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Tijuana Struggles to Preserve Vestiges of Its Past

Architecture: Activists seek to identify landmark buildings before they are obliterated by by present-day chaos.


TIJUANA — Enduring amid Avenida Revolucion's chaos of pulsing, open-air discos, sidewalk hawkers and touring gawkers is the quiet grace and, yes, beauty of bygone times.

Aida Anchondo sees splendor in the curving lines and ornate lanterns of 70-year-old buildings, in tiled arcades and tiny balconies. She's sure others would enjoy those sights, too--if the place would quiet down for a minute.

Against daunting odds, Anchondo, a longtime activist, and her allies hope to rescue vestiges of the downtown's past from a present that prefers to express itself with garish signs, oversized patios, slapdash building design and noise, noise, noise. A civic group called United for Tijuana and the city's tourism bureau are working to identify historic touches worth saving in a 57-block area--the closest thing Tijuana has to a historical core.

Anchondo insists the curio shops, bars and hotels along Avenida Revolucion and the surrounding neighborhood harbor a museum's worth of architectural treats. But many features have been buried behind overhanging dance floors, signs for cut-rate medications and cigars, or simply lost to other renovations. She said many remnants of Tijuana's past could be rescued by removing some of the visual clutter.

During a recent walk on Avenida Revolucion, amid sidewalk photographers and tourists eyeing shelves of tequila, Anchondo pointed to examples: a 1930s structure, now a bar, with a school bus mounted on the wall; a longtime store cloaked by awnings; an arcade so heaped with T-shirts and souvenir blankets that miniature balconies and wood details are barely visible.

Officials from Mexico's National Anthropology and History Institute have lent expertise to the effort. Since early last year, preservationists have surveyed 160 buildings, plotting them on color-coded maps by age, condition, height. The list will be winnowed as researchers write profiles of each: styles, owners, uses.

Among downtown buildings most often mentioned as important landmarks are the Moorish-influenced Jai Alai court, the former City Hall and a few hotels. Some buildings date only to the 1960s but are viewed as emblems of their heyday. On the other extreme, Plaza Santa Cecilia, a hub for mariachis and souvenir vendors, is one of Tijuana's original streets.

Preservationists laud the past renovation of a 1929 neoclassical shop-turned-bank at Second Street and Avenida Revolucion, whose black marble accents and ornate relief offer rare elegance on the tourist strip.

The gain from fixing up buildings, or uncovering their pasts, would be two-fold, officials say: to acquaint the unfamiliar with Tijuana's 111-year history and to beckon visitors with something besides two-for-one drinks. Some imagine a modest version of San Diego's historic Gaslamp District, where renovations helped ignite a thriving scene for tourism and night life.

"Rescuing our history and also offering more to tourists--that is what we are trying to do," Anchondo said.

In doing so, Tijuana would follow a trend among U.S. cities that have pumped new life into downtowns by emphasizing strolling. "Downtown Tijuana is a good test case for how to revitalize a pedestrian downtown space and do it right," said Lawrence Herzog, an urban-studies professor at San Diego State University who has written a book on border architecture.

Those who venture five blocks from the disco strip, for example, can find a taste of old Tijuana in a refurbished park, called Teniente Guerrero, and the quaint neighborhood nearby, settled in the 1920s by employees of the speak-easies. "It's about a sense of place and scale--and people-oriented," Herzog said.

Preserving Tijuana's past has never been a priority. A huge influx of newcomers from southern Mexico in the past 40 years has fast turned a dusty frontier burg into a bustling Mecca of free trade. The result: a population without deep roots and little interest in Tijuana's former glories.

The history-minded still cringe over demolition 30 years ago of premier landmark, the Agua Caliente resort and casino of the 1920s and 1930s, to make room for a school. The few remaining pieces include a 200-foot minaret and swimming pool where Hollywood stars once lounged. A trademark arched bell tower exists only as a replica downtown.

"It's very difficult to pursue a campaign for historic preservation. The authorities don't know the history of their own city because they're not from here," said Alejandro Lugo, a physician who heads the historical society. "It's really a small number of people who are interested in saving their history."

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