It began as an art project that tested the identities of people, the boundaries that divide them and the means to bring them together.
But Peter Svarzbein ’02 has taken the concept of resurrecting a long-defunct trolley line bridging El Paso, in western Texas, with Juarez, in Chihuahua, Mexico, from the literal drawing board to the hallowed halls of government.
“The trolley is the exact opposite of a wall,” says Svarzbein. “It is a metaphor and a symbol.”
It is also highly practical. When completed, the trolley will be one leg of a proposed public transportation system ferrying riders between El Paso and Juarez—a binational region with a combined population of more than 2.5 million people and a vibrant, well-established cross-border trade. In 2016, El Paso became the United States’ 11th-largest exporter, sending abroad goods valued at $24.6 billion. The region, often hyphenated to El Paso-Jaurez (or simply called the “Borderplex”) is the largest metropolitan area on the U.S.-Mexico border. It also includes the largest bilingual population in the world.
What started as a postgraduate art concept—initially featuring black-and-white posters of a smiling trolley conductor enticing residents to take a ride, with the slogan “Sube al futuro: Go to the future”—led to a $97 million state grant, the revitalization of decades-old streetcars that were rusting in the Texas desert and, for Svarzbein, a new mission in politics.
Border security is tied to the economic security of both the United States and Mexico, Svarzbein says. He believes the best thing for both countries is not a wall. “There’s already plenty of miles of fencing. Improvements to the infrastructure will allow safe and efficient crossing of people and goods for a 21st-century economy. ... You can’t just do ‘security’ without infrastructure development.”
And, as the city representative for District 1 in El Paso, he’s making his dream a reality.
“The trolley brings people together,” Svarzbein says. “It’s a vehicle for collaboration and communication, for dialogue and understanding. In an increasingly globalized world, one in which people are coming into contact more and more, we have an opportunity for a more harmonious border. We can show the border as an opportunity and not a threat. That is a lesson we can show the world.”
Construction on the trolley line is underway, funded by the Texas Department of Transportation. The first 4.8-mile segment is scheduled to be in use by 2018, with 27 stops from downtown El Paso to the El Paso campus of the University of Texas.
Svarzbein expects 1,480 daily riders, collectively making more than 540,000 trips each year.
Six vintage Presidents’ Conference Committee cars, first built in the 1930s and recently saved by Svarzbein’s campaign from being sold to San Francisco, are being restored —now with wi-fi and air conditioning—by Brookville Equipment Corp. in western Pennsylvania.
And Svarzbein is actively working toward extending the line back to Juarez. The nine-member city council has discussed a study to determine feasibility to calculate the cost and find sources of funding, and the mayor of El Paso has agreed to reach out to his counterpart in Ciudad Juarez to gauge interest in a Transnational Multimodal Pedestrian transportation project. It looked good as an art project, Svarzbein says, “but if we’re really going to do a project like that, we need to look at what makes the most sense.”
Ultimately, the route to Mexico could employ a monorail, light rail or shuttle—the method of travel isn’t as important as accessibility. “The project is evolving,” he says.
After all, there are students who live in Juarez who are taking classes in El Paso. There are business leaders who cross the border as a matter of course in the interests of commerce. And that’s the way it should be, he insists.
“You can have lunch in El Paso, attend a product demonstration in Juarez that afternoon, and be back in El Paso for dinner,” he says. “You have a border here that people want to cross. It’s a border that defines us.”
James H. Tolbert, Svarzbein’s District 2 counterpart on City Council, is excited about Svarzbein’s initiative.
“Peter is the visionary for our City Council,” Tolbert says. “He represents a younger and very creative generation that will make El Paso a more vibrant place to live, work and play.”
As for the trolley system, Tolbert says Svarzbein “was instrumental in bringing to fruition our new trolley system and has been a strong advocate of extending it to Juarez. Simply put, Peter’s vision is bringing downtowns, communities and nations together at a time when the emphasis seems to be on walls and divisions.”
These days, Svarzbein lives in Kern Place, one of El Paso’s oldest neighborhoods, on the same side of town where he was born in 1980. His immigrant parents, both medical professionals, had settled there two years prior; his father, Leonardo, came from Argentina to study medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, while his mother, Sylvia, is the French-born daughter of a Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor and a Roman Catholic Spaniard who joined the French Resistance against Nazi occupation.
At F&M, Svarzbein says he had high hopes for a career path that would put his English degree to good use. “I guess I’m a bit of a failed poet,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I was really into creative writing when I was at F&M. I wanted to write, maybe teach.
“In retrospect, having the foundation of a liberal arts education and an English degree probably prepared me more for what I’ve done since then than anything else I could have done in college. It teaches you how to think critically ... and how to express yourself.”
But a light bulb went off during his senior year, while helping his friend, Randy Wilkins ’01, with a film project. “I found myself more engaged working in the darkroom,” he explains. “That was a sign. There was something there, and I had to go for it.”
