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Editor’s Note: Adrian Florido and Sam Hodgson are getting to know a different San Diego neighborhood each day. They spent Monday in and around Nestor and are in Rolando on Tuesday.
Twenty years ago, when Cristina Carreon first started working at the Star Motel just off Interstate 5 in Palm City, north of San Ysidro, a vacant room was hard to come by.
Tourists from San Diego, Los Angeles and Las Vegas used to stream into and out of Tijuana every night. If they were taking a weekend trip down the Baja California coast but got in too late, they stopped at the Star Motel so they could get an early start the next day. If they had a too-raucous night on Tijuana’s bar-lined downtown strip, they stopped at the Star Motel to sober up.
But on Monday, only a few rooms were occupied, including one by an 83-year-old woman who’s been living off her pension for the last six years, Carreon said. And the tourists who used to fill the motels lining Interstate 5 as it runs through the San Diego neighborhoods of Nestor and Palm City?
“They don’t come anymore,” she said.
Nestor, Palm City, and the surrounding neighborhoods in San Diego’s southernmost stretch are not tourism draws by any means, so the sight of so many motels can seem curious until you realize the intimate economic relationship that the neighborhoods have long had with Tijuana.
Tijuana, one of the region’s largest tourist draws, has been starved for tourists for several years. Americans have stayed away because of the fear of violence and the security crackdown that extended the border crossing wait after the 9/11 attacks.
Businesses in San Diego have suffered too, and the hotels in Nestor and Palm City are chief among them.
Most of the Star Motel’s clients are now long-term tenants who rent by the week or month, Carreon said. The motel filled its swimming pool with concrete rather than continue paying for maintenance and insurance, which got to be too expensive. The motel next door did the same.
And Carreon’s days are mostly quiet now. She used to be a maid at the motel, scurrying from room to room to get them all cleaned.
But now she spends most of her days doing what she was doing Monday afternoon, sitting in the motel office behind a thick Plexiglas window, waiting for customers who mostly don’t come.
I reported from Nestor and surrounding South Bay neighborhoods Monday while I explore a different San Diego neighborhood each day this week. I’m in Rolando Tuesday. Have a story idea for me? Email me at email@example.com or call me at 619.325.0528 and follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.