A new art scene flourishes in old Tijuana

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The old tourist days of Tijuana are gone, but artists are bringing new life to the city’s main drag, Avenida Revolución.

Tijuana is in the midst of a burst of artistic and entrepreneurial creativity as new surprising riffs are rising out of the Tijuana of old.

Velvet painting was once Tijuana’s only connection to art; the work of velvet painters planted the seeds for what is now a large and experimental modern-art scene. A town once known for cantinas and strip clubs is home to microbreweries and restaurants serving creative “Baja-Med” cuisine.

Music was once limited to whatever tourists needed to help them drink: techno, heavy metal, banda, mariachi, norteño. Today, the city has a thriving opera and classical music scene thanks to a music conservatory started by Russians who came to town in 1990, and an opera street festival that is one of Mexico’s most satisfying art events.

Owning a souvenir shop was for years a path straight into the middle class. Now children and grandchildren of those merchants are tinkering with ideas of high-tech start-ups.

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Donkeys painted like zebras were typical tourist attractions. But old school tourism has dropped off. There are only seven zebra donkeys left.

Straight-to-video film companies have made B-quality narco shoot-em-ups in Tijuana for years. Today, a young generation of filmmakers is also experimenting with cheaper DSLR cameras to produce documentaries about the town.

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Wild murals on the walls, art galleries, and smoke shops have attracted Tijuana’s hip middle class.

The city is challenged, too. Deportees, mostly men who lived in the United States for years, have returned by the thousands. Many crossed through Tijuana years ago, flush with optimism for the future. Now they return, deflated, staying around to be close as they can to family in the United States.

Location has made Tijuana different from the rest of Mexico. Southern California’s robust economy has provided the city with opportunity unavailable to other Mexico cities; Tijuanans saw a new way of doing almost everything – from art to business – on the other side.

This connection is part of its history. Early on, the town was barely reachable from within Mexico. Mexicans had to drive into San Diego to cross down into Tijuana.

The city’s youth meant it had none of the beautiful colonial architecture found in older cities in Mexico’s interior. But neither did it have an elite controlling economic opportunity. It instead adopted a more egalitarian ethos than other cities in Mexico. As the Mexican city farthest from the country’s capital, Tijuana’s political life was always rebelliously anti-centrist.

Off in a far corner of Mexico, Tijuana wrote its own history. Millions of migrants came through town intending to do that as well. Many kept going into the United States. But a good number stayed and added to the city’s risk-taking bloodline.

That daring was staunched for a few years amid harrowing drug violence, as the Arellano-Felix Cartel, which controlled narcotics flowing through Tijuana, splintered. Beginning in 2008, cartel in-fighting grew medieval. Commerce slowed. People fled.

But by 2010, Tijuana was emerging from the nightmare.

Drug violence extinguished the last of American tourism. As souvenir shops and strip bars closed their steel shutters for good, rents on the Avenida Revolución plunged.

Into these spaces moved hipsters from Tijuana’s large middle class, kids with ideas for businesses that had never been tried. They filled the empty slots first with bars and galleries, then boutiques and restaurants.

Mexicans had forever avoided the Revolución. Now they rediscovered the strip, which learned, in turn, to cater to Mexicans.

That’s the story behind a lot that’s going on in Tijuana these days – a city that has found within it the raw material for innovation, experimentation and risk. Not discarding the old, so much as building from it.

More on the new Tijuana.