I’m driving down a small, quiet road, the border wall in front of me stretching off into the horizon. As I get closer, I see the cornfield next to me end at the wall, the lines of corn continuing up into the sky along the steel slats that make up the wall. And then I drive through the border wall because the road goes through the border wall. I’m headed to Sabal Palm Sanctuary, a nature preserve situated behind the wall but still in the U.S. There is a lot of public and private land stuck between the U.S.-Mexico border and the border wall. Some of this land is home to public parks, as well as significant contemporary and historic architecture.
I visit Sabal Palm Sanctuary in Brownsville at different times throughout the year — to see the birds and butterflies on their migrations, to enjoy the tranquility of nature, and in hope of spotting the ever-elusive ocelot. Each time I turn onto Sabal Palm Grove Road, I’m met by the long rust-colored wall in the distance. The border wall doesn’t keep me or others out of the preserve. The sensation of driving through the border wall may even attract people to the preserve. But, after the gross novelty wears off, it’s clear that this is a detrimental neighbor to Sabal Palm. The wall interferes with the movement of wildlife, such as the pygmy owl, which can’t fly high enough to clear it. The wall is intimidating. It looks bad. And it doesn’t make me feel safe. It makes me feel on edge.
Contrast this with driving into Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Both Sabal Palm and Santa Ana were early-20th-century plantations built on the banks of the Rio Grande, carefully transformed into wildlife refuges. But there’s no wall at Santa Ana. Just a calm drive with a gradual adjustment from rural surroundings into the “jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System.” It’s an inviting transition, and Santa Ana is a great place.
A lot of reporting has been done on the border wall. Some people support the wall in their reporting, but most tell how the wall is ineffective, inhumane, environmentally harmful, and a waste of time and money. The Rio Grande Valley (RGV) in South Texas is the backdrop for much of this reporting. Brownsville is one of the cities in the RGV and is where I live. Here in the RGV, the line separating the U.S. and Mexico is a beautiful place. After all, it is formed by the Rio Grande as it calmly meanders back and forth until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico at Boca Chica beach. The banks of the river are made up of cities, fields, and natural areas — a culmination of centuries of rich and complicated history.
If we set aside the greater border wall discussion for a moment and narrow our focus to the context of the architectural profession, I believe architects must see the border wall as deplorable. The built world always suffers from poor public policy and bad infrastructure, and the wall is staggeringly bad policy and infrastructure.
There are two important points to state clearly up front. The first regards terminology. The government refers to the border wall in the RGV as a fence. Most people call it a wall because when you stand next to the 18-ft-tall structure made of vertical steel slats with horizontal steel bracing, it feels like a wall. Since most people call it a wall, I’m using that term, here. Second, the wall is not built at the border. The Rio Grande Valley is a river delta that received its name from a marketing ploy in the early 20th century. Like other deltas, the river winds back and forth dramatically before meeting the Gulf of Mexico. To build a wall in the middle or on the shore of the river is extremely impractical. So the existing border wall was built in lines and arcs a distance from the real border. Much of the Brownsville-area wall was built on existing levees. The nearest the wall comes to the river is around a quarter mile, give or take, but the distance stretches to over a mile from the river, in some places. Again, this means there is private and public land caught between the border wall and the border.
The federal omnibus spending bill passed in late March approves $1.6 billion for border security. $445 million of that money is for 25 miles of levee fencing (border wall), $196 million for primary pedestrian fencing, and $445 million for replacement of existing fencing. The majority of that $1.086 billion border wall is set for the Rio Grande Valley. The existing border walls built in the Rio Grande Valley under the 2006 Secure Fence Act have negatively impacted public and publicly accessible open space. The new border wall, soon be built, will impact more open space and significant architecture.
