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An urbanist's guide to Mexico City: ‘Transport is an adventure and often a nightmare’

An urbanist's guide to Mexico City: ‘Transport is an adventure and often a nightmare’

Posted by Shanelle Weir on December 10, 2014

My name is David Lida. Born and raised in New York, I have lived in Mexico City off and on – mostly on – since 1990. I am the author of several books, including First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capital of the 21st Century, the short-story collection Travel Advisory, and the upcoming novel One Life. When I am not writing, I am what is called a mitigation specialist. I do investigations for lawyers in the US who defend Mexicans who are incarcerated there, facing charges of capital murder and hence eligible for the death penalty. We try to negotiate something better for them. I also write a blog about Mexico City, which can be found at www.davidlida.com.

The greater metropolitan area of Mexico City is home to about 22 million people (known as chilangos) and is laid out over about 600 square miles. So for many Mexico City residents – principally the poor but also some of the well-to-do – getting from one place to another, especially from home to work and back again, is always an adventure and often a nightmare. The most recent study, from 2007, says that it takes chilangos an average of an hour and 17 minutes to get from one place to another.

The city government makes much of Mexico City being the eighth largest urban economy in the world. But shame rather than pride would be the correct response for how the wealth is distributed. About half the population lives at, around or below the poverty level. Half of the working population toils in the informal economy – parking cars, cleaning houses, packing groceries, selling things on the street. The middle class is squeezed month by month rather than daily, while perhaps 10% has a jolly time with plenty of discretionary income. According to Forbes, Mexico’s elite upper class is made up of 1.7% of the population.

Mexico City is plagued with problems of water distribution – in some of the city’s poorest districts, citizens are without running water for much of the year, and need to have it trucked in – and electricity. Public schools are a mess, and crime, drugs and violence are rampant, particularly in the municipalities of Mexico State that are part of the greater Mexico City sprawl.

Yet there are many tree-lined neighbourhoods with the quiet sociability of small towns, and others with the generic international hip vibe one finds around the Canal Saint-Martin, Williamsburg, or Kreuzberg. On the street there is a level of courtesy found in few cities in prosperous countries today. People hold doors open for each other, say “good morning” when they get into an elevator, and kiss each other’s cheeks when they are introduced.

What is the best building?

Mexico Post Office

The Correo Mayor is the old central post office. This and all following photographs: Davd Lida

My favourite building is the Correo Mayor, the old central post office, located downtown across from the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Alameda Park. Opened in 1907, it is a mish-mash of architectural styles, having been described as, among other things, Spanish Renaissance Revival, Elizabethan Gothic, Moorish, Neoclassical, Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Baroque. The facade is made of cream-coloured sandstone, while inside there are marble floors, an ornate golden central staircase, and Italian brass around the service windows.

However, since hardly anyone mails letters any longer, like many post offices around the world, the place is nearly always empty. I wonder how long it can survive as a place for letters and packages.

And the worst?

Mexico City is full of buildings that are crumbling, covered in graffiti, and appear to have never had their facades cleaned since they were built. In the impoverished outskirts, housing is made of unpainted cinder block with rebar popping out of the roofs, a signal that owners are hoping to one day find the money to build a second storey (which seldom actually happens). So there might be a fierce competition for the worst building in the city.

US Embassy
The US embassy building - one of the largest embassies in the world

My least favourite building is the US Embassy, a conspicuously ugly fortress on the corner of Paseo de la Reforma and Rio Danubio, in a very well travelled area of the city. It is one of the largest embassies in the world, with over 2,000 employees, always guarded by armed policemen. In the morning platoons of tense Mexican hopefuls line up outside, hoping they will be granted visas from stern-faced and capricious entry-level diplomats. (They have to pay for the privilege whether or not they ultimately get the visa.) I go there every 10 years to renew my passport, which is enough for me.

How clean is the city?

One of the first things a foreigner notices in Mexico City is how scarce garbage cans are on the streets. As such, sometimes huge amounts of trash gets piled up in the area that surrounds the can. A lot of food and drink are sold on the sidewalks, so if you buy a freshl -squeezed orange juice from a street stall and then go walking with it, you may have to carry around the empty plastic cup for miles before you find somewhere to deposit it. (A tip: All the convenience stores, such as Oxxo, Extra and Seven Eleven, have garbage cans, usually just inside their doors.)

From a residential point of view, garbage is picked up daily in most neighbourhoods, and although chilangos aren’t very good at sorting, the garbage men do it themselves, hoping to scavenge things they can sell later on.

