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Inside the Border Patrol Academy’s New Mexico facility, where training and real operations can blur
This is the first in a series of reports from El Paso, Texas–based AGENCY, entitled Border Dispatches, an on-the-ground perspective from the United States-Mexico border. Each month, we will explore another “sleeper agent,” a critical site or actor reshaping the diffuse, overlapping binational territory we know as the borderlands.
Over the last decade, our changing national security priorities have contorted federal law-enforcement training sites to respond to new and sometimes contradictory demands. In Artesia, New Mexico, several replicas simulating different areas of the International Border Fence (IBF) are built on the site of the Border Patrol Academy (BPA). The “mock fences” are a minor but instructive example of the material residue created by our nation’s ongoing obsession with the promotion and maintenance of a physical international boundary, a hard line separating the U.S. from Mexico. A close reading of the fences, and the training installation of which they are a part, reveals volumes about the shifting whims of the securocratic territory they both describe and inhabit.
The BPA is on the site of the Artesia Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), one of four national training centers that serve 95 federal partner organizations as well as thousands of other local and international security forces. The site has specialized in providing unique training environments not available elsewhere, including drug and fingerprint labs, and all-terrain vehicle courses. After the 9/11 terror attacks, the site began hoarding grounded jetliners to train air marshals in counterterrorism operations. The site was a good fit for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), capable of supporting both its “priority mission” (counterterrorism) and “primary mission” (preventing illegal entry to the U.S.). The real physical environment of Artesia, and the otherwise-remote site’s particular coincidence with the logistical networks of the CBP, was recast as an invaluable training asset.
In 2004, The FLETC Artesia site was selected as the location for a newly reconsolidated BPA, due to its strategic location near a focus of CBP activity—near hot spots for the eventual assignment of academy graduates—as well as the region’s signature climate and terrain. Artesia lies just four hours from the Southwest border. While seemingly distant from border operations, it is strategically close enough. Many of the geological and ecological features of the site are shared with a large percentage of the territory agents are charged to protect. It is here that the agents rehearse known threats and prepare for new ones, the simulations scripting a generation of borderland encounters to come.
Upon arrival, trainees are issued a fake sidearm, to become accustomed to the relentless presence, bulk, and weight of the weapon. Classes are led by retired USBP agents, and use a technique called scenario-based training (SBT). Training takes place mostly in situ, informed by the simulated physical constructs throughout the site and the desert terrain itself. Simulated checkpoints, barns, and inspection areas for railcars and vehicles are scattered throughout the center to host scripted encounters. In addition to physical training, the center uses Spanish-speaking role players, playing a range of border-crosser types, from harmless asylum-seekers to armed smugglers. Classes are taught in high-risk Spanish terminology.
According to FLETC documents, in 2013 $1.2 million was dedicated to “add realistic fencing and check stations to enhance border patrol training venues” at Artesia. Since 2014, training exercises have included engagements with a “towering, steel” mock IBF that “realistically simulates the field environment.” Six different mock-IBF sites were planned that year, mimicking the various construction materials deployed in the constructed border throughout its length. Each mock fence was to measure 90 feet long, “and will vary in height from 19 feet to 10 feet,” according to the documents. “The materials will mirror what is used on the international border, to include bollard fencing, as well as fencing constructed from landing mat materials.” The staged constructions create backdrops for scenarios culled from the experience of actual agents in the field, including “when assailants are throwing rocks or other projectiles, or subjects are using vehicles as a weapon against the agents near the IBF.” Only four such mock IBFs are advertised as available for training on the FLETC website currently.
In recent years the Artesia FLETC has further blurred the boundary between real and imagined operations when its collection of novice trainees and academic exercises would play host to the endgame of the agency’s ultimate objective—migrant detention. While it appears a simulated detention facility was completed in 2010 for training purposes, a real-world detention center would soon emerge on-site. The training venue proved an expedient solution for federal law enforcement in 2014 when an influx of Central American migrants filled other nearby detention sites. A temporary detention center, holding as many as 672 detainees at one time, was built, conflating the space of border-patrol simulation with the reality of its impact. Ten acres of the site, including existing dorms and classrooms, were converted to serve as medical centers and processing centers, among other uses. Attorneys visiting the site noted the strange proximity of the training simulacra around the detainees’ temporary home. News reports show cribs for child detainees lining the interior hallways of the FLETC trainee barracks.
