The Image of the (Failed) City: Third World Imagineering

Although El Paso del Norte (the gate to the North) was an old colonial settlement, Juárez only became a city proper and really began growing after the American Southwest had. Juárez —like the rest of the Mexican border cities— is a product of the twentieth century. Like many other fronterizo towns, Juárez grew as a sort of a joyride appendix to its cross-border counterpart, El Paso, during Prohibition.

In Mexican bordertowns, the centro, the city center, isn’t really a center. As Daniel Arreola and James Curtis have noticed in their fantastic book on urban archeology and border building culture, titled The Mexican Border Cities: Landscape Anatomy and Place Personality, “the most evident discrepancy between these cities and others within Latin America is that their shapes are abruptly truncated along their northern edges by the international boundary.” Juárez was split in half by the border and extended in half-moons starting at the international crossing. The centro has traditionally catered to U.S. consumers, particularly the tourist districts located alongside the border. Visitors from El Paso cross over to Juárez and find themselves surrounded by the materialization of their narrow expectations, of their prejudices, their romantic idealizations and their cheap tastes—all turned space.

Mexican border city tourist strips are heirs to Prohibition-era architectural follies: brothels topped by red windmills, bullrings, racetracks, and fancy casinos that popped up in the flat, dusty settlements. Along with the “dirty” buildings came paved roads, waterworks, bottling plants, distilleries, warehouses, curio shops, restaurants and basic service-oriented infrastructures. The Great Depression and Nationalist reformism seemed to put an end to the era, but the border vice economy gained strength with the outbreak of WW2. Contraband flourished across the border thanks to war rationing, and thousands of soldiers training in El Paso found relief in the Juárez tolerance zone, one of many "boystowns" scattered on the outskirts of border cities.

Anyone that’s heard anything about Mexican bordertowns knows of the “Black Legend”, these depictions of border cities as wannabe Sodoms and Gomorras. But for every great period of “immoral” development there has been an official attempt at “cleansing”. In colonial times local cattle drivers asked for tax breaks and special treatment in order to deal with Apache threats (turns out many of the ranchers themselves were filibusters and cattle robbers, and the “Apache” menace was as vague and misleading as any of the Wars on Terror we’ve grown used to). In the years of the Revolution local bosses held staged fights between bandits and local authorities while cashing in on drug deals and gambling. Moralist crusades forbidding kissing in public were launched by authorities that owned speakeasies and bordellos.

The most spectacular of these ersatz improvement operations and urban makeover schemes (and, for that matter, the grossest failures) were the nationalist rescue campaigns of the Cardenismo in the 1930s and the Sin City-to-Pleasantville expectations of the 1961 National Border Program (Pronaf).

In 1935, President Lázaro Cárdenas declared gambling illegal, declaring open war on casino owners, mostly foreigners known as the “border barons”. The government seemed determined to reclaim its role as an active urban arbitrator. A couple of casinos were turned into public schools and handful of hotels were removed to give way to working-class neighborhoods. The idea was to come up with a number of concrete, eye-catching, straightforward urban measures that could speak for themselves: exemplary measures. But in truth, the deep structure of the uneven development in Juárez and other border settlements remained untouched by Cárdenas: the economic free zone that left the region dependent on American supplies and consumers. “Mexicanizing” the border could only go so far…

The Pronaf followed this rich heritage of image-driven urban policy, but took things a step further. It was a beautification and industrialization initiative sponsored by the federal government and led by Antonio J. Bermúdez, a former mayor of Ciudad Juárez, that was supposed to "rescue" Mexican border cities from the evils of their historic dependency on their U.S. counterparts. Some of the troubles outlined by the program included the commercial imbalances that forced local consumers—described as being held "captive" by American retailers—to cross the boundary in order to cover their basic needs and the seediness brought about by vice tourism. The program was supposed to remedy the situation through an "integral" planning venture, one of the earliest to be implemented in the country, and possibly the first that equaled improvement with beautification, concentrating on the physical aspect of cities. The Pronaf was divided in two phases: first it would focus on land acquisitions, refurbishing border entry gates, building new cultural and tourist landmarks, creating incentives for private investment, and promoting cities through a series of urban marketing campaigns. In the longer term, the Pronaf would build American-style malls (the first ever to be built in the country) and industrial parks, all administered by the government.

The program lasted only four years, and the second phase never came. The program failed miserably at dignifying and beautifying. Still, the Pronaf is the most important direct planning precedent in terms of the definition of Ciudad Juárez's current urban character and structure. If you’ll bear with me here, I’ll let you in on the secret as to why. Just stick around for the next post.

* To go to the first post of this series on Ciudad Juárez, click here

(Photo source: OAC).

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