With the violence of the drug war behind it, the border city is experiencing a boom of arts and startup activity, spurred by the group Reactivando Espacios.
While many Americans still associate Tijuana with drug cartels and debauched excursions into Mexico, the border town's artists and entrepreneurs are orchestrating a rebirth that defies longstanding stereotypes.
The Street Opera Festival drew close to 10,000 people in July. A commercial strip once known for cheesy tchotchkes hosted a popular art walk. Tech companies like Uber are adapting the startup culture of neighboring San Diego, mounting a small-business revolution based out of a derelict bus station.
Just five years ago, such vibrancy was unimaginable. The city was gripped with violence in the waning years of the Arellano Félix drug cartel—civilian killings and kidnappings were rampant as criminals resisted a quasi-military campaign dubbed Operation Tijuana.
"In 2010 that stopped, and it left this kind of peace in the city, and a post-traumatic kind of feel," says Tijuanan Miguel Buenrostro.
Buenrostro returned home in 2010 after graduating from film school, invigorated by documentary projects he'd led in Mexico City and Guadalajara. The next year he started Reactivando Espacios, a series of short documentaries exploring urban planning through lyrical footage of forgotten buildings and public spaces.
"We decided to do a memoir of the abandoned spaces of the city," says Buenrostro, 30. "We were creating stories, narratives out of those spaces."
Over time, he started picking up those narratives where his videos left off, expanding Reactivando Espacios beyond the camera lens.
His first success was Pasaje Gómez, a covered arcade in the city's downtown Zona Centro. Buenrostro reached out to entrepreneurs and artists for help repopulating the passage. Through numerous meetings with owners, tenants, cultural institutions, and the creative community, he helped put together a plan to "reactivate" the public space. Reactivando Espacios is looser than a formal organization—it's more of a collective, Buenrostro says. He and his collaborators consult with both private investors and city officials, depending on the project.
Soon, on Pasaje Gómez, shuttered storefronts reopened as art galleries, microbreweries, and cafes. The area's success later rippled out to nearby Pasaje Rodriguez.
"These people were used to so much money during the good times," he says. "Those good times are not coming back, but there are new opportunities."
Tijuana is a relatively young city, founded just 125 years ago. Much of its downtown was built in the boom years of the 1940s, lending it a chaotic, industrial aesthetic that fascinated the filmmaker in Buenrostro. Tourism and manufacturing became core industries.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 had complicated impacts, but Buenrostro says the fallout was mostly negative for small businesses in Tijuana. Drug violence sent the local economy off a cliff. At the outset of Reactivando, however, it was ripe for a resurrection.
Perhaps the project's biggest success is Hub Stn, Mexico's "first binational coworking space." Based in an old Mexicoach bus terminal, a startup cluster has brought new life to a station that went quiet during the violence. Located on Avenida Revolución—known as a seedy strip for booze, bargain goods, and illicit thrills—the building's vivid stained glass archway now shelters Tijuana's burgeoning tech sector, playing host to a dozen companies including Epiqueya, Bc creativa, and Ahorrolibre.
Before Buenrostro, collaborators Marco Soto and Miguel Marshall, and Alfonso Medina of New York-based architects T38 got together to save it, the station was headed for demolition.
"The media has branded Tijuana a cliché for so many years, so my project was trying to create a new narrative of the city," says Buenrostro. "Not only talking about that era of Tijuana, but trying to create this narrative of architecture and creative people rising from that."
It was a personal story for Buenrostro, who was born in Tijuana and grew up on both sides of the border. His grandfather moved to Tijuana from rural southern Mexico during Prohibition and made his way selling cigarettes. Eventually he scraped together enough to invest in property, helping turn Avenida Revolución into a humming commercial strip.
Since the growth years of Buenrostro's grandparents, Tijuana's ramshackle urban growth has given way to a more careful redevelopment. Now, emerging from an economic and humanitarian crisis, it's remaking itself again.
"There's always been this entrepreneurial feel because of the California influence, but I believe right now is a boom," he says. "Spaces like this generate the community culture. If companies from other parts of the world want to enter Latin American markets, they need to come to Tijuana to validate their product."
But cultural exchange across the border has always gone both ways. Working with Denver-based entrepreneur Justin Martinez, Buenrostro is preparing projects in Nicaragua and in Pueblo, Colorado. And Reactivando Espacios has grown to an international collaborative, claiming members across Mexico and as far away as New York City.
And the project has come a long way from where it started, when Buenrostro trained his camera on the forgotten structures of his hometown.
"We realized that there was much more than portraying some kind of urban decay. I did not expect this to dictate my career, or to be successful," says Buenrostro. "I just want to continue figuring out why spaces or buildings are abandoned, and what can we do to twist that reality and turn things around if the situation is right."