Tijuana Art Walk 2013 and the Rebirth of Pasaje Gomez
“In the 1960s and 70s, when you walked down the stairs from the street into Pasaje Gomez, the place was filled wall-to-wall with tourists buying souvenirs from the various shops — all of which were occupied by vendors and in high demand. That was a boom time for Tijuana.” Julián Plascencia, owner of Caesar’s Restaurant and member of the Grupo Plascencia family of restaurants waves his hand down the long hallways of Pasaje Gomez, a colorfully-tiled passageway off Avenida Revolución. Two stories high with shop spaces on the first floor and residential apartments on the second, the alley is covered overhead by a system of tiled glass in various states of disrepair, dreamily illuminating a kaleidoscope of brightly-colored shop facades, art galleries, cafes and connecting hallways that comprise the space and give it it’s unique character.
Plascencia continued: “During the 1980s and 90s, tourism started to slow down. After 9/11, followed by the problems when the gangsters came to Tijuana in in 2008, tourism dropped sharply and Pasaje Gomez fell into disrepair. Squatters would sneak in at night. The place was a mess almost every morning.” Indeed, Plascencia and his entire family left Tijuana in the mid-2000′s for fear of kidnapping during a spate of threats against the successful restauranteurs. During this same period, over 90% of the 3,500 souvenir vendors in Tijuana shuttered their doors due to the economic downturn, leaving Plaza Gomez and much of Avenida Revolucion closed for business.
“After my family returned to Tijuana in 2010,” Plascencia said, “my friend, local artist and promoter Max Mejia, approached the five landlords here in Pasaje Gomez and told them, ‘Your shops are empty. You can’t sustain at this rate. If you would reduce your rent from $900 U.S. per month to a lower price, you could entice local artisans to display their artwork here and revitalize the area.’ There were five steel doors here dividing the pasaje between the landlords, who didn’t always get along. Now, most of those doors are gone, and eventually, they listened and lowered the rents. Now, here we are.”
Pasaje Gomez is now is at a 30-40% occupancy rate with rents running roughly from $100-$300 U.S. per month, depending on square footage. Although improvement has been made since it’s renewal in 2010, Pasaje Gomez is still in need of a lot of amor, including the replacement of damaged wood and tile and installation of a better lighting system. Plascencia, along with other local cultural activists, promote the annual Art Walk to raise funds for these much-needed repairs and improvements.
In addition to convincing more Tijuana and Southern California-based artists to rent space, Plascencia also sees the need to balance the galleries and exhibit spaces with eateries offering a variety of culinary choices, inline with his family’s strategy of using local ingredients for Baja Med and “Mexiterranean” style dishes that appeal to a variety of tastes and pocketbooks. “You see how it’s done internationally, in Tel Aviv, in Paris, in Chicago, in San Francisco. There are always cafes and restaurants to make the gallery scene more of an overall experience,” Plascencia noted.
Your Gringo saw a lot of different types of art on display here…from a group of talented young goth illustrators, to an amazing exhibit of recycled corrugated cardboard constructions by artist Héctor Juárez in Angela Gonzalez’s Atelier 109 gallery. Angela represents an ideal tenant and presence for Pasaje Gomez, an established local artist who wishes to expand into a new area representing the revitalization of downtown Tijuana. Juárez’s brown cardboard artwork contrasted well with Atelier 109′s stark red walls, lending an overall sense of style to her corner of the pasaje, right next to Plaza Revolución, another area of shops available for rent.
In addition to local artists, designers, jewelry makers and other artisans, established talent from north of the border, such as San Diego artist Josue Castro and his partner Andrew Sheiner, are taking advantage of the low rents and Pasaje Gomez’s potential as a gallery destination. For the Art Walk, Castro displayed his “iPhoneography”, images that had been photographed and digitally manipulated on an iPhone.
A stage at the intersection of Pasaje Gomez’s main hallways was the spot for the day’s entertainment. Musician Victor Rosas performed, serenading the crowd with his mellow acoustic tunes. On the flip side of the coin, Bonfire Madigan tore into their original songs with a fury…they brought to mind the hip hop industrial aesthetic of Portishead, combined with the edgy angst of punk. Circus acts and acrobats also performed, both on stage and amongst the crowd.
There was some great food at the Tijuana Art Walk as well. Javier Plascencia’s Erizo restaurant served up tasty ceviches (a verde and also a callo de hacha scallop ceviche), as well as pozole and other culinary delights. Also representing for the Plascencia family was the famous Caesar’s (who gave Caesar Salad tableside prep presentations), and sister and pastry chef Margu Plascencia’s L’Artisan Reposteria Fina, displaying an artistic array of tarts, cakes and other delights de dulce.
After we took in all the artwork, vendors and food at the Art Walk, we hiked back up and out of Pasaje Gomez and crossed Revolución to Pasaje Rodriguez, another former tourist shop/alleyway undergoing a similar transformation. A friend who has lived and now works in Tijuana recommended that we try the craft brews from Mamut, a very small operation who brew, ferment and serve several amazing beers (we tried the American Ale and British IPAs) from a small space in Pasaje Rodriguez.
Crossing back over to Paseo Gomez, your Gringo wrapped up his tour and conversation with Julián Plascencia next to the ornately yellow-tiled Cafe La Especial. Plascencia let me in on his family’s leasing of the space, and plans to renovate this 1952 landmark that was well known for serving up a cold cerveza with tasty tacos el vapor (steamed tacos).
Continuing in that tradition, the Plascencia family are renaming the restaurant “Taverna La Especial” and creating more of a bar scene and music destination. Plascencia took me inside to point out the renovations, highlighting an area toward the back where a stage will be built. He explained, “When jazz bands come to town for the Tijuana Jazz and other festivals, there’s nowhere they can play at night while they’re here. The Taverna La Especial will give them a place and also bring jazz music downtown.” He’s hoping the venue opens by the end of 2013, but knows that it could take longer depending on a variety of factors involved in opening a new business in Mexico.
Of course, having a new Plascencia restaurant as the lynchpin of Pasaje Gomez could be just the thing to accelerate the acquisition of more tenants and further revitalization of the space. In the great Mexican spirit of rebuilding from conquest, earthquakes, economic uncertainty and other hardships, Pasaje Gomez stands as a monument to Tijuana’s untapped potential and colorfully-tiled future.
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