I made two trips to Baja and enlisted three guides to help me find that lost Tijuana, all the while knowing that the star attraction of this journey would probably turn out to be a ghost.
"People breathe fire for money," he said in the tone of an indulgent urbanite tutoring a bumpkin.
Maria Curry, an architectural historian who led me through downtown on another day, takes the opposite tone. "This is a magic place," she says as we pass a workaday scene: the peppers and piñatas of the Mercado El Popo on 2nd Street. Then she explains its roots (in the market's case, the late 1920s and 1930s).
Curry, who was born in Mexico City and moved to Tijuana in 1993 after graduate school at Cornell, now splits her time between here and San Diego. For several years, she and other Tijuana and San Diego academics and architects have been trying to get more respect and protection for Old Tijuana.
But it's no easy job. Tijuana didn't declare itself a city until 1889 and didn't have 1,000 residents until about 1915, when its first horse-racing track opened. Most of the 2 million or 3 million people who live here now (estimates vary) have come from elsewhere in Mexico, and most of those hometowns can claim more history (and less feuding between drug cartels and law enforcement agencies) than Tijuana.
As we walk and drive the city, Curry traces the outline of unspectacular Old Tijuana, such as the stately brick walls of the hilltop Alta Mira Cultural Center, which was built as a schoolhouse in 1930, or Teniente Guerrero Park.
This park was the city's first, founded just a few blocks from Revolución by a group of female activists in 1924. It served then as a haven for all social classes, from the wealthy merchants to the families of hotel and casino workers, and it's not much different today: chess players, kids wrestling on the ragged grass, ancient shoeshine guys, moms pushing toddlers on the swings, and over by the west end, those swarthy guys standing around with hammers. (Relax. They're freelance auto repairmen waiting for fenders to bang on.)
I move on to Hotel Caesar's and Caesars restaurant, at 5th and Revolución, and order salad. The story is told in various ways, but the consensus west of the Mississippi is that the Caesar salad was created in Tijuana in the 1920s and popularized by hotelier and restaurateur Caesar Cardini, who brought his businesses to this site in 1930. The good news is that after changes in ownership and a lapse in salad-making in the early 1990s, the staffers in the restaurant still make a big deal of whipping up a salad while you watch. At $6, it's a good value. Also, in the hotel they're finishing a thorough renovation of the 46 guest rooms, which cost between $35 and $70 nightly.
The bad news is that they really renovated. Five years ago, a writer for Preservation magazine described the Hotel Caesar's lobby and rooms as a scene out of "The Sun Also Rises," full of atmosphere and reminders of the days when bullfighters bunked here. Not anymore. Just about every hint of the '30s has been obliterated from the hotel and restaurant, inside and out.
There's nothing like gleaming modernization to get an architectural preservation tourist down. But then you come across something like the St. Francis Hotel, another '20s holdover that stands half a block from Revolución on 2nd. The two-story St. Francis, which features 29 rooms, a handsome manual typewriter in the lobby and a Don Quixote statue in the upstairs hall, was built of wood in about 1906—in Imperial Beach, across the border. Then it was trucked into Tijuana. For most of the 1920s it stood on Revolución. But apparently it got restless, because it moved again in 1928.
In a pinch I would pay the $28 it costs to sleep at the St. Francis; it seemed clean and quiet enough. But given its history, who knows where I'd wake up?
There's no doubt that markers like these measure the distance the city has traveled since the '20s. But three other casino sites in northern Baja speak most loudly about the old days.
Taking them south to north, you begin 68 miles below Tijuana at a stately old property rich in Moorish and Mission flourishes, the buildings surrounded by gardens. This is the Riviera del Pacífico, formerly the Hotel Playa of Ensenada.
Completed in 1930 at an estimated cost of $2 million, it stood on the beach and counted boxing champion Jack Dempsey among its original supporters. William Randolph Hearst came, and Dolores del Rio, Johnny Weismuller, Lupe Velez and Myrna Loy.
But when liquor and gaming laws in the U.S. and Mexico started changing, the Playa began a long, bumpy ride, mostly downhill, until its last guests checked out in 1964. Today, it's owned by the city, its guest rooms are demolished or repurposed, and a busy street separates it from the sea. But the casino building has survived, and what a specimen it is: wormwood beams from Florida, curlicued iron from Havana, a chandelier from Spain—and tiny slits in the main room's ceiling, through which management could peep down upon gamblers below.
When rooms aren't rented out for conferences and special events, visitors can wander at no cost through the idle spaces, imagining wild parties and big-band music. (Xavier Cugat played the opening.) You can wander the gardens too, but every time I strayed onto the lawn to take a picture, a keen-eyed groundskeeper with a whistle was there to toot and frown and wave me off. Inside, there's a museum where you can peek through the slits above the casino. There's also the Bar Andaluz, which claims to have created the margarita in 1948.
Of this claim I am suspicious. Venture just a mile or two north to Hussong's, the peanut-shells-on-the-floor, mariachis-at-your-table cantina that has lubricated Ensenada gringos since 1892, and you will be told that a Hussong's barkeep, Don Carlos Orozco, came up with the drink in 1941. (Margarita scholars, be advised: They go for $3 at both places.)
After the keep-off-the-grass stillness of the Playa/Riviera, I was looking forward to a little noise at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. But I was also a bit afraid. Founded in 1925 with 12 guest rooms, the hotel has done so much adaptation, renovation and expansion, I feared it might have evolved into a new species entirely.