Article by Rex Wockner
A new flowering of art and nightlife has taken hold in adowntown that once filled with partiers from north of the border. Whenthe sun goes down in Tijuana,a revitalized club scene heats up.
Americans pretty much have stopped visiting the city, putoff at first by long lines at the border after 9/11, then stopped in theirtracks by a new requirement to have a passport to hop back and forth between San Diego and Tijuana,and now scared by crime reports.
The city’s famed Revolution Avenue — where booming discos,cheap booze, a drinking age of 18 and uncountable souvenir shops hadattracted hordes of Americans for decades — fell on hard times.
But then something remarkable happened. Trendy clubsstarted opening on Sixth Street, on either sideof Revolution, a little over two years ago. Stylish and fashionable, some ofthem feel like an Almodóvar movie, like Buenos Aires, maybe Barcelona.
These hotspots are devoid of American visitors, filled with Baja California trendsters.Yes, Tijuana has gone andgotten groovy.
Jason Fritz, 33, is an American grad student in LatinAmerican Studies at San Diego State University. He lives in Tijuana because he finds it much more interesting than San Diego.“A lot of edgy, young hipsters had been hanging out here on La Sexta (Sixth Street) before therewas any of the new cool bars here — at the Dandy del Sur and La Estrella –but in January of 2009, the Mezcalera opened up and that’s when things justreally took off,” he said. “You started to see a whole new hip sceneemerging in Tijuana.”
“If people are open-minded to discover what’shappening here, they will really be impressed,” Fritz said. “I wouldsay it’s one of the great cultural centers on the West Coast, but the thing is,most people aren’t in on the secret.”
The coolest clubs play “amazing new cutting-edge” local music, he said,referring to internationally known Tijuana creations thatblend regional and folk genres with the latest electronic music.
Fritz is not alone in gushing over this big border citythat many foreigners consider gritty at best. Derrik Chinn, 29, is anAmerican journalist who has lived in Tijuana
for four yearsand has organized “atypical” outings in the city for friends on both sidesof the fence. Recent adventures have included a professional soccer game, the Tijuana Fair
and a rollerskating night
Tijuanais”organized chaos taking an aesthetic form,” Chinn said. “Youhave hundreds of different little worlds existing right next to each other inone city block. It’s amazing.”
“So many spaces have been left empty because of thelack of tourism and finally local businesses started opening up that werefinally catering to locals,” he said. “If you come here from theoutside and you observe what’s going on here — how people dress, the musicthey’re listening to, their overall style — it really does feel like a hipsterscene. Despite everything, Tijuana keeps moving…it keeps living.”
Sergio Gonzalez, 34, is one of the owners of La Mezcalera, which started it all, as wellas an owner of retro-cool Pop Diner at6th and Revolution.
“People were afraid to go out at night two yearsago,” Gonzalez said. “The city was really messed up [so] peoplestarted to come downtown because they weren’t [as] afraid [here]. When weopened La Mezcalera, we tried to do the mix of everything: Come here, it’s notgoing to be a pretentious space, you can be around all kinds of people. And Ithink that was the formula to start to develop this phenomenon and, after that,30 bars opened in the same street!”
“The street is about seeing people,” Gonzalezsaid. “It’s really exciting to see people walking around and to see thecity alive. That, and the fact that you can go from bar to bar and each bar hasa different concept. The people who have opened these bars are young people whotravel and have been in Europe or Mexico City. … I was inspired byPedro Almodóvar. [My] bar is one of the scenes in the movie ‘Volver.’ Theplaces look kind of stylish even though they are really simple.”
OK, we hear you. Sounds great. You’d love to check it out.But isn’t Tijuana too”messed up”? Let’s crunch some numbers and see what we can learn. Tijuana,population 1.6 million, had 818 homicides last year. That’s a lot. It’s not asafe city like San Diego,population 1.3 million, which saw 29 homicides last year. But consider this:New Orleans’ homicide rate is roughly the same as Tijuana’s, and St. Louis,Detroit and Baltimore saw homicide rates last year more than two-thirds as highas Tijuana’s. Beyond that, most of the violence in Tijuana
is not random.
“The violence that we live here is not fortourists,” said Gonzalez, a Tijuana native.”It’s a war between the police and the narcos. It’s nothing to do with thecommon citizen or the tourist.”
Fritz once lived in Baltimore and said it’s “a muchmore frightening town than Tijuana. “I’ve never really felt threatened here.”
Chinn said humans tend to “identify with whatever weread in the newspaper: ‘That could happen to me.’ The trick is that, no, itprobably won’t happen to you. It really doesn’t affect our lives like peoplewould think.”
That certainly feels true on the downtown club scene. Toget to the action, head down Revolution to Sixth, turn right or left and startbarhopping. Check out trendy Don Loope, Callejón de la Sexta, La Mezcalera, La Chupitería, Zebra and Tasca.Iconic cantinas on the street include Dandy del Sur (said to be a favorite of movie starsDiego Luna and Gael García Bernal of “Y Tu Mamá También” fame) andTropic’s Bar. The blue-collar dancehall La Estrella also is a classic. Beer is$2. Absolut vodka goes for a bit over $4. Fritz suggests starting with dinnerat Caesar’s, 8190 Revolución at Fifth Street.
Something else new and cool to explore is Pasaje Rodríguez, along passageway between Revolución and Constitución avenues that’s accessiblefrom Revolución between Third and Fourth streets.
“It’s all these independent galleries and shops,”Chinn said. “Most of the owners are under 30. They’re selling vintageclothing, accessories, housewares stuff. There’s cafes and bookstores.”
And although there are shuttered storefronts on Revolution,the old tourist drag is far from dead. On a recent Saturday evening, theremaining clubs, along with surviving and new restaurants, were busy. And thereare even a couple of nice new hotels with rooms for around $30 a night. Thesidewalks were hopping — 100 percent Mexican, a remarkable change for SouthernCalifornians who remember when trying to entice Tijuana friends toRevolution Avenue elicited howls of horror.
In a phrase, it seems this ain’t your daddy’s Tijuana no more.
Written for MSN Local Edition