An open letter to Mexico City

Dear Ciudad de Mexico:

Don't get me wrong. I think you're wonderful. A bewildering, bewitching, gargantuan kaleidoscope, almost incomprehensibly huge and diverse.

Click! Cathedrals, plazas, and cobblestoned streets worthy of a European capital. Click! Grimy and teeming seas of concrete buildings from which bundles of rebar sprout waiting for new storeys that will never be built, full of hard-eyed men and women hustling beneath incredible spaghetti tangles of improvised electrical wiring. Click! A magnificent boulevard lined with statues, luxury shops, and gleaming skyscrapers is blocked by hundreds of indigenous protestors, some stark naked, most wearing placards adorned with the face of their oppressor as loincloths. Click! A 7-11 cheek by jowl with a pre-Aztec ruin. Click! A warehouse-sized building full of dozens of food stalls surrounding crowded cafeteria-style benches, redolent with meat and spices and chilis and cerveza, resounding with conversation and sizzling food-noises and blaring radio and the mariachis int he corner. Click! Vast concrete-block shantytowns rising for miles into the hills on either side of a twelve-lane highway. Click! Angular minibuses, rusting white-and-green VW Beetle taxis, pickup trucks, and luxury sedans jostle for position on your perpetually clogged and potholed roads. Click! A peaceful, delightful neighbourhood of tree-lined streets, Mediterranean houses built around courtyards, sidewalk cafes and Parisian boutiques, armed security guards, and stone and wrought-iron fences topped by climbing vines that almost hide the barbed wire. Click! Swarming rush-hour throngs storm the metro like army ants. Click! Retina-searing boats glide peacefully along miles of canals.

And you're stuffed full to bursting with hidden and not-so-hidden treasures - murals and Moorish architecture, converted convents and the Palace of Masks, the Blue House and the Trotsky Museum, the jawdropping Art Deco masterwork Palacio de Bellas Artes, 24-hour churro stands, markets that seem to sell everything and go on forever, and a pleasing sufficiency of Starbucks. You're like someone took a major European city, a major American city, and a major Latin American city, kneaded all three of them together, rolled them all out in this plateau surrounded by 5000-metre mountains, and left them to seethe forever. And with perfectly nice $20/night hotels right in the heart of town. Like I said, you're wonderful.

I do have a couple of issues.
I hope that you will take this constructive criticism in the spirit in which it is intended.

  • The crepe place around the corner from my hotel is a little stingy with the Nutella.
  • Mango-flavoured Gatorade is an abomination in the eyes of G-d and must immediately and perpetually be abolished.
  • Those guys who sell CDs in the Metro, wandering ceaselessly with backpack boomboxes blaring five-second snippets of their wares? It's not just that they're annoying, though they are. It's their sheer numbers. You're all but guaranteed to encounter one no matter how short your trip. I once saw a good half-dozen file past me in the space of about five minutes. But I have not yet seen any of them make a sale. Do you really need so many of them?
  • And the organ grinders. For God's sake. One or two I could see as quaintly amusing. But there are hundreds of these guys, all identical, in the same uniform, with "Harmonipan 1937" boxes decorated like musical instruments and propped up on wooden poles, turning the crank and so introducing a ghastly atonal wheezing-whining into the world, while their assistant tries to collect money in a hat. Again, Mexico City, don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of yours, I really am. But these organ grinders? Something must be done.
  • More a request than a complaint: please don't ever, ever, ever make me have to drive in this town.
  • It would be nice if you could do something about the smog.
  • And the violence. Um, not that I've seen any. But everyone agrees that crime is rampant, and underreported because the police are terrible (and many moonlight as criminals.) "55 muggings a day!" warns my guidebook, though when you consider the population of 24 million, that suddenly doesn't seem so much.
  • A bookstore that accepted used English-language books as trade-ins would be a real plus.
  • Your metro. Um. This is kind of awkward. But, well, I don't know if you realize this, but it makes other cities feel inadequate. It's not just that it's orderly and efficient. It's that a ride anywhere in its enormous sprawling network costs all of two pesos. That's fifteen US cents. I mean, it's nice that you let your millions of very poor travel cheap across town, but could you maybe just double that to four pesos? I bet London and New York and Tokyo would feel much better about themselves if you did.
  • Finally, and really I feel more passionate about this than any of the above, even the smog: your parks? WTF? I mean, they're perfectly nice once you get into them. But they're practically freaking inaccessible! I understand that crime being what it is, you want to surround your parks (and your main, colossal, 300,000-student university) with high fences. But most cities, you know, when they build a park, and then a metro station immediately next to the park, they put an entrance there. Twice today I have had to walk for a good ten minutes along a park fence, casting longing glances at the park within, from metro station to access gate. I understand that your parks stay nicer longer when they're not infested with vermin like pedestrians, but really, let's try to remember why you built them in the first place, shall we? And even once you finally access your largest park, the interior is segregated by yet more fences rarely interrupted by gates. I think a Remedial Parks 101 course is called for. No offense. But really. Like I said. WTF?

But don't get me wrong, Mexico City. These are minor gripes. And I don't really care if you don't change at all (except the parks bit.) You're one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world already, just the way you are.


Done Badly said…
Jon, I love this post. Let's be friends and go to Mexico City together one day. It is also one of my favorite places in the world. You do it justice.
Love this post — so glad to read some candid thoughts about Mexico City. We are in MC right now (our second round in the city in the last month, last two days), and could echo a lot of what you said. Can't believe the cheapness of the metro, but also can't believe the passive-aggressive attitude we seem to get just below the surface. A culture shock to be sure. We landed here, left for the peninsula, and now we're back. Seeing it through completely different goggles each time.

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