Brownsville is named after Jacob Brown, an army officer who was killed at an earthen fort on the banks of the Rio Grande in a battle leading up to the Mexican-American War. Most of the fort was damaged during the construction of the levees, and all that remains is a small raised area of earth. This same piece of land became the public Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course. In 2009, the border wall was built along the levee between the golf course and the rest of the city, and in 2015, the golf course shut its doors due to a massive drop in business. People debate whether the wall was the main reason membership fell off, but what is clear is that the wall is a definite indication of where the Border Patrol patrols heavily and where it doesn’t. It’s a clear marker of where you feel you freely have the right to be, and where you don’t. Every time I’ve gone through the border wall opening at this place, I’ve been questioned by Border Patrol, some friendly, some not friendly. It’s clear that this is their turf, and what makes it their turf is the wall. Before the wall, Border Patrol did not question every golfer and every tourist visiting a piece of history. This loss of freedom is part of what is at stake.
Less than a mile away from the original Fort Brown is Alice Wilson Hope Park in downtown Brownsville. This is the site where ferries docked, when ferries were the only way to cross the river between Brownsville and Matamoros. Years ago, an overlook was built in this park, providing a view of the river and across to Matamoros. In 2009, the border wall was built along the entire length of the park, cutting the park off from the river and blocking the view from the overlook. Today, the park is dead. It’s a shady place for Border Patrol agents to park their dusty SUVs under lonely trees. This loss of value of public parks is part of what’s at stake.
Brownsville and other cities in the RGV have strikingly low amounts of public open space. Brownsville has approximately .02 acres of park per 100 people. The average for other similarly sized U.S. cities is 2.6 acres per 100 residents. The border wall runs along two of Brownsville’s parks. Upriver, the non-walled Anzalduas Park in Hidalgo County is an incredible park on the banks of the Rio Grande. Like Sabal Palm and the former Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course, Anzalduas Park will soon be separated from residents by a new border wall. There are other spaces, as well as historic and award-winning architecture, that will also be impacted, including La Lomita Mission, the National Butterfly Center, and the World Birding Center at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Santa Ana has been spared, for now, thanks to the hard work of activists lobbying members of Congress. The omnibus bill specifically forbids funding for any border wall at Santa Ana.
La Lomita Mission was built in 1899 and is part of the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville. The tiny 800-sf chapel is the namesake of the nearby town of Mission and is on the National Register of Historic Places. This example of turn-of-the-century architecture sits approximately 100 ft away from the levee where the border wall will be built. With a wall towering over the humble chapel and clearly delineating the off-limits portion of the United States, fewer people will feel comfortable visiting the site. This may hamper any future efforts to continue restoration of the building.
I’m not going to be naive about this chapel: It’s not a wildly popular attraction. There are few people who visit the chapel, some lighting candles on the altar, and the municipal park that shares the land with the chapel is overgrown and clearly unused. Moreover, the informational plaques on site tell an incomplete story of the history of the mission and the historical period it represents. The mission was given to oblate priests by René Guyard “for the propagation of the faith among the barbarians.” An acknowledgement on site of the enslavement and genocide of native peoples by Spanish and Anglo colonizers would go far in making the site more historically accurate. The point is, La Lomita’s faults are not causing us to lose a significant piece of historic architecture. We’re losing it because an illogical public policy is being implemented. The irony here is the wall reiterates the history of indiscriminate colonial expansion.
The World Birding Center at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park faces a proximity dilemma similar to that of La Lomita Mission. The Lake|Flato-designed building sits next to the levee where the border wall will be built. The levee at this point is more than a mile from the river, the actual border. This award-winning example of sustainable architecture was designed to gracefully integrate into the natural surroundings. The landscape architecture highlights the natural systems of the surrounding site. The juxtaposition of this architectural design and a steel slatted wall may make for an esoteric academic inquiry someday, but the reality is, this space will be damaged.