While residents of Artesia have often shown support for the training operations, and the positive economic impacts trainees bring to town, the reality of detention on-site proved to stress the relationship. Residents, in an echo of the paranoia surrounding the crossing of the IBF, expressed concern about the hastily constructed perimeter security at the facility, noting the ease with which the eight-foot chain-link fence might be crossed by a determined detainee. The temporary facility was closed at the end of 2014. The future of the site, and the blurring of the boundary between real and imagined conflict, remains uncertain. Asked in 2016 by the Roswell Daily News whether the FLETC would ever be used again as a detention site, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) reportedly answered that chances are “slim right now…but you never know.”
The current administration’s charge of building a border wall requires built mock-ups of the proposed designs in Otay Mesa near the Mexican border. In a way, the practice of sampling potential walls resonates with the sampling of border parts at the BPA, reinforcing a kind of thinking about the boundary as merely a collection of obstructive infrastructural parts devoid of the real-life consequences of blockage and armament. As the duties and performance criteria of the IBF expand to deter and collect more bodies, shifting tactics are indexed and foreshadowed in the space of training.
It is better late than never for the South Side of Chicago. The Chicago Transit Authority is extending its Red Line to the city’s far south side, adding four new stops. Currently, the line runs to 95th Street; when completed it will run to 130th.
The extension will be the first addition to the L system since 1993, and is part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “Red Ahead” initiative, aiming to modernize the city’s busiest train line. So far $425 million has been spent on its southern branch, and $280 million on the total reconstruction of the 95th Street terminal. The design architects, Chicago-based Exp., recently released new renderings of the terminal showing a sweeping red station surrounded by improved bus stops. When completed in 2018, the 95th Street terminal will also include two new major public artworks by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates.
The extra 35 blocks of train line will serve a “transit desert” that severely lacks a public transportation connection to downtown and other parts of the city. The new stops will be at 103rd Street, 111th Street, South Michigan Avenue, and 130th Street, running through the neighborhoods of Roseland and West Pullman, ending in Altgeld Gardens. The new stations will also include improved bus stop facilities.
The exact path of the line is still being decided through a series of environmental studies, as well as public forums. Two options are being investigated, both of which will run parallel to an existing active freight line. In either case, the line will be a mix of elevated and at-grade tracks. The 5.3-mile extension will likely involve the city negotiating with approximately 250 property owners to make a wide enough path for the new tracks.
Though the project promises a new level of accessibility for a large swath of the city, it will be some time before it is complete. Construction isn’t expected to begin until 2022, with a completion goal of 2026. New legislation has recently been approved to allow for a transit tax-increment financing district, which could possibly help fund the project. A new amendment has also been proposed to the State of Illinois Constitution ensuring all money made through transportation taxes and fees will be directed to transportation projects and improvements. The estimated cost of the project is $2.3 billion.
The Port Authority declines to celebrate the grand opening of the world’s most expensive train station
I tried from the very beginning to do that whole network of connections extending from the oculus as a single unit. So the character of the structural members you can see with the ribs, and a certain character in the paving, and a certain character in the front of the shops is already delivering a character that a person will see all the way through. So if you are in the oculus or the mezzanine, or in the other corridors to Liberty Street or the other internal streets towards Liberty Plaza, or towards Wall Street or towards Fulton, all these areas are marked with the same character. My goal is to create a space where as soon as I arrive in the transportation hub I know I am in the transportation hub, no matter what corner I enter from. Also, something that the corridor delivers is a sense of quality of spaces. I have built seven of the major transportation hubs in Europe, in Lisbon, in Lyon, in Zurich, in Italy, and so on. Getting out of this experience, it’s very important to create places of quality, because people behave according to that. You see after all the enormous effort to bring all the subways and the trains to this place and see to maintain the service through all the construction—why shouldn’t these places have a certain material and structural quality that you can enjoy in a day-to-day way, not just commuters but visitors who arrive in this place. I think the station will match with the tradition in New York of great infrastructural works, as you see today in Grand Central and in the former Penn Station. If it had not been demolished it would be recognized as one of the greatest stations worldwide. I hope people can see some of these material qualities in the East/West corridor.On the eve of the opening, New York architecture critics are divided on the aesthetic and functional value of the Hub. AN toured the Hub this afternoon, so check back here for our assessment. In the meantime, picture Calatrava riding a Zamboni, polishing the smooth white Italian marble floors world's most expensive train station.