He returned to F&M a year after commencement for post-baccalaureate work, completing a minor course of study in studio art, and then traveled to New York City to work as a freelance photographer, photo editor and film archivist, eventually being represented by the photo agency World Picture Network. As the recession hit, Svarzbein went back to school, earning a master of fine arts degree in photography, video and related media at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Even then, he says, he was able to apply his English degree to analysis of visual imagery using “the language of looking at something with a critical eye.”
Besides, he notes, in politics the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively is even more vital.
In 2010, while working on his master’s thesis in New York, Svarzbein launched the conceptual art project—basically, he says, a fictional ad campaign—to bring El Paso’s long-dead streetcar link to Juarez, which stopped running in 1974, back to life.
Initially, it involved posters. Later, Svarzbein created a large mosaic on the brick wall of an abandoned building in the city; composed of hundreds of faces of the local citizenry, it formed the image of a city trolley in its prime. He used a man dressed as a trolley conductor on his posters to gather signatures on his petition.
And the El Paso Transnational Trolley Project, as it was known, gained traction. Svarzbein returned to El Paso in 2011. He expected to stay about a year, he says, then return to New York and continue working as an artist and photographer. But the city—and his passion for the project, as well as his newfound political aspirations—convinced him to stay.
Back in his hometown, Svarzbein reconnected with friends and family. He met local historians, artists and activists, and he got to know what people cared about in the city.
“It was an evolution from an artist to an advocate,” he says. “A lot of my work, my photography, has always dealt with what it’s like to be from the border. Now I want to show that the El Paso/Juarez border can be about more than drug-running, violence and illegal immigration. Coming back to El Paso and being able to engage with people really gave me hope. I am a liaison and a conduit, facilitating other people’s involvement with government. That’s a super-important part of the job.
“As an artist, your voice only travels so far. You ask yourself, ‘How do you tell our city’s story? How do you tell our region’s story?’ Now, my voice travels farther.”
It’s a cliché, Svarzbein says, “but I think it’s really important to be the change you want to see in the world. Be involved—and advocate. With the streetcar project happening, I want to be in a position to see that project through and make it as much of a success as I can.”
Svarzbein still considers himself a “disruptive media specialist,” a term that crosses boundaries between artistic vision and business acumen by acting to redirect public opinion and create new markets.
“Maybe all art in a way should be able to disrupt and get people thinking,” he says. “But the project really started a lot of conversations.” In part, he says, he wanted to see how an idea could affect or alter reality. The initial goal of his project was simple, he says: Imagine a better future.
He also wanted to challenge the classic perception of the border between the cities. Although border security was tightened during the Prohibition and World War II eras, the ties between the cities remain tight, Svarzbein says. And, despite an increase in violent crime in Juarez since the 1990s—and a major assault on Mexican drug cartels led by Mexican president Felipe Calderon, starting in 2008, that caused turf wars in Juarez and created chaos south of the border—El Paso consistently ranks among the safest cities in the U.S., according to FBI crime data.
Svarzbein says he wanted to remind residents of both cities of the rich history and culture they share. And an artist’s job, he says, is to help people to look at things from another perspective.
That’s why Svarzbein doesn’t see much sense in the idea of a massive wall between nations; U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to build such a wall isn’t winning him a lot of friends in El Paso, he says.
“His actions and his rhetoric are very alarming for a lot of people here,” he says. “It’s too early to tell, but you hope with a new administration there will be opportunities to communicate a different perspective, a different point of view about the border.”
One in every four jobs in El Paso is tied to trade with Mexico, he explains. And a wall that will disrupt the flow of traffic between nations has sparked “fears of citywide recession.”
“This is a port city,” Svarzbein says, “and it always has been.”
Besides his work in city politics, Svarzbein has served on the faculty at Texas Tech College of Architecture in downtown El Paso. He previously taught at New Mexico State University. He also serves on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater El Paso and the El Paso Artist Guild, and he’s co-creator and curator of the Purple Pop-Up Gallery, a rotating showcase of artists from the El Paso/Juarez region.
Svarzbein is also interested in the story of his college town, Lancaster, which has changed much in the 15 years since he graduated. During a cross-country drive in 2014, he stopped in the city and reconnected with a former art professor, Bill Hutson, and local filmmaker Mary Haverstick ’82. He was pleasantly surprised to find that Lancaster had stepped up its game. “There are artisanal olive shops, artisanal bakeries. There’s been a lot of in-fill,” he says.
He sees a town evolving, offering new things—moving toward the future. In some ways, it echoes the theme that drives his work in El Paso. Work, he insists, that’s a matter of civic pride.
“Because if you can’t imagine a better future, you can’t have one.”
"You have a border here that people want to cross. It's a border that defines us."