Monday, December 26, 2011

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Every time I leave Mexico City for even a few weeks, I'm amazed at how much has changed when I return. A few months ago I came home from a trip and found a new Starbuck's, a gourmet food store, and a branch of my bank right down the block from where I live.

Last week I returned from six weeks of travel and immediately noticed changes within view of my apartment in Colonia Condesa. My neighbor is replastering and painting the facade of his house. The restaurant across the street that was closed for a year is being renovated as a tapas bar. Walking to work in Colonia Roma, just eight blocks away, I noticed even more changes.

So I decided to make an informal study of of my corner of Mexico City and count the businesses I'd not seen before my trip. Most of them have appeared within the past six weeks, although a few might be a bit older and just escaped my radar. I limited myself to a 3-block radius from my apartment and my studio, plus the streets connecting the two. Here's a list of what I found:

One pizzeria
A wedding dress store
A shop selling Beatles memorabilia
A 19-story apartment building (it was only 3 stories when I left)
'Cassava Roots', a store selling Asian 'bubble teas'
Banco Azteca branch
ATM of BanCoppel
2 art galleries
A pawn Shop
'Beauty Life' health food and spa treatments
A frozen yogurt shop
A street stall selling quesadillas and tlacoyos
A bar offering artesanal beers
A fuente de Sodas
A sushi joint
2 tapas bars
2 convenience stores
A pharmacy
A store selling hookahs and accessories
Oficinas virtuales offered in a renovated office building
3 gift shops
2 cafes
1 hair Salon
A laundromat
An ironing shop (no laundry, just ironing!)
A religious article store
A children's clothing store ('Rock for your little monsters' their sign reads in English)
The Centro de escalada, rock climbing classes and equipment (www.levita.com.mx)
Mac & PC repair shop
Car rental agency
Bicycle store
A store selling uniforms for police and firemen
and one more Starbuck's (on Plaza Luis Cabrera in Roma)

Total: 39 (and I didn't complete 3-block radius in Roma--I gave up when I reached 39, figuring the point had been made).

Colonia Condesa has enjoyed steady improvement over the past ten years or more. The changes in Roma started more slowly about five years ago, but in the past six months there's been an unprecedented boom in development. What strikes me as much as the number of new businesses is the diversity. What's happening here is not just a yuppie explosion, but a response to the socio-economic mix that makes Mexico City neighborhoods so vibrant.

Business and investment is not my line, so I asked Tom Johnston (no relation), a public policy analyst who runs a company called Business Development Partners here in Mexico City, to comment. Aside from our shared last name, we cover the same territory in our work/home routines. I live in Condesa and work in Roma, Tom lives in Roma and works in Condesa.


"I'm also amazed at the evolution in our part of town. Some places in Mexico have been harder hit than others by the recession, but not the Condesa/Roma neighborhoods. They're both relatively prosperous, although not like the city’s “rich neighborhoods” Polanco, Lomas de Chapultepec or Santa Fe."


"I think the “Latin America’s growing middle class” meme is overhyped, but the success of Condesa/Roma might serve as a model for other Mexican cities. Colonia Americana in Guadalajara, for example, is a similar case of urban development."


"Mexico City's government has carried out admirable urban revitalization projects such as the Historic Center pedestrian corridors, but the
development in Condesa-Roma seems to be almost entirely driven by private initiative and capital. The marketplace will determine who survives the stampede of micro-breweries and frozen yogurt joints, but there seems to be a hefty supply of investors. And if the hookah shop on Coahuila survives I think we’re really seeing a new dawn of prosperity."--TJ

The rapidity of change, especially in Roma, makes my post about it back in September almost seem nostalgic. If you're interested in exploring this vital part of Mexico City check it out:


More blog posts about Condesa/Roma:




It's an exciting time to be in Mexico City. Come see for yourself in 2012. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 5, 2011

DIEGO RIVERA'S 'OTHER' MURALS



Diego Rivera's famous murals at the Palacio Nacional are on every 'Top Ten' list of what to do in Mexico City. Their epic sweep of Mexican history is grand and awe inspiring.



But when I need a fix of Rivera, I prefer his 'other' murals in the Centro Histórico, just two blocks away from the Zócalo, at the offices of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP). This series of earlier murals--over 120 individual works--is on a more human, accessible scale. Painted between 1923 and 1928, they exhibit Rivera's skill in composition, color and his ability to characterize his subjects just as well as the larger, more spectacular murals do at the Palacio.



The SEP is housed in several adjoining colonial buildings which had previously been used as a church, a convent and a customs house. Enter the complex from Plaza Santo Domingo #31, checking out the stairwell murals by Siqueiros, and follow the passageway to the main building where the Rivera murals are.

There's a lot to see here, so I recommend starting on the top floor. A series of paintings depicting the glory of the revolution and the struggle of the working class are tied together with a ribbon, upon which are written the words of several revolutionary songs. There are some wonderfully sarcastic images of rich aristocrats, and one of Frida as a sword-toting mama.