Rick Joy is an architect’s architect. Few American practitioners harmonize form, materials, light, and space with his consistency and clarity. Based in Tucson, he has rightfully earned a reputation as a preeminent desert modernist, transcending the sometimes unfairly pejorative title of a regionalist with starkly timeless buildings, elemental in their form and their connections to their sites. Fellow travellers like Peter Bohlin or Tom Kundig may be better known, but Joy may have the stronger vision. His best houses always bring Luis Barragán to my mind. They mark and heighten the unique qualities of the landscapes in which they are set.
So how surprising and pleasing to find him on the East Coast, in that most straight-laced and elite suburb of Princeton, New Jersey, where he has designed a tiny commuter rail station for a New Jersey Transit train line that serves the college town, known as the “Dinky” in Ivy-speak. It’s an odd but creative pairing. Joy’s work is anti-sentimental. Princeton as a community and a university is immersed in a powerful nostalgia for the past, which it constantly re-inscribes as a part of its identity and perpetuation of privilege. The University’s rolling campus is studded with massive trees and collegiate gothic outcroppings bordered by mansions and Victorian houses. Its atmosphere is powerful and imposing. Joy has internalized that culture to produce a building that is of its place, but is also one of the more conservative works of his career.
Joy’s site is modest and tucked away, as if the train connection were a kind of back-of-house function that the town wanted kept from view. The University is working to change that. A new art museum by Steven Holl is rising immediately across the street, which will give the station an appropriately important and civic neighbor. Still, like most commuter rail stations, it is flanked by parking, a large surface lot and a multi-level garage, which sap it of much of its urbanistic energy.
Joy’s design attempts to overcome the limitations of the site. His station is actually two buildings, a small chapel-like waiting room, and a larger building housing a WaWa convenience store and public bathrooms. A courtyard designed with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and a canopy along the train tracks link the two buildings. With a steeply pitched roof and a somber colonnaded entrance, the tiny waiting room makes a bigger play for attention. Inside, the space is filled with natural light, with a blackened stainless steel ceiling, which follows the pitch of the roof. Wood benches with a natural-edge on the top of the seatback, produced by the Nakashima studio, are inset in the widow bays. The serene space distills the meditative qualities of a space of worship or a library, and its forms evoke the collegiate gothic buildings that define the campus without stooping to mere replication.
The dark-metal clad convenience store is comparatively recessive. There is something satisfying about a great architect taking on the utterly mundane typology of the convenience store. The handsomely detailed exterior relates architecturally to the waiting room building with a peaked corner entrance with a very small and discreet sign. The interior is entirely conventional, but the bathrooms are the nicest I’ve ever seen in a public transportation facility. They, presumably, will be maintained by the store, which will help keep them at such a high level of cleanliness.
As we as a nation begin to reinvest in public transportation, we would be well served to remember that good architecture reinforces how we use infrastructure. By committing to good design, communities and commuters alike would get more from their investments—noble spaces that would make these systems more successful. While few towns or transit systems will be able to match Joy’s luxurious materials and fine detailing, his train station is a reminder as the transit systems of the last century were being developed even small pieces of architectural infrastructure were often endowed with civic importance and a sense of grace. The architectural language may have changed, but Joy shows us that small, everyday buildings can attain a higher public purpose.
An ideal set up could have Metro Transit establish a handful of pilot project sites chosen based on the ability of capacities of local groups that came forward. For each site, Metro Transit would ensure quality control over the process: that riders, businesses and property owners drive the process, that each station meets minimum requirements (shelter, seating, structural integrity, etc.), and that there is an accredited entity with proper insurance and capacity (non-profit, adjacent small business, etc.) that commits to build and maintain the station up to an agreed upon standard.Minneapolis is a good place for public space designers to dream—the city's public review process and collaborative design culture make it especially attuned to public opinion. With the recent extension of the Metro Green Line, the Twin Cities reconnected their separate light rail systems after decades apart. One of the junctions, next to Target Field in downtown Minneapolis, was specifically envisioned as a celebrated public space, as much park and plaza as multimodal transit hub. Over the next two years, Metro Transit said it will deliver $7.36 million in upgrades, including 22 new bus shelters. At $1.7 billion, however, the Green Line extension was not without its local critics—fairness and fiscal efficiency were at the heart of many complaints about the project. And in the sprawling midwest, many in the Twin Cities still depend on their cars. Much of the $6 billion Governor Mark Dayton is requesting to improve the state’s transportation system over the next 10 years will go to repair roads and highways.