The murals of Pasaje Rodriguez

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In April, 2010, a group of a dozen artists and bohemians arrived at a darkened corridor named Pasaje Rodriguez.

The corridor, running between Avenida Revolucion, the city’s tourist strip, and Avenida Constitucion, a main transportation hub, had years before been packed with souvenir shops catering to American tourists.

The artists instead found the place dark, stinking of urine, littered with trash, windows broken and ceilings crumbling.

Drug violence and declining American tourism had shuttered the place, as they had many shops on the Revolucion strip.

Like a dozen similar corridors, Pasaje Rodriguez had been empty for so long that many younger residents didn’t know what it was.

Rene Castillo, a young literature student, passed by the corridor for 15 years without ever venturing down it. Castillo, who was promoting book fairs, arrived in the Pasaje that day in 2010 to look at a space where he thought he could start a bookshop.

Spurred on by now dirt-cheap rents, and landlords willing to try anything, the artists had set about clearing the debris and remaking the most habitable storefronts.

“I remember seeing all the artists working on their places,” Castillo said. “I was excited, happy. Suddenly I wanted to start painting mine as soon as I could. I think that was the thing that gathered all the artists. We saw each other’s work and the need the city had. It was a risk we all took. We didn’t know if it was going to work.”

As months passed, others moved in to clear the remaining storefronts.

Today, the Pasaje is an open-air art gallery. Wild murals grace the steel curtains that cover each storefront, which artists found acted as wonderful canvases. The storefronts are art schools, galleries, and coffee spots. They turn over fairly frequently, though Castillo’s bookstore – El Grafografo – remains.

However, Pasaje Rodriguez led to the renovation of other corridors along the Revolucion – attracting more foot traffic to a once-dying strip. Vacant storefronts on the street began filling with new restaurants, microbreweries, and boutiques. With that, the strip of kitsch and sin found a savior in fine art.

Still, some Revolucion shops remain vacant, symbols of how thinking changes slowly.

“Some older landlords in Tijuana, who have owned the souvenir shops forever, have been used to commercial businesses that used to make a lot of money and now they don’t,” said Luis Montijo, who was hired eight months ago as Pasaje Rodriguez’s cultural director to give more focus to promoting arts. “Some of them [still] are just not open to giving their spaces a culturally based direction. Some of them are not even trying. That is one of the challenges here.”

More on the changing Tijuana. 

(All photos by Sam Quinones)