Moving America Forward

How a Fake Ad Campaign Led to the Real-Life Launch of a Massive Infrastructure Project

November 14, 2016
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How a Fake Ad Campaign Led to the Real-Life Launch of a Massive Infrastructure Project
A poster for the El Paso, Texas, streetcar initiative, as conceived as a public art project by artist Peter Svarzbein in 2011. Courtesy of Peter Svarbein/mongovision.com
It began as an art-school thesis that depicted a fictional streetcar route between border cities. Now, that once far-fetched concept could become reality.

Donald Trump’s call for a “big, beautiful wall” along our southern border hasn’t resonated in the West Texas city of El Paso. Already connected to Mexico by the world’s largest border metroplex, local officials want to further link El Paso to its sister city, Ciudad Juarez. Last January, they started laying tracks for a streetcar line that officials hope eventually will shuttle passengers between the two countries, as it had once done for most of the 20th century.

Notably, and rather unusually, the El Paso streetcar initiative gained steam as a public and performance art project. In 2011, black-and-white portraits of a smiling train conductor started popping up around town, sometimes accompanied by the phrase Sube al futuro: Go to the future. A few months later, a wheat-pasted mosaic on an abandoned brick building featured hundreds of locals’ faces; together, the composite formed an ad for a retro streetcar, which resembled the Art Deco-ish trolley that ran 63 miles between El Paso and Juarez until 1974. At that point, conceptual artist Peter Svarzbein, an El Paso native, introduced himself as the creative mind behind the El Paso Transnational Trolley Project.

In the five years since, an even odder confluence of art and life took place. The fictional ad campaign gave a fresh face to the public transit movement, which helped turn it into a multimillion-dollar construction reality (the first 4.8-mile section is set to open in 2018). Meanwhile, Svarzbein ran for office and now sits on the nine-member city council, which provides direction to the agency responsible for the El Paso’s transit projects.
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“Border crossing is what defines us,” Svarzbein says of his city. “It’s in the best interest, for both El Paso and Juarez, to allow these people to cross over. They’re not doing it to take our jobs and our Medicaid, or whatever rhetoric is espoused. We understand our people crossing over symbolize the dreams of what this country has always been about.”

The son of an Argentine-born surgeon and a French-born nurse who moved to El Paso together in 1978, Svarzbein grew up accustomed to a border town’s cross-cultural influence. In high school, he and his friends regularly trekked next door to dine out at restaurants or take advantage of Mexico’s younger drinking age at nightclubs.

But shortly after Svarzbein moved away to attend Franklin & Marshall College, a liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, the tie between the sister cities was snipped. In 2006, the Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched an all-out assault against the country’s powerful drug cartels, an opening salvo that led to turf wars in Juarez and chaos along the border. To respond to the violence, Svarzbein began looking for a way to remind residents of both countries of the connections they shared, despite the brutality.

Researching symbols of unity, he came across pictures of El Paso’s old trolley line. For his master’s thesis at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, he decided to create a series of fake ads for the tram’s revival. Both conceptual and commercial, a historical documentary and a performance piece, the art project blurred genres — not unlike how living on the border can entwine residents’ identities.

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In 2012, Svarzbein’s fictional vision for a revitalized streetcar system started to become reality when he discovered the city planned on selling the old, rusting trolleys to San Francisco. “I said, ‘Oh, hell no,’” Svarzbein recalls. He began lobbying city officials to apportion part of a quality-of-life bond to reviving the streetcar, and he gathered over 1,800 signatures. The outpouring of support eventually won a $97 million grant from the Texas Department of Transportation.

When the first phase opens, the trolley will make 27 stops along a route from the University of Texas El Paso to the city’s downtown. It’s expected to pick up about 1,480 riders daily, topping 540,000 trips a year. The line will use six vintage Presidents’ Conference Committee cars, a tram design that became popular in 1936, around the time FDR was reelected for a third term; each is being refurbished with Wi-Fi and air-conditioning. “For some people, it taps into nostalgia. They remember when they were kids, riding the streetcar with their abuela, when it was easier to go into Mexico,” Svarzbein says.

The public-works project is a nod to the city’s history, but Svarzbein hopes that it will also create new opportunities on both sides of the border. “We have the ability in this region to not just design an idea, but to build it,” he says. “We need to make sure that people and businesses are able to cross the border in an efficient and safe way.”

That, after all, is the promise of an international streetcar, he adds, especially in a time where inflamed political rhetoric paints the US-Mexico border as an area in need of armed patrols, rather than more ports of entry. “What much of the country doesn’t understand — and what we understand all too well being in these twin cities — is that border security is economic security,” Svarzbein argues. “Providing jobs are how you make this area safe. Jobs are how the cartels don’t have as much power. Jobs are how you grow this region.”

An earlier version of this story suggested Svarsbein was the sole instigator of the project, when he was actually one of several people advocating for it, and that the cartel-related violence in Juarez had reached across the border. We regret the errors.

Homepage photo courtesy of Peter Svarzbein/mongovision.com.

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