Feb. 5 2008 01:58 AM

Our neighbor's house is on fire--and no one seems to give a damn


Gallery Grace's (not its real name) was not a presumptuous place. The gallery space of the shop was narrow, the lighting weak and the paintings on display pedestrian—the kind you'd buy to hang in a guest bathroom or spare bedroom. Which could be forgiven because Grace's shop wasn't located on Prospect Street in La Jolla, after all, and her clientele weren't the nouveau rich looking to turn new cash into established culture. Her shop was located in a somewhat grimy block of Tijuana real estate between Avenida Revolución and Fransesco l'Madero, and her clientele were Mexican and American customers looking for a good deal on what Grace's shop excelled at: great framing at a great price. The art was there to show the frames, not the other way around.

Having two artists in the family (an established one in the form of a mother-in-law and an aspiring one in the form of a art-history-major daughter), finding a framer who could provide top quality framing at an incredibly reasonable price was one of those real gems I've discovered, like a great doctor (mine's Dr. Slater at Kaiser Bonita) and a great mechanic (Fernando of Fernando's Auto Repair): someone who provided a service you need in a reliably consistent, high-quality way. My family used to make a day of going down to Grace's to drop off art for framing and pick up finished pieces. We'd park in a guarded lot near the gallery, drop in to Grace's, do whatever shopping on Revolución we wanted to, stop off for lunch at the seafood place next to the parking lot, pick up a mess of street tacos from the sidewalk vendor nearby and head home.

Grace's was a major reason—or excuse—for us to go down to TJ on a semi-regular basis. I say all of this in the past tense because Grace's—at least in her Tijuana incarnation—has closed, yet another victim of the rising violence and instability in San Diego's most important neighbor. With her departure, yet another piece of Tijuana's dwindling middle class slips over the northern border to seek safety and security, leaving the economic and social prospects of Tijuana all the more problematic. And with her departure, yet one more tie between San Diego and Tijuana is undone.

While we north of the border have been focusing these last few years on the images of political violence and social anarchy on the other side of the world in Iraq and Afghanistan, just a few miles down the roads (the roads being Interstates 5 and 805) violence, while not Baghdadian in scope—yet—has been escalating for more than a year.Our neighbor's house is on fire. And no one seems to give a damn.

Tijuana's raging violence has been fanned by the intra-gang power struggle within the Arellano Félix cartel following the arrest of cartel boss Francisco Javier Arellano Félix in 2006, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon's decision last year to send the army into Baja to try to stamp the cartel out. The consequences have been a murder a day on average—more than 15 people, including the assassination of four Tijuana policemen and members of their families, being amongst the last few weeks' body count alone. And the violence has been spilling over into formerly peaceful neighborhoods of Tijuana's middle class.

Grace moved her family to Chula Vista a few months ago, joining the northern migration of Tijuana's middle and upper classes that has been accelerating during the last two years.

I know a South Bay parochial-school teacher. Many of the students at the teacher's school are children of such middle- and upper-class Tijuanans. The wealthiest families in the school's classes started moving out of TJ and up to Eastlake or Bonita a few years ago. The middle-class parents started moving out last year.

The motivation: simple safety. Five families in that small school alone had had a loved-one kidnapped or nearly kidnapped; kidnapping of wealthier Tijuana residents by poorer Tijuana residents is the city's main entrepreneurial growth industry. At least it is for those poorer Tijuanans not able to land an entry-position in one of the rival drug gangs fighting each other—and the Mexican government—in a war of drug-lord succession.

Not everyone this side of the border wrings hands over the plight of Tijuana. Most San Diegans make it a habit to ignore the existence of the million-plus people to the south as a mere coincidence of geography, TJ being as remote a place to them as Zanzibar or Uzbekistan. Indeed, I dare say, to most San Diegans, particular those who live north of Interstate 8, Tijuana has basically been seen as a once-a-decade drive-down-to-Revolución-look-at-the-zebra-and-eat-a-taco experience. Or it's the place that the tens of thousands of San Diegans who have never even bothered to head south of San Ysidro see as the source of all those illegal immigrants who sneak into the country to nefariously clean San Diego swimming pools and drive modern moronic Minuteman into hysteria.

Some, seeing TJ burn in violence, wring their hands in “I told you those people were no good” glee. Meanwhile, AM shock-jocks like Rick Roberts and Roger Hedgecock who have basically built careers out of Mexico-bashing, would just as soon wave a magic wand and make TJ—and all its problems—simply go away. Forget building a border fence; both of those gentlemen would be more than delighted if a wall a hundred miles high and a mile thick could be built between San Diego and its Mexican step-sibling.

For tens of thousands of other San Diegans, however, Tijuana and its 1.3 million residents are as much or more a part of their daily business and personal lives than are the doings of those in other parts of the city, like La Jolla or Rancho Bernardo. Try more important to the tune of more than a billion dollars, which is what Mexican nationals spend in San Diego every year. If you run a business south of Highway 94, odds are that you will have more customers from Mexico than from Escondido.

So someone please explain to me how having our neighbor to the south go belly up is good for a San Diego regional economy already dealing with the twin blows of the declining housing market and a recession? And explain to me why, even as we obsess about the political stability of Iraq, there isn't even a meaningful public dialogue going about the plight of our southern neighbor?

Whether the Chargers move to Chula Vista or not is of far smaller consequence to the San Diego region than is whether Tijuana is going to hell or not. Meanwhile, headlines about violence in northern Baja is greeted in the media and by the public with a “What do you expect from those people” reaction rather than a “My God, what can be done to help things down there?”

The flight of fearful members of the Mexican moneyed classes to San Diego has been a modest stimulus to the South Bay economy. Members of the TJ Diaspora like Grace open businesses, buy houses and spend the money they would have spent in Baja in Chula Vista and Eastlake instead. But the impact of the bleeding away of its investment and entrepreneurial classes leaves an impoverished Tijuana even more destitute. As does the dwindling number of Americans crossing the border to spend their share of the almost three-quarters of a billion dollars—almost 30 percent of the Tijuana economy—that tourists spend there. Between fears of rising violence and the new requirements that Americans going to Mexico now pack passports—a little blue booklet that less than 30 percent of Americans even have—tourist spending is expected to plummet this year, yet another nail in northern Mexico's body-filled caskets.

Grace is planning to eventually reopen her shop in Chula Vista. Her prices will no doubt have to go up to cover the higher cost of doing business north of the border. And traveling to Chula Vista to get our art framed will no longer be the international experience for our family it once was.

And one more connection between San Diego at Tijuana is cut, to our mutual loss.    Write to carl@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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