the signing of NAFTA in 1994—and by then it was the entire country, not only the border—came with the National Border Program (Pronaf) of the 1960s, a top-down planning and urban beautification initiative promoted by local elites in Ciudad Juárez with the support of the federal government. The Pronaf was supposed to improve urban conditions and to "integrate" border cities—that already back then were experiencing important demographic growth and a general lack of urban services—to the national development scheme. Paradoxically, the "failure" of the program to establish a national industrial base and generate a strong local supply was the key factor that opened the border cities to other alternatives: most importantly, the establishment of the first foreign-owned maquiladoras.

The Pronaf expected to correct the blatant economic asymmetries of the settlements on the Mexican side compared to their U.S. counterparts. Even more so, the promoters of the programs were convinced that it was time Juárez and other cities emulated the success story of the Sunbelt, with an all-in-one, triple-whammy formula that would compress the hundreds of years of frontier settlement, exploitation and industrialization, and (sub)urbanization of the American experience in a single program and in a couple of years.

The Pronaf made way for the transit between State-run planning to privatization of public space and the distortion or clouding of (dubious) political strategies. It brought a new notion of "regeneration" to the border: instead of the typical idea of providing infrastructure and social housing, it pushed policies inspired in a twisted "tradtion", an imaginary vernacular, seeking to attract the bustling suburban middle class with its visions of pastoral comfort, easily digestible culture and a blind confidence in the power of a consumerist urban economy. New Urbanism, Mexican style.

The creation of the Pronaf coincides with the start of a decline and "restructuring" period in the global economy, with all of its political repercussions and its visibly negative effects (particularly in cities). Mexico too was going through an extremely delicate period, when the "Mexican Miracle" started to fade, and with it the illusion of political and social stability. (By the way, this is pretty much what I'm going to be writing about in my new blog: Mañanarama. Go see.) In Ciudad Juárez, the Pronaf had already sown the seed of a development formula that had departed from the traditional protectionist, import-substitution and government-led development scheme of the rest of the country. Even though its architecture wanted to demonstrate a strong confidence in the future and an even stronger loyalty to the regime, the Pronaf only offered empty gestures. Behind the facade of an age of abundance, the program was already moving the pieces in the structure of the cities where it operated; this reorganization would leave and indelible mark in their urban futures (or present, viewed from today): maquiladoras, land speculation, self-constructed slums, urban violence, the dominance of the private sector, the monetization of space... In terms of policy formulation, concerns over the image of the city began substituting the concerns over the city itself.

In my final Juárez post, I will move on to see how the "failed" program of the 1960s gave way to the perversely successful "informal" strategies of the following decades, and how the current mess Juárez and other border cities have sunken themselves into is not accidental. This isn't a case of policy miscalculation (certainly not an absence of policy) but simply an exacerbation of a strand of urban development, in good deal imported from the U.S., twisted slightly and taken to an extreme.

(Photos from a Ciudad Juárez Promotional Leaflet by the PRONAF (1960). The projects and sketches are all by architect Mario Pani. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

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