In the mornings many people clean the sidewalks in front of businesses and residences with soapy water and hard brooms. I have seen this nowhere else in the world.

What is the best way to get around?

MetroThe metro is fast and cheap but not comprehensive

I’m a subway guy, unsurprising given my New York roots. Although it is not comprehensive, and the stations are spaced further apart than they are in some other places, if your destination is on the route the metro is the fastest, cheapest and best way to get around Mexico City. Surface public transportation is more complicated, crowded and uncomfortable – and if you’re stuck in a traffic jam it is a nightmare. Taxis are abundant and cheap, and depending on your route, can also be quick. As in any big city, you want to avoid getting stuck in rush-hour traffic whenever possible.

I would never have a car in Mexico City, although most people here who can afford one buy one. Cars are an important status symbol that separates their owners from the “rabble” that ride public transport. Yet cars are an expensive headache, and a way to systematically get stuck in terrible traffic jams. Further,chilangos are terrors at the wheels of their cars, ignoring red lights and stop signs, making illegal turns, and driving in reverse for three or four blocks at a time. When stopped at red lights, they have an annoying habit of moving ahead by inches, intimidating pedestrians.

EcoBiciEcoBici opened in 2010 with bike lanes to follow

In 2010, a shared-bicycle program called Ecobici was begun in the city, and has been expanded by the current administration. So have bike lanes. Bicycling has definitely become more popular in the city, but because of the way people drive cars, I think it is a terrifying prospect.

What does your city sound like?

ConstructionThe sound of construction fills Mexico City as high-rises are built

These days it sounds like construction. All over the central part of the city high-rises are being built and smaller buildings from three to six storeys are being remodelled or constructed. They say that there is a lot of money laundering from the drug trade in the real-estate industry. What I believe we are seeing here is a worldwide phenomenon in which the well-to-do are getting sick and tired of long commutes from gated communities on the outskirts and want to move closer to the centre. Many of the poor will probably end up being shunted further and further away from where they have to work.

That said, in the early evening you can also hear a steam whistle that announces the arrival of a man who sells candied sweet potatoes from a cart, and a shriller whistle lets you know that the knife sharpener has arrived. A recorded voice, passing by in another cart, heralds the sale of Oaxacan tamales, while another lets you know they will buy your used mattress or broken refrigerator.

Where is the best place for a conversation?

The city is noisy and hectic but cafes such as Cafe Rio provide sanctuary

The city is noisy and hectic but cafes such as Cafe Río provide sanctuary

Like all Latin American capitals I have visited, Mexico City is a extremely noisy place. There are a couple of cafes in the old historic centre, such as Cafe Río, which are nice to places to meet friends. But you will find yourself having to shout to be heard in many bars and restaurants, either because of the crowds or the volume at which music is played.

If you have an entire morning or afternoon, a good place for a tete-a-tete is in a network of over 100 miles of canals in what are known as The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco. You get in a trajinera – a Mexican gondola, steered by a boatman who plunges a wooden pole into the shallow water, pushing off against the muddy bottom. If you ask him to take you along the equivalent of the “back roads,” where few others venture, you will get to know your companion quite well.

What one thing is indispensable for life in your city

In greater Mexico City there are about 85,000 streets and 5,000 neighbourhoods. Of those streets, about 850 are called Juárez, 750 are named Hidalgo, and 700 are known as Morelos. Two hundred are called 16 de Septiembre, while 100 more are called 16 de Septiembre Avenue, Alley, Mews or Extension. Nine separate neighbourhoods are called La Palma, four are called Las Palmas, and there are numerous mutations: La Palmita, Las Palmitas, Palmas Inn, La Palma Condominio, Palmas Axotitla, La Palma 1 and Palma I-II Unidad Habitacional.

Like London’s A to Z or Michelin’s Paris Plan, there is a street map in book form here called the Guía Roji, which weighs in at over 150 two-sided pages of maps. If you only own one book while you live here, better make it the Guía Roji.

Are you optimistic about your city’s future

These days it is a challenge to be optimistic in Mexico City. Citizens are taking to the streets almost every day, protesting over the pitifully inadequate government response to the kidnapping, and probable torture and murder, of 43 students in another part of the country. While this is sadly par for the course – about 100,000 people have been murdered or disappeared in Mexico in the past decade – Mexico City is a vividly dynamic place. There is a sense on the streets, in the schools and the offices and the cantinas and the cafes, that people are fed up. Perhaps this will be the place where things begin to change.

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