Artist’s Fake Ads Save Historic Streetcars in Border City


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The streetcar is back along the Texas-Mexico border, thanks to a Latino man’s brilliant “fake” ad campaign.

Peter Svarzbein

Peter Svarzbein, an El Paso native, loved how a historic international streetcar system used to connect downtown El Paso, Texas (82.2% Latino) to downtown Cuidad Juárez, Mexico.

But it closed in 1974.

Today many in El Paso lack public transportation to reach places they need to go, which harms their health, educational, and employment opportunities, and the economy.

So Svarzbein created a fictional, yet powerful ad campaign to simulate the return of El Paso’s border-crossing streetcar for his graduate thesis project at New York’s School for Visual Arts.

Svarzbein’s El Paso Transnational Trolley Project sparked enough curiosity and enthusiasm to create a real streetcar infrastructure project.

Fictional Ad Campaign for Streetcar

Svarzbein was inspired by the iconic streetcars and stories of their transnational past.

Posters on side of building promoting fictional ad campaign for the return of the trolley.
Source: El Paso Transnational Trolley Project

In 2010, he wanted to use arts and culture to show what it means to live near the border, with messages of hope and unity to overcome negative images of violence and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as to address transportation needs.

Currently, it takes 2-3 hours for a car to get across the border.

His fictional ad campaign, included visual art installations, performance art and multimedia, such as:.

  • Posters on buildings
  • Photomosaic of a streetcar using 2,000 portraits he took on both sides of the border.
  • A fictional mascot, “The Conductor”
  • Meet-and-greet events with the mascot, such as at Comic Cons, public parks and conferences
  • Promotional videos
  • Kickstarter campaign to continue his fictional ad campaign

“My use of fictional constructions is the belief that more traditional projects exploring the border have become cliché and easy to dismiss,” Svarzbein said, according to the lisadshow website.

Bringing Streetcars Back

While working on his project, he learned that the City of El Paso planned to sell the historic streetcars.

Photomosaic of a streetcar using 2,000 portraits Svarzbein took on both sides of the border.
Source: El Paso Transnational Trolley Project

He created a sign-up campaign—gathering thousands of signatures—and lobbied the city to cancel the sale and consider a real trolley project.

In 2014, with a $97 million grant from the Texas Department of Transportation, City Council approved the project to build a five-mile streetcar line.

It would run from the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in downtown through the historic, arts, entertainment and shopping districts to the West El Paso neighborhood home to El Paso Community College’s Rio Grande Campus, the University of Texas at El Paso, and several hospitals.

The state funding would also restore six of the iconic streetcars, which had been abandoned for 40 years in the desert near the El Paso International Airport.

The trolley should begin service in El Paso in 2018.

The second phase of the project will include the transnational connection to Juárez.

The third phase of the project will include a connection to the Medical Center of the Americas.

“The project will not only physically connect our downtown with the university area, but it will also reconnect our past to our future emotionally, encouraging civic pride and greater civic engagement,” Svarzbein said.

Artist Elected to City Council

Advocating for the trolley project connected Svarbein to the city’s civic process and responsibilities that come with holding office.

“My project is not about the realism of actually building a trolley right now between two cities,” Svarzbein said. “My project is about the realism and importance in imagining, where real power comes from perceived power. The El Paso Transnational Trolley is a metaphor for a positive and hopeful future between the two cities, united.”

In December 2014, he ran for city council.

His campaign promises included developing parks and protecting open spaces, which are critical for Latino health-physical and mental. As an artist, he can get people to imagine things in a different way, a better way.

“The act of imagining of envisioning something better for the border is a first step toward reaching that goal,” Svarzbein said.

In June 2015, Peter Svarzbein was elected to represent District 1 in the City of El Paso.

What can you imagine for your community? Tell us your big idea and we can help!

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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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