On the other side of the levee is the rest of the state park — most of it, in fact. There, you can find a hawk tower, an inviting structure that takes visitors up above the treetops to get a bird’s-eye view of the park — where, it is to be hoped, they catch a glimpse of a hawk soaring across the sky. This structure, along with the trails and other attractions, will be behind the border wall but possibly still accessible via a gate. But the wall flies in the face of the architectural design of the visitor’s center, and not everyone will feel comfortable visiting the public park. All of this for a wall that won’t stop any of the things its proponents say it will.
The National Butterfly Center (NBC) is a nonprofit organization on 100 acres located one mile east of Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. The same levee that runs through the Bentsen-Rio Grande and beside La Lomita runs through the NBC, dividing the land into approximately 30 acres to the north and 70 acres to the south. On the northern 30 acres sits a simple but striking building designed by Cooper Joseph Studio (now Studio Joseph), one that gives visitors a sense of the beauty and importance of the NBC and its mission. The landscape architecture by Thomas Balsley Associates and Studio Outside provides a delightful and engaging transition from the parking lot to the building and butterfly gardens beyond. This will be interrupted by the border wall when it’s built on the levee. The wall may not have as strong a visual impact on NBC as on Bentsen-Rio Grande or La Lomita; the real impact will be on the expansion the NBC is currently building.
The 70 acres between the levee (and future wall) and the Rio Grande is being planted, and a constructed wetland is being built. This piece of land bumps right up against the Rio Grande. The educational and ecotourism potential of these 70 acres is incredible. This habitat is no place for a border wall.
What is particularly infuriating about this new round of border wall is that we are not learning from our past. The first real border wall was built in 1994 in California, approved by President Clinton. Since then, more walls have been built, more people are crossing, and more drugs are crossing. The real impact of the border walls is that they make border crossing deadlier. Smugglers have told refugees and migrants it is easier to cross at the more desolate parts of the border, rather than navigating through the more populated areas where the border walls are. While some migrants do climb over the walls, many use the smugglers and choose the desolate areas. This has led to at least 7,000 border crossing deaths since the 1990s when the first border wall was built. 7,000 is an underestimate.
International politics are complicated, and simple proposals too often get the most attention. People understand boots on the ground, drones in the sky, and big construction projects. People don’t as readily understand comprehensive border policy. Because of this, in an oversimplified world, a border wall is a solution to stop people, drugs, and other things from crossing the border. We don’t live in an oversimplified world.
Every day, thousands of people cross the US-Mexico border to go to work or school on the other side. Every day, thousands of people visit their family members on the other side. Twice a year, millions of birds and insects cross the border during their migrations. Crossing the border is a necessary activity. This everyday need to cross the border is becoming more and more difficult with increased militarization of the border.
Each part of the border is unique in its culture, climate, tradition, history, and future. The idea of a single, unvarying wall along the entire border goes against all of these realities. A single border wall sets out to accomplish the impossible: stopping people and things from crossing the border. Undocumented crossings of people and things is fluid and cannot be addressed by an immovable wall. Refugees will always find a way to get to a safer place. Drug-runners will always find a way to get their products to the people who want to buy them. Controlling these things will not be a consequence of border walls. Policy is the effective tool.
A consequence of the border wall that I find particularly troubling is that there are future public spaces and architecture projects that will never come to be because of this wall. Walling ourselves off from the Rio Grande is extraordinarily short-sighted. In the U.S., we are only recently rediscovering how valuable our rivers are — the ways in which they are great hosts for incredible public spaces and architecture. Imprudently, we are going to spend more than a billion dollars to prevent future development of our southernmost river.
To make the point one more time: The border wall does not prevent crossings of people or things. So why are our elected leaders pushing this? Why are some of us architects in favor of this idea? There are many other big-mistake infrastructure lessons we have learned from. Why are we not learning from the already failing existing border walls? Why do public spaces, property values, great architecture, and basic human decency need to be diminished? As architects, we should be adamantly opposed to ideas like the border wall, not only because they diminish public spaces and interfere with significant architecture, but because they create a future that is worse than the present.
Jesse Miller, AIA, is an architect with Megamorphosis in Harlingen.