Sunday, July 21, 2013

Photo Essay: Bussing It to Baja

Ever since I started coming to California, I've wanted to go to Mexico. Upon my first trip to San Diego, Edith and I figured out a way to take a train into one of its border towns, Tecate, where we took a tour of the brewery, had lunch and a margarita, and procured sweets at a local bakery. We were struck by the families living in shacks along the train tracks, their children scurrying after the train, hands outstretched, waiting for the change and dollar bills to be cast out by the American tourists, like penny-pitching wishers at a fountain.

These kids were living in makeshift shacks made of corrugated steel and what appeared to be trash, lean-to's built into the hillside, close enough to the affluent benefactors who would take pity upon their beggary. Who knows what they did with the money?

Who knows whether it was OK to even give it to them? It felt condescending to me, like feeding the goats at the state fair petting zoo with quarter-worth pellets from the coin machine.

But still, I wanted to go back. That was one train into one town in Mexico. There were others.

This time, I found a bus to take me into Baja California, which touts fascinating and delicious wine country. The media has scared me away from driving into Tijuana by myself, with warnings of car insurance, police officer bribery, partying Marines, and hooker-loving underage drinkers. I knew there was more there, but I was daunted. I needed a group. I needed an excursion.

Enter Steve Turner Contemporary and A+D Museum, who are bringing Angelenos (and San Diegans) to Baja for art, architecture, and culinary delights.

Not ramshackle residences. Not slumtastic street food.

Modernism. Contemporary art. Haute cuisine.

Right across the border.



We embarked on our trip from the A+D Museum on the Miracle Mile, early Saturday morning. A quick three hour drive later, and we'd arrived at the border crossing at San Ysidro.



We sailed on through - because, as Edith and I experienced, it's a lot easier to get into Mexico than it is to get back out of it (similar to the New Jersey / New York border) - and arrived into the Zona Rio district...



...characterized by the flood control channel that was built as a kind of canal, reminiscent of the LA River...



...and leading to the cultural center of Tijuana, the CECUT (Central Cultural Tijuana).



Built in 1982, it houses an IMAX theater in a remarkable spherical building...



...as well as three contemporary art galleries in El Cubo, whose square shape contrasts its neighboring theatrical space "The Ball."



This is Tijuana just across the border. But when you travel farther in, past the European-influenced city center, with its grid system and central plazas...

click to enlarge panorama

...you reach the Camino Verde area of the city, a valley between two hillsides, whose central, covered canal bridges the two rival, gang-related factions with the award-winning Modulo Prep Library...



...a modern, connected, tech-savvy structure...



...whose white surfaces provide a blank canvas for local graffiti artists...



...who have not yet taken advantage.



This library, nicknamed the "House of Ideas," doesn't have its computers or books yet...



...but it's a step in the right direction.



Down the road, the local community center Centro de Desarrollo Comunitario provides common ground for the children of the feuding gang elders...



...a place where graffiti is turned into murals...



...and an open-air, central courtyard protects locals from the violence and vandalism that surrounds them. This is not a pretty neighborhood. But it's getting better. And it's part of Tijuana.



On the streets of Tijuana, you see plenty of abandoned buildings, but one has been temporarily transformed into a sculptural object courtesy of Mexico City-based artist Pablo Rasgado, whose minimalistic transformation of a former farmacia renders it unrecognizable, including covering its rooftop signage. We stood on a street corner debating this for quite some time. Inside a bus driving by, it would be easy to miss.



It would also be easy to miss some of the incredible mid-20th century architecture of Tijuana: its motels, programmatic architecture (e.g. a Mexican restaurant in the shape of a sombrero)...



...and European-influenced traffic circles, replete with a variety of public sculptures...



...which reminded me of my time riding busses through the Middle East, as the sun set from a cloudy sky, marking the time to return home, back across the border, back into a very different world, not so far away.

Fortunately, we were able to get out of the bus and do a bit of exploration and eating. Stay tuned for photo essays on the culinary side of Tijuana, and a study on one modernist home, still under construction.