Broken cities. Shrinking cities. Dysfunctional cities. Violent cities. Everywhere we may look: crippled and hobbled cities. All of these models of urban decline, often purposefully simplistic just to pave the way for redevelopment, now apparently have a new example to follow out of the morass, and it is El Paso, Texas.
As urbanism maharishi Joel Kotkin said: "Whatever they are drinking in Texas, other states may want to imbibe." And out of all the Texan metropoles, Kotkin's research for Forbes finds El Paso to be the overall winner: "the number one mid-size city for jobs," jumping 22 spots in the rankings in one year.
So what are they imbibing in the Lone Star State, anyway? The leaders of my own "declining" state, California, recently visited Texas searching for the secret tricks to job-generating magic—an unthinkable voyage of comeuppance brought upon by the economic terror of freewheeling mortgage lenders here.
But the job-number empiricism only goes so far. Since no one can seem to figure out what fueled the "Texas Miracle," or the overall durability—not to mention quality—of the jobs created, there must then be another layer of competing visions at play here. What Texas engineered seems to be more of a mirage than anything else, seemingly a Great Recession exception, but the lingering question is: Was it legal? The inquires become all the more important now that the stylist of that so-called miracle, Governor Rick Perry, aspires to the White House. As a quasi-mythical place, Texas calls for piercing through its representations, and El Paso is one such gateway.
Explanations of what stimulates Texanomics abound. Some say it was temporarily sky-rocketing oil and gas prices that benefited the fossil-rich state. Others point to Mexican middle-class flight coming north, away from the escalating drug war unleashed by President Felipe Calderón and U.S. drug enforcement agencies. Yet others say it was NAFTA, attracting tech companies looking to be a short distance from the maquiladoras across the border, a manufacturing arrangement that has also proven to be easy-come, easy-go. Some point to military expansion in Texas and the Department of Homeland Security's fortification of the border, which also may have already plateaued. Meanwhile, to conservatives blindly invested in Texas as an ideology, the success always was and always will be the only possible outcome of low taxes, government deregulation, and prayer.
Now journalists have uncovered some evidence of what should have been logical all along: No matter what people are getting paid to do in Texas—from selling cars on the floor of a luxury showroom to hammering nails into siding—the origin of a lot of the money in circulation is dubious at best. From this perspective, Texas is no different from any other so-called narcostate, funneling illicit profits from drugs, extortion, weapons, and human smuggling into the legit facade of a highly flexible economy that Kotkin calls for emulating. Could this be possible, and what might it say about 21st century American urbanism?
No need to look too far for evidence. In one recent court document, indicted cartel chief Vicente Jesús Zambada-Niebla alleged that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency cut a deal to protect the Sinaloa cartel in exchange for intelligence on rival organizations, giving us a lurid glimpse of the scale of this conspiracy. In a similar operation that has blown-up into a full scandal, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives supervised gunrunning to the cartels, briefing the DEA and at least one White House official along the way. The insane mission backfired when a U.S. border patrolman was killed with a weapon traced back to the operative.
In short, agents tasked with "protecting the border" have instead been working as the club bouncers at the door: keep the violence outside, while the money comes in. And the governor gets the credit.
What San Francisco was once to the world across the Pacific Ocean, El Paso is to the adjacent Ciudad Juárez and the southern world beyond: a fortified golden gate. It appears that El Paso has outlandishly benefited from controlling one of the hardened valves through which globalization flows. Besides, El Paso is not a "mid-size city," as the census and Kotkin mis-categorize it, once understood, as one should, as the swankier side of a much larger, transnational urban entity intrinsically tied to booming Juárez as its adjacent industrial labor zone. Small wonder that El Paso has created ancillary jobs faster than the slumping average. While Juárez consumes itself in a civil war over control of the border ingress point, El Paso's business establishment is busy marketing the city as the "safest big city" in the United States. For wealthier Mexicans, El Paso is a short charter flight away for a day of shopping, bypassing the violence.
In the spirit of bushy-tailed California politicians visiting Texas for enlightenment, I imagined what I would put on an itinerary in order to explore the distinctly Texan urban visions that El Paso amasses in all of its volatile mixture of deregulation, paranoia, religiosity, and fossil burning.
I would have to begin with a perambulation around the military hinterlands that surround this city: "the largest inland military complex in the world" made up by Fort Bliss, Holloman Air Force Base, and the White Sands Missile Facility. Closest to El Paso, Fort Bliss is one of the U.S. Army's "power projection platforms," in the words of base commander Dana Pittard, who thus summarized quite nicely the symbolic role it plays staring down at Mexico. With a projected population of 30,000 soldiers in the near future, the "Old Ironsides," as the fort's 1st Armored Division is called, will also inevitably draw a wide array of establishments, from brothels to churches, that will vie for soldiers' surplus wages.
On this circumnavigation, I could also locate the El Paso Service Processing Center, a 900 bed "processing" facility for detained migrants. Another carceral facility nearby is the Reeves County Detention Center, a state prison operated by the GEO corporation, touted as "the largest private prison" anywhere. And for a glimpse of where some of the accumulated wealth came from, I could not miss the gargantuan ruins of the toxic Asarco smelter that once belonged to the Guggenheims.
I'd then continue with visits to pawn shops, which seem to be connected to a furtive network in the processing and distribution of weapons caches. From there, I would not want to miss the El Paso Intelligence Center, or EPIC. Yes, EPIC. This one-stop shop for federal agencies involved in drug and border "enforcement" was already identified as a bust in an internal audit even before the chaotic mission running guns across the border. While on this journey, there is also a Border Patrol museum to stop at, although it does not seem to lead tours to the unsanctioned border tunnels, which I'd be up for touring as well.
But if I were lucky, I might catch a glimpse of the one Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, that lonely drone operated by the Department of Homeland Security, assigned to patrol the border over the El Paso region. It's one of three UAVs flying reconnaissance missions from San Diego to Corpus Christi. Governor Perry has suggested letting Air Force drone pilots practice over the border, not saying if he meant flying unarmed.
I can just see myself peering at the big empty skies, probably finding nothing, wondering: Does Joel Kotkin, or anyone, for that matter, understand this city better than the drone does? As a spectre of a violent and militaristic narcourbanism, this desert apparition can be endlessly admired, traversed, measured, and quantified. One gets more and more absorbed by its ever-multiplying abstractions, while whatever it is that the cartel bosses and the politicians do simply continues, unabated.
Javier Arbona is a doctoral candidate in geography at UC Berkeley and a Ford Foundation Fellow. He co-founded Demilit with Bryan Finoki and Nick Sowers to practice experimental forms of landscape recording.