Recycling in the Contact Zone

Borders have long been a privileged postmodern space. Borders are where differing cultures come into contact with each other. Most theorists have stressed the ways in which one culture tends to prevail over another; others see a more level playing field on which hybrid cultures emerge—cultures that are neither one nationality nor another. Architect and Cal-San Diego professor Teddy Cruz writes in The Nation about the mother of all borders, the US-Mexico border, that “zone of occult instability where the people dwell,” to use Frantz Fanon’s words. (Article link, with accompanying video, can be found here.)

Cruz reports on a vast improvisational recycling project in which salvage materials from demolished suburban houses in San Diego are recycled as building elements for housing in Tijuana. San Diego’s collar suburbs, with their modest bungalows, are morphing into McMansion zones. The postwar California dream spaces are being dismantled and trucked across the border. Garage doors are being repurposed into walls for housing on Tijuana’s hilly fringes. And entire California bungalows are lifted intact from their sites and dropped into parts of the Mexican city with astonishingly permissive building codes, for the houses are often mounted on steel girders so that the space beneath them can be used for taco stands and other purposes.

One would think that the San Diego-Tijuana recycling building materials industry is a pregnant enough metaphor for sustainability at the margins of a vast consumer culture. However, Cruz and some undefined “we” are staging an “intervention,” which, in postmodern parlance means self-aggrandizing meddling by well-meaning but often ineffective academics. “We are currently negotiating a maquiladora-made prefabricated frame that can act as a hinge mechanism to coordinate the multiplicity of recycled materials and systems brought from San Diego and reassembled in Tijuana,” Cruz writes. In other words, somebody is trying to convince a Mexican factory to recycle salvaged building materials in a more efficient way.

The nameless small operators with trucks and blow torches seem to be doing a pretty good job all by themselves, but some professional manufacturing techniques would probably do some good, provided the factory-made materials aren’t priced out of reach of Tijuana’s poorer homeowners. One place the maquiladoras could help is manufacturing sturdier platforms for all those bungalows in the air.

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