The Image of the (Failed) City

With all due respect to Mr. Raymond Chandler, everyone knows Tijuana is Mexico. In fact, Mexico itself is turning into something of a Great Big Tijuana. Tijuana has gone from nasty spot on the National Conscience to pin-up city for the postculturally advanced. The term tijuanización, or tijuanization, became popular in the 1930s, as a slur against whatever had become Americanized and thus uglified. Tijuana, nonetheless, has turned its ugliness into an asset. (If you don’t believe me, just do a search on this blog for Teddy Cruz).

This is not the case of Ciudad Juárez, though, the oldest of the Mexican border cities. No one refers to Juárez as CJ. Juárez is Tijuana without the sites. Ciudad Juárez has to be the most infamous of Mexican border cities (it doesn’t get much worse than that). Throughout its history, the town had thrived on a seedy reputation, but in the 1990s Juárez found itself overwhelmed by an apocalypse-now, scarier than fiction whirlwind: bodies of hundreds of murdered women dotting its barren outskirts, sprawling slums (sardonically nicknamed Cartolandias, Cartonlands, with a distinctively Disney ring), extralegal radioactive waste heaps and random killings at narco-clubs and midday drug-related violence. Common knowledge has it that the city is one big wreck; consumed by rampant corruption, poor planning, environmental degradation, and social fracture.

Robertos Bolaño’s 2666—which Time magazine named “best book of 2008” (I myself described the novel as “ball-grabbing”)—has recently put Juárez in the limelight:

The city was very poor, with most streets unpaved and a sea of houses assembled out of scrap…they discovered rail lines and slum soccer fields surrounded by shacks, and they even watched a match, without getting out of the car, between a team of the terminally ill and a team of the starving to death, and there were two highways that led out of the city, and a gully that had become a garbage dump, and neighborhoods that had grown up lame or mutilated or blind, and, sometimes, in the distance, the silhouettes of industrial warehouses, the horizon of the maquiladoras. The city, like all cities, was endless.

Local authorities and planners have been dealing this sort of bad press (usually it’s less exquisite) for quite some time now. A couple of years ago, Juárez’s Tourist and Commercial Development Secretary launched a “Juárez Presentations Network”, a tour of promotional talks and events, as the latest of a long chain of strategies to revert the city’s “bad image”. The campaign was to present “the best of the town” in order to attract tourists by highlighting Juárez’s “values” and “cultural attractions”. For city leaders, Juárez’s main problems are conveniently reduced to a perception issue. The image of the city—not in the classical sense, in terms of readability or spatial recognition proposed by Kevin Lynch, but in terms of more recent, superficial, “urban marketing” trends—has become the pet cause and the focus of practically every policy instance.

This obsession with the image of the city has become evident in all sorts of urban actions, that range from the absurd confiscations of banned videogames that fail to show the “true values” of the city, to the serious and cynical discrediting and blaming of the families of murdered women and various social organizations for “promoting a degrading vision” of the city. What is most disturbing and revealing, though, is that this visual consumption strand of local urban policy is actually deep-rooted, that it has been at the center of planning in Juárez for decades. In my next couple of posts I’ll try to untangle the logic behind this focus and shed some light on the reasons for the supposed failure of urban “rescue” efforts in the city.

(Photo from Flickr user detritus. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

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