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South-of-the-border town is changing its act

TIJUANA — The words "border town"and "classy" sound like an oxymoron, a contradiction, a set-up for a joke. Even before the Kingston Trio immortalized Tijuana for its jail, the town has been synonymous with "tawdry" and "tacky."

But now the Mexican government is stepping up efforts to bring a little more culture and refinement to one of the most popular cities in Mexico. Yes, Tijuana still has many problems. Like every border town in the world, it attracts its share of transients. And it was recently rated among the Top 100 cities in the world for prostitution. And the many bars and clubs are legion and legendary. American college kids don't visit Tijuana for its culture.

But there is something else taking root these days.

Tijuana, in part, is getting a classy makeover.

If you're planning a trip to the San Diego area and want to see "what's what" across the border, go up Revolution Avenue in Tijuana, bypass the burros painted to look like zebras and the hundreds of hucksters and hawkers and find your way to Independence Avenue and visit a part of Tijuana that Lonely Planet guidebooks say "goes a long way toward undermining Tijuana's reputation as a cultural wasteland."

Deep in the clockworks of the town, tourists will find many authentic — not plaster — treasures and pleasures.

The hub of culture is the Tijuana Cultural Center. Something is percolating at the place almost every hour of every day — poetry readings, dance recitals, conferences, concerts, new exhibits. The complex features a large, ball-shaped building where the local IMAX theater shows features daily. Inside the ball, visitors will find several art galleries and a well-stocked bookstore filled with attractive and tasteful items.

An example of the kind of artists who show there is Monica Roibal, a Tijuana native who takes the mundane aspects of the city — the telephone polls, overpasses and fences — and paints them as impressionistic art that has a distinctly Asian feel to it.

A recent exhibit featured grand banners with Mexican themes. Politics — always the stepchild of art in Mexico — tended to dominate the themes of the display.

Near the Cultural Center, visitors will find the Museum of the Californians — an archaeological museum styled after the great Museo de Antropologia in Mexico City. President Vicente Fox was recently in town to see it. He was greeted by a wax figure of himself that captures both the likeness and body language of the man. Mexican artists and performers have a gift for mimicry.

They also are known for a unique touch with miniatures. Among the displays at the museum, for instance, are small reproductions of early forts and Catholic missions that fascinate with their attention to detail.

The art isn't all under roofs in Tijuana. Showcasing art in public places has been a hallmark of Mexico since the days of the great muralists Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco.

That is still the case. A modern, stylized monument to the Mexico Revolution (called "the scissors" by locals because of its form) is worth seeing. So are various larger-than-life works near the Cultural Center.

Uptown, on Second Street, day-trippers can spend some time at the Municipal Art Gallery. The gallery presents exhibits and events from both sides of the border. Tijuana, it seems, with its amazingly low property taxes and low cost of living, is attracting more and more moneyed Americans who live in town and then commute the 30 miles to work in San Diego each day. The "expatriates" are slowly bringing an interesting mix of American taste and architectural style to the outpost once known as "Aunt Jane's" (Tia Juana).

Upscale bookstores, with reading material in both English and Spanish, are also setting up shop in Tijuana.

At "cultural quarterdeck" there are also some interesting sights. Just across the border near Revolution Avenue is the wax museum, featuring replicas of American movie stars and Mexican heroes. And outlets, such as Sanbourn's, carry high-quality decorative arts.

In the end, the new sophisticated side of Tijuana may not be quite a "destination spot" yet, but for those who are looking for some variety and interest in their trips to California and the Baja, seeing what hoity-toity Tijuana has to offer makes for a fascinating side trip.

Getting into Tijuana is never a problem for American tourists. You can walk or take a car across the border. Getting back across the border into the States, however, requires time and patience. Because of Homeland Security concerns, even American citizens must be scrutinized. And on busy days — Fridays, Saturdays and holidays — the wait for those on foot can be more than hour. Motorists don't fare much better. Visiting the city on a weekday, however, makes for smoother sailing.

The key is to know what can be brought back into the United States and what can't and to have everything ready for the X-ray machines.

A crossing near the town of Tecate is usually less crowded but is not open after dark.

Americans can take their own cars into the border towns, but if they plan to go deeper into the country, they must register with the authorities. And although having insurance is not a must, buying Mexican auto insurance can save a lot of headaches if a fender-bender occurs.

Tijuana is the busiest border town in the world. It's a bustling, hustling, busy place that offers the best — and worst — of humanity.

It's worth visiting.

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com