Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Millions of Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans live and work near borders. What is the trend in your area of the globe?

Is it towards air-compression-chamber-like locked tight borders?

Is it partially flowing border traffic with bridges and blocked off ramps?

or is it fairly open?

What does the future hold for North America and other corners of the globe after 2010?


By Kevin Stoda

In the past, I have written extensively on borders, border crossings and peoples who live there lives on borders. "Border Towns and Divided Cities, Divided Cultures: Imaginary or Real Walls?" (2003) is one of my most-shared writings on the topic, whereby I had compared the life and imagery of border towns of (1) East and West Berlin, (2) the three cities and three countries of the Basle-St. Louis area—which includes France, Germany, and Switzerland--, and the Texas’ Laredo-Nuevo Laredo townships.

In those works, I also made allusions to other divided places, such as the Spanish portion of Morocco’s landscape, e.g. the cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Unlike Hong Kong and Macau, which reverted to Chinese control in the late 1990s, the enclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla, situated on the African Mediterranean continue as fully part of Spain in Europe.

As a theme, in the work, "Border Towns and Divided Cities, Divided Cultures: Imaginary or Real Walls?", I had found that there were essentially 3 types of divided public space in border towns and border regions around the world. I feel these 3 metaphors are still helpful to us for visualizing--on a small scale--, the differing levels of globalization that people in various corners of the world feel or perceive today.


First, I noted that there was the air-lock type imagery, which one still witnesses between most of North and South Korea today. In the days of Cold War Europe, spies and non-spies alike would have to pass through such air-locks--or severely protected and regulated borders. Crossing-over was perceived by the traveler in some ways to be akin to entering a decompression chamber, i.e. prior to being permitted to enter the other side of the border (border city).

By the way, this particular metaphor of a “decompression chamber” came from a written description of crossing the border by one American, Mark Jantzen, who lived from 1988 through 1991 in the eastern half of Berlin in the days before and after the Wall came down. (He wrote of his experiences in THE WRONG SIDE OF THE WALL.} The working existence of peoples (and their lives) on different sides of the border were so different in nature—and so protected in time and space--that the bureaucratic regimes who once controlled the crossings required that the traveler to take some moments (or hours) to become acclimatized to breathing in different air and space.


The second type of border town is what I referred to as the bridge. It is most often witnessed one at North America’s busiest multinational intersection—a crossover point between the USA and Mexico: This is the junction where I-35 hits Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. This particular connection has the city of Laredo, Texas meeting millions & millions of peoples in Latin America.

The small city is literally best described as a city of bridges. There are specialized highway bridges for international trucking. There are also auto- and pedestrian bridges—where crossing-over takes most people only minutes—unless there happens to be an international terror alert or if the usual holiday traffic jam materializes

The worlds on either side of the bridges of Laredo across the Rio Grande River are certainly very different. Different types economic specialties, a different sense-of-self internationally, and one’s access-to-rights exist on either side of the bridge. Passports or special identification are still needed to undertake the crossing-over from one civilization to the other, but the connections between peoples, families, businesses, and ways-of-life are not as extreme as that witnessed in 1961-1989 Berlin, in today’s Ceuta or Melilla surrounded by Morocco, or in pre-1980s China and Hong Kong or Macau. In those towns (and eras), different global ideologies warred with each other at the border.

In contrast, to some great-extent, the immigrant and drug wars, i.e. which we see at the border with Mexico and the USA today, are not ideological but the result of the same dominant global socio-political economic that have been functioning on both sides of the river to a great degree for decades—although a river, fences and bridges divide the towns of Nuevo Laredo and Laredo.


The third image of border relationships is the one I experienced when I lived in France, near the city of Basel in Switzerland and the city of Bad Basel in Germany. I call this simply the Open Border image. (I should note that the French town in this 3-country megapolis is named St. Louis. I lived outside of St. Louis in rural Alsace—but only a few kilometers from the Swiss border on a farm.) Crossing over was so fluid in the 1980s, when I lived in this region, that most of the controls and checkpoints had become unmanned. In one incident, I recall simply starting in France by hitching a ride on the back of one farmer’s tractor and then crossing over to Switzerland, where I ended up taking a streetcar into a train station before I headed on to Germany.


Once, when explaining why I liked living in the country of German to my students in Germany, I explained that one reason I liked the country is that it is a federal state bound up (Bund) in a federal regime, namely the European Union.

I find that states that understand how to permit divisions, like federations or confederations in Europe currently often do, have the potential to have great international relations. That is, if they learn to have federalist and tolerant relationships with their neighbors, i.e. in the same positive federalist or strong international ties.

The commitment of European states after WWII to take down their border posts and the subsequent 60-plus years of learning experience in building a European Union (federation) has made many European states stronger, in terms of understanding how to work with their neighbors, while even growing a sense of regional-ship or regional identity across borders (across state lines).. In turn, many European Union states, like Germany, have had great success over the same period in improving the continent’s relationships with their former colonies and former Cold War adversaries.

Disappointingly, recent decades have seen these same European states and their peoples gain notoriety for building a new Fortress Europe in recent decades. On the other hand, as a whole European states have had more positive and beneficial relationships with neighboring countries than states in most corners of the globe. (Just look at the tensions in South and Central Asia and the troubles in Africa from Sudan to Somalia south into the Congo!)

I think that greater regional cooperation (federal-like) and greater support for local autonomy—without fear of disintegration of society or country—is a great European model that could be exported. So many cities on borders in European states have created mega-cities with others across-their-national-border with whom they are often socially and economically well-integrated. The Basle-St. Louis area on the Rhine river is not the only tri-city or tri-state example.

Open traffic, openness to travel, and openness to the other (neighboring land) having influence on one’s own city and state have become the norm. This contrasts with North America over the past decade. Whereas NAFTA’s introduction in the early 1990s initially brought more personal and economic exchange across borders in American, Canadian, and Mexican, this new Millennium has seen darkness cover the borders of the North American continent. Post-9-11-01 anti-terrorist mania (and bad North American political economic development in the last 3 decades have) destroyed the USA’s openness to immigrants over the past decade.

In short, the trends towards an ever-more-open border relationship between my homeland and Canada & Mexico are now being replaced with a border that is more of an air-lock or decompression chamber—i.e. as far as travel, international labor, and transportation or people-to-people exchanges are concerned. In short, just as I complain about a Fortress Europe border mentality rising on the old continent, I now have to state in shame that American borders—in Canada and Mexico as well as the USA—have been tightening over the last few years. Will Americans and Mexican (and Canadians) simply look nostalgically on a time that has passed, i.e. when we had bridge-like border societies while we build decompression chambers at the border?


“Calderon: Border Fence is Unfriendly”,

“US is Unfriendly towards Visitors”,

Mills, Dave, “Tips for Driving across the US Canadian Border”,

Stoda, Kevin, "Border Towns and Divided Cities, Divided Cultures: Imaginary or Real Walls?", in Eds. Will Wright and Steven Kaplan, Image of the City: Proceedings from--2003 Conference: Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery Pueblo, Colorado: Society of the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery

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