Editors' Choice

Unbalanced in the Sinking City

by Tim Leffel

Below the tilting surface of Mexico City.

Am I really that bad of a photographer? Every shot of a building looks crooked. It’s like I got drunk in a cantina and then went on a photography spree around Mexico City, unable to keep the viewfinder straight as I clicked off shots of the sites. A slanted church, a leaning office building, a Basilica de Guadalupe that looks like it’s about to fall on the bystanders.

But it’s not the camera. Or me. In the sinking city, everything is a little off–kilter.

Mexico City shouldn’t even be here. It should really be some pretty little island town surrounded by water, connected to the rest of Mexico by bridges, with volcanic mountains gleaming through the clear air in the distance. In the Museum of Anthropology there’s a giant mural depicting what life was like when the Aztecs ruled in the early 1500s, with water covering most of the area where buildings and streets now sit.

Who is crazy enough to build a colonial capital city on muddy marshlands, on unstable ground surrounded by volcanoes, sitting on an earthquake fault line? The brash Spanish rulers dismissed the topography, confident in their belief that even 16th–century man could conquer nature with ease. Their grand cathedral starting sinking as soon as the roof went on, but they were too busy subjugating more kingdoms to worry about that.

Now the problem is getting worse. As the bulging population depletes the underground aquifers, parts of the city are sinking even faster, damaging drainage systems and weakening building foundations. Strolling around the historic center of the city can feel like a funhouse adventure, with leaning buildings next to unearthed Aztec ruins that now look like a child’s clumsy drawing of a pyramid. Many of the historic restorations retain only the facade: the rest is too broken and bent to save.

Mexico’s capital is now probably the second–largest city in the world, vying with Tokyo in terms of both population and sprawl. Nobody really knows how many people live here. There were an estimated 2.9 million residents in 1950, then 11.8 million just 20 years later. Now? It has at least doubled again, but maybe tripled. How do you count a city population that likely outnumbers the whole country of Australia?

Mexican locals talk about their city with what could be called a verbal shrug of the shoulders. There are fundamental problems that will never be fixed, but that doesn’t mean the residents are not still in love and proud. The city’s citizens complain about the pollution, the traffic, and the inability of government officials to fix the simplest problems. Then they talk about the great food, the cultural attractions, and the energy in the air. It’s a trade–off they ponder every day but continue to accept.

Mexican writer Juan Villoro once said, “There’s a sense of deferred tragedy, our preferred strategy for coping with chaos. It is not ignorance that keeps us on this carousel of rats and stray dogs. To be honest, we like Mexico City. Like Don Juan in Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress, we have fallen in love with the bearded lady.”

That was written two decades ago though and since then the lady’s beard has benefited from a little electrolysis. In the most polluted days of Mexico City’s past, children would supposedly color the sky brown when drawing their street scenes. Unless they had left the city or watched TV, they didn’t know the sky was supposed to be blue.

“The air has gone from deadly to just unhealthy,” says an associate I meet over coffee. “We no longer have birds dropping dead from the sky, so the government seems to have said, ‘good enough for now.’”

The usual Mexican fatalism is not really fair in this case though. Mayor Marcelo Ebrard—who lives next to a leafy park in Condesa––has become an ecological evangelist. When I first see a story online about his environmental campaigns, I assume I am looking at a headline from The Onion: “Mexico’s Al Gore Wants to Create the Greenest City in the Americas.” The article turns out to be serious but my natural response is to snicker and think, “Yeah, good luck with that.”

The goal may be ridiculously ambitious, but Ebrard gets an A for effort. The main Paseo de la Reforma boulevard is now closed to traffic on Sundays. I pass by three different free bicycle rental stands in my walks around various neighborhoods. The metro is finally getting 15 miles of extensions and new lines, enabling whole neighborhoods to move from bus to subway, plus the buses themselves are being switched out for less polluting models. Carrots and sticks are both in place now to encourage rooftop gardens and solar panels on office and industrial buildings. On the days it is not raining, I see blue sky a lot, so I can only assume the children are using their brown crayons less.

The city center is getting its first real scouring in centuries too. Cleaning crews are at work scrubbing grime and chewing gum from sidewalks and building exteriors in the historic center. “Some of these wads have probably been here since chewing gum was invented,” comments one full–time gum cleaner in the local newspaper.

Is there hope for the buildings though, the heavy stone structures going a bit deeper into the ground each year? While man tries to undo self–inflicted damage, crews also work to prop up what’s sinking. The Metropolitan Cathedral and Sagrario (chapel) next to it by the huge main plaza tilt in opposite directions, the soft ground below unable to support the 127,000 tons of stone pilfered from the original Aztec structures. After extensive restoration and engineering work, now that tilt is relatively permanent. Massive concrete shafts underground have slowed the submerging, with the hope that the buildings are now stuck in place like Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa (minus the cable).

When I visit the spectacular Palacio de Bellas Artes, which houses a museum and performance hall, I ask the people at the tourism kiosk about the rumor the building will shut down soon for massive repairs. “Yes, we have to lift the whole building up and add support,” the man replies. “Otherwise we think it will just keep sinking into the ground a little bit more each year.”

