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The international border between the United States and Mexico at the San Diego-Tijuana checkpoint is the most trafficked in the world. Approximately 60 million people cross annually, moving untold amounts of goods and services back and forth. Zooming into the particularities of this volatile territory, traveling back and forth between these two border cities, we can expose landscapes of contradiction where conditions of difference and sameness collide and overlap.
It’s an urban juncture like no other in the world, where some of the wealthiest real estate in suburban San Diego lies barely twenty minutes away from some of the poorest settlements in Latin America, on Tijuana’s southern fringes. A series of off-the-radar, two-way crossings–north-south and south-north–suggests that no matter how high and long the post-9/11 border wall becomes, it will never stop the migrating populations and the relentless flows of goods and services back and forth across the formidable barrier that seeks to exclude them.
These illegal flows are physically manifested, in one direction, by the informal land use patterns and economies produced by migrant workers flowing from Tijuana into San Diego, lured by the strong economy of Southern California. But while human flow mobilizes northbound in search of dollars, the urban waste of San Diego moves in the opposite direction, where it is used to construct emergency housing in the shantytowns of Tijuana.
As the Latin American diaspora travels north, it inevitably alters and transforms the fabric of San Diego’s subdivisions. In these neighborhoods, multigenerational households of extended families shape their own programs of use, taking charge of their own micro-economies in order to maintain a standard for the household. The result: nonconforming uses and high densities that reshape the fabric of the residential neighborhoods where they settle. Alternative social spaces spring up in large parking lots; informal economies such as flea markets and street vendors appear on vacant properties. Housing additions in the shape of illegal companion units are plugged in to existing suburban dwellings to provide affordable living.
The areas of San Diego that have been most impacted by this nonconforming urbanism are concentrated in its first ring of suburbanization. The mutation of these older bedroom communities–from rigid, monocultural and one-dimensional environments to informal, multicultural and cross-programmed communities–opens the question: how do we anticipate density? It may be that the future of Southern California urbanism will be determined by tactics of retrofit and adaptation, making the large small.
In addition to immigrants retrofitting a large section of San Diego’s older mid-city neighborhoods (the typical post-war Levittowns) with alternative nonconforming structures, other parts of this first ring of suburbanization have been replaced by larger versions of themselves. As new McMansion subdivisions update these older suburbs in San Diego, the first ring of suburbanization is being dismantled, piece by piece. Small bungalows are dismembered and their pieces given away to Mexican speculators. Thus the debris of Southern California’s middle-class suburbs is recycled to build the new periphery of Tijuana.