All shook up

All shook up

With more than 19 million residents, Mexico City is the largest metropolis in the western hemisphere and the second largest in the world. And as Fiona Ng discovers, it’s in a constant state of flux.
Jun 08, 2008

All cities are works of constant reinvention. Mexico City’s relentless change is unquestionably tainted by violence, caused by man and nature. Consider the fate of the capital’s first incarnation; Tenochtitlan, the metropolis built by the Aztecs, was levelled by an army of Spaniards two centuries after its founding.

The conquistadors proceeded to build their own city over the ruins, erecting Roman Catholic cathedrals atop Aztec temples.

Today, partially excavated sites accent the sprawling city, as if history has been resurrected to confront modernity. The one fully restored site comes in the form of Templo Mayor, the double pyramid located in the city’s Historic District and a World Heritage site.

Five minutes walk will take you to another landmark. The Metropolitan Cathedral is an opulent, architectural wonder. But like many buildings across the capital, the enormous cathedral is slowly sinking into the earth.

Mexico City, after all, is built on an immense dry lake bed – architecturally and literally shaky ground. A Mexican-American friend said that during the quake, buildings didn’t so much shake as roll, as though on waves.

It should be noted that when the locals talk about “the earthquake”, they are talking about the quake of September 1985. At 8.1 on the Richter scale, it devastated Mexico City, killing thousands despite the epicentre being about 350km away. One of the worst hit areas was Condesa, a 20-minute taxi ride from the city centre. Residents speak about the suburb in terms of pre- and post-earthquake. After the disaster, many residents left the district for other less-damaged areas.

Many of Condesa’s art deco buildings – its architectural signature – quickly fell into disrepair. During its first heyday, between the 1920s and 40s, Condesa not only served as a backdrop to many Mexican movies, it was also home to many stars. It was perhaps this ready charm, in addition to the reasonable rent, that fuelled its rehabilitation in the late 90s.

Artists, writers and others members of the creative set began moving in. By the dawn of the new millennium, Condesa had effectively reinstated itself as the trendiest part of Mexico City, a place where local designers’ boutiques line the streets alongside cafes and fashionable restaurants. Above all, Condesa is the place to go to for art in the capital, housing a plethora of small galleries.

Culture is not the only thing on offer. Take a walk along the tree-lined, picturesque Avenue Amsterdam, a major thoroughfare that circles the neighbourhood – once the site of a horse racetrack – and feast your eyes on the art deco structures, all restored to their former glory. You should also stroll through Mexico Park, one of the most famous and beautiful parks in the country. The area has attracted developers and residents from other districts and beyond. Gentrification has long been under way but construction has become so rife, some residents have placed banners on their balconies decrying the cultural destruction of the neighbourhood.

Is history repeating itself? Perhaps in years to come, clothing boutiques and espresso machines will be unearthed, cleaned up and put on display for future generations to marvel at.