Exploring the side streets nearby, I come upon Santa Veracruz church, which looks like it’s about to keel over and drop on its side. Construction crews are busy digging holes that will be filled with concrete, but I can’t help but feel it will take more than concrete and cranes to ever set this building straight again.

To see what’s below the surface, I head down long flights of steps, squeezing onto the metro at the tail end of rush hour. The cars come frequently, but the crowds come faster. I haven’t been this close to a batch of my fellow humans since I last joined a mosh pit at a concert. I watch the other riders to get clued in to the strategy, which seems to involve pushing as far in as you can if you are going to the end of the line, but staying close to the door and pushing closer as your stop arrives if you are only going a few stops.

I come back onto the metro many more times during my ten days of exploration, but outside of rush hour when the ride is much easier. I’m fascinated by the signage, each station having its own logo so the illiterate can still navigate with ease. I find it helpful myself though too: it’s easier to catch a depiction of an apricot on the wall through a tiny space between shoulders and heads than it is to read “Chabacano.” Many of the stations follow a theme, with elaborate murals depicting a historic event or grand decorations to convey the neighborhood outside. I start taking the metro even when it will only shave 10 minutes off my travel time. After all, I’m paying two pesos a ride, which equates to 15 cents U.S.

When I remark to a hotel general manager that I’ve taken the metro to his establishment, he raises his eyebrows and then quickly changes the subject, like I’ve told him I have a Costa Rican girlfriend who is only 16. I get such a similar reaction from other upper–crust Mexico City residents that I start throwing this detail into conversations just to amuse myself, to test whether the reaction is universal. It is. Apparently these educated managers have never ventured underground themselves. To them the underground transportation system might as well be in Moscow or Tokyo: they’re just as unlikely to ride any of them.

I mention this to my newfound friend Jim a few days later at lunch. Jim is an expat from New York who has written a great book on Mexico City, so I pummel him with cultural questions I know a real local probably wouldn’t answer. “I ride the metro all the time,” Jim says, “and so do most of the other expatriates. But to a wealthy person in Mexico City, that’s a world they don’t know and don’t want to know. They would rather sit in traffic for two hours in their own car than ride 15 minutes with the masses.”

Apparently they don’t go downtown either. “You’re staying where? ” a local friend asks incredulously when I say I’m in a small hotel near the central plaza. She looks up aghast, fork in mid–air, with a mix of sympathy and befuddlement. I tell her I’m really enjoying the atmosphere there, but she can’t reconcile that with her own assumptions. To her El Centro is a den of thieves, murderers, and low–lifes and always will be, no matter what has transpired over the past decade.

“But what do you do at night?” she asks. “Just eat in your hotel?” I chuckle and rhapsodize about the great torta sandwich stand I found, the Museo de la Cervesa (museum of beer) bar two blocks away, and the amazing meal I had at El Cardenal. “Oh yes, El Cardenal,” she says with a nod. “There’s a branch in the Sheraton across from Alameda Park. You don’t have to go to the center to eat there.”

As is so often the case in Mexico, I don’t notice the racial subtleties until they slap me in the face and then I start seeing them everywhere I look. Like the metro, the city center is, well, dark. The clothes and cars aren’t as fancy, there are no blonde beauties, and the collective skin color is different than it is in the neighborhood of Bentleys and Prada.

I see this clearly as I move in the course of a few subway stops from the huge Zocalo in the center to where I’m having a fancy tasting menu lunch with my friend in ritzy Polanco. As I leave the restaurant later, my credit card crying out in pain, I wander down Presidente Masaryk Avenue, past the Bang & Olufsen store and the showroom of a business that installs bulletproof glass in limos. An electronics store has big–screen TVs in the window, broadcasting the talk shows. These shows are led by blonde female newscasters and European–looking male hosts with sharp noses. Around the corner walks a perfectly coiffed young woman who puts the models in the fashion billboards overhead to shame. I stare too long, mesmerized by her piercing blue eyes, and she hurries past me into the soft–lighted comfort of the Louis Vuitton store.

The next day my writing assignment takes me out to Santa Fe, a purpose–built suburban office park where many multinational companies have their headquarters. I feel I’ve been dropped into an alternate universe. It looks like Silicon Valley, with wide parking lots, boring glass and steel office buildings, and workers all wearing roughly the same outfit. No one gives me a second glance here because most of the men look like me, albeit with fuller heads of hair. It’s as if someone built an alternate capital, one where there was little need to deal with Aztec blood, earthquakes, or transportation that involves sharing a seat with someone else. The overall effect, however, ends up being a town without a soul—or even a decent taco stand.

As soon as I can, I walk past the taxi line and join the janitors and waitresses on a minibus heading back to the sinking city. I spend 20 cents instead of 15 dollars and cross a line that no local with the means to do otherwise would cross. As a foreigner I can ignore the segregation and pretend the line doesn’t exist. In a city where many of the buildings are off–balance, rigid lines don’t seem consistent anyway. Perhaps if everyone follows the mayor’s lead, the city’s citizens can all ride down the street as one on bicycles, the racial lines becoming as crooked as the walls of a cathedral.


Tim Leffel is the author of the Traveler's Tale book Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: the Contrarian Traveler's Guide to Getting More for Less. This award winning travel writer is also the editor of Perceptive Travel, where "Unbalanced in the Sinking City" originally appeared before winning the Destination Story Silver in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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