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Downtown Tijuana Stages A Revival

Video by Katie Schoolov

Since the 1920s, downtown Tijuana has ridden the peaks and dips of Americans’ inconstant love affair with the city.  But an especially long lull in tourism is prodding downtown business leaders, artists and entrepreneurs into action. KPBS reporter Jill Replogle tells us they’re working to revitalize the city’s historic center on what they hope will be sustainable grounds.

After a dozen or so painfully dead years for businesses in and around the city’s main tourist strip, Avenida Revolución, customers are starting to return to Tijuana, Mexico.

Craft breweries, co-working spaces and boutiques carrying clothing labeled “Made in Tijuana.” These are the seeds of what young entrepreneurs and boosters hope will be downtown Tijuana’s new image.

After a dozen or so painfully dead years for businesses in and around the city’s main tourist strip, Avenida Revolución, customers are starting to return. And many are looking for something other than sombreros and cheap margaritas.

“We need to attract the Tijuana people back to the downtown area, instead of just looking forward to the Americans,” said Pedro Sanchez, a developer and fifth-generation Tijuana native.

Since the 1920s, downtown Tijuana has ridden the peaks and dips of America’s inconstant love affair with the city. But an especially long lull in tourism is prodding downtown business leaders, artists and entrepreneurs into action.

The downtown business association, which Sanchez chairs, recently joined with the city to form a trust fund for revitalizing the downtown area. His first big victory was to get the government to donate a prime piece of land just off the main drag.

The association hopes to build on it, and sell or rent out the space — ideally to a government entity that would bring in steady foot traffic and employees who might want to live near the office.

“We need to develop our own economy,” Sanchez said. The trust would reinvest the proceeds in other projects meant to revamp the downtown.

Tijuana actually has a lot of what San Diego’s downtown lacked before redevelopment started there in the 1980s: restaurants, grocery stores and abundant public transportation.

Video by Katie Schoolov

Timelapse of Avenida Revolución in Tijuana taken on March 7, 2014, from approximately 4pm - 10pm, from the roof of the Lafayette Hotel by Katie Schoolov.

But it also shares many of downtown San Diego’s former problems, among them a seedy reputation and a dearth of decent housing. Apartments here tend to be old, decrepit and overcrowded.

Plus, there’s just one park in all of Tijuana’s Centro — an area made up of about 300 city blocks.

It got this way just like most American cities did around the middle of the 20th century: people moved out to the suburbs; businesses and government offices followed.

Tijuana’s outsized dependence on American tourists hasn’t helped.

“It used to be given to us,” Sanchez said. “People would always come. Well, they haven't been coming for the last 15 years.”

But local artists and entrepreneurs are coming. They’ve been opening galleries and high-end restaurants, and inciting their own redevelopment.

“I see great cities around the world and they all have really cool downtowns,” said Genaro Valladolid, a Tijuana real estate agent. “Tijuana didn’t have one, and I think we’re in the process of having one.”

Valladolid showed me around a recently renovated building with 12 new apartments on its second floor. Three of them are the kind of hip, industrial lofts that rent for at least $1,500 a month in downtown San Diego.

Here, Josué Castro pays a third that price. Castro is an artist who lives in San Diego and works both north and south of the border. The loft he rents in Tijuana functions as a workspace, classroom, party venue and crash house for visiting artists.

“And the beauty is that you’re walking distance to everything,” Castro said. “You have stores, you have the meat shop, you have hair stylists, everything.”

Sanchez, from the business association, hopes to see at least one new housing project, like the lofts, go up each year. And he’d like downtown to have at least one more park.

Improvements are also badly needed to the sewer system and electrical grid, Sanchez said.

Of course, all of this requires money.

“There's no money, that's the reality of it,” Sanchez said. “We’re going to get there, but on our terms and slowly because we still have to work on the details.”

The artists and young entrepreneurs who are recolonizing the city’s core aren’t letting details get in their way. Besides his loft, Castro, the artist, has a “nano” brewery and a gallery in one of the covered arcades that branch off from Avenida Revolución.

But he knows the pattern of downtown redevelopment: when the place gets trendy, he may get priced out.

“Like always,” Castro said. “The same thing happened in SoHo, London, everywhere. I think that’s something we artists always know is going to happen. You are the ones who start bringing the people, and then people like the spaces like this.”

For now, he says, he’s thoroughly enjoying the pioneer life.

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