The downstairs murals deal with arts and sciences, and Mexican traditions and fiestas. The color palette is muted in these earlier works, and they have been dulled by years of exposure to the elements. But they are full of the exuberance and teeming energy that is so characteristic of Rivera's work. He often used compositions that reflect the passion of Christ--arms flung wide in crucifixion--to make the cultural and political messages of his work easily understandable to his largely Catholic audience.



The building is open to the public on weekdays only.



Restoration and maintenance of the murals, which are in covered arcades open to the air,
goes on constantly.



Rivera made several grisaille paintings--no color--that show off his wonderful sense of line and volume.


The area around the SEP building, especially Plaza Santo Domingo, is well worth exploring.





Tuesday, November 22, 2011

COLONIA CONDESA: MEXICO CITY’S ART DECO NEIGHBORHOOD






Colonia Condesa, Mexico City’s most charming neighborhood, blends faded glory with gleaming hipness. It has more trees than any part of the city, more pedigree dogs, more jazzy restaurants, shops, galleries, and even a big bookstore. The mayor lives here. You can take a tango class in the park, then head off to a sáke bar to relax. You can dunk your Krispy Kreme donut in Starbuck’s coffee. And best of all, you can walk everywhere (or hop on your eco-bici).



Aside from all the green, a lot of the charm in Condesa comes from its Art Deco architecture. The height of chic in the 1920's when Condesa was flourishing, Art Deco is based partly on Aztec motifs, so its ornamental geometry feels right at home in Mexico City. Condesa is one of the best preserved Art Deco neighborhoods in the world.

You can tour the area on foot, but bring a map. The street plan here is unusual, incorporating ovals and radiating, non-parallel streets, making the area delightfully or frustratingly confusing. The following walking tour begins in Parque Mexico and takes you along some of the best streets to see the Art Deco architecture of Condesa.





Walk around Avenida Mexico, which borders the park, and nearby Avenida Amsterdam. Both streets are big ovals, so you can’t get lost--you’ll just end up where you start. Benches and lamposts along Amsterdam are original designs from the late 1920’s.

Follow Avenida Michoacán (in the direction of traffic) past Tamaulipas to reach the commercial hub of Condesa, mostly bars and restaurants which are hopping on weekend nights. It's great for watching the beautiful people of Mexico City.

Continue along Michoacán to Avenida Mazatlán with its central camellón (green walkway). Turn right and stroll 5 blocks to Avenida Veracruz, then turn right again, which will lead you to Parque España. Stop for a drink at the super-hip rooftop bar at the Condesa DF Hotel.

Walk across the Parque España (head toward the Pemex Station) and walk down Sonora back to Parque Mexico--they're only a few blocks apart.

Almost anywhere you wander off this suggested itinerary will turn up something interesting. Colonia Condesa is a great place to explore.


















































Getting there: There is a taxi sitio in Parque Mexico (right in front of the naked lady statue).The nearest metro stop is Chilpancingo, nearest metrobús stop Sonora.

Sunday afternoon is a particularly lively time to visit Parque Mexico.

If you’re in Condesa on a Tuesday, don’t miss the tianguis on Calle Pachuca..




Thursday, November 10, 2011

WHERE MONEY WAS MADE IN MEXICO

The National Numismatic Museum


The streets behind the Cathedral are crowded with vendors selling fake designer bags and pirate DVDs, plastic junk from China, and tacos de cabeza; the backdrop to this carnival-like jumble is faded splendor. The colonial architecture here is almost fully intact—if this were a European city it would be the most expensive and desirable part of town. But with its slightly seedy street life tourists often overlook it.




The Casa de Mondea, Mexico’s National coin museum, is in the center of all this urban chaos, and it is easy to overlook—there’s no sign, and you have to make an appointment to visit. But anyone interested in money, and how it was made, will find the place fascinating.


Mexico’s mint was the first in the New World, established by a Royal Decree issued in Spain on May 11, 1535 by Juana de Castilla (also known as Juana la Loca).


The mint lasted more than two and a half centuries beside the National Palace at number 13 Calle Moneda (now the National Museum of Cultures). In 1848 the mint moved to Apartado 13 behind the Cathedral.


Mexico minted its coins here from 1850 until 1992, when the production moved to a new modern plant in San Luis Potosí. The old building became the National Numismatic Museum.


The guided tour takes you through the entire process of minting coins, from how they are designed, how the metal is smelted and forged, to how the coins are stamped, washed and polished. The most impressive room, a vast, soot covered cathedral-like space that looks like Dante’s vision of hell, is where the metal is formed into ingots. In other rooms, full of the original 19th century machinery, you’ll see demonstrations of each step of the process. There’s an exhibition space of coins and medals spanning several centuries, including winners of ‘the most beautiful money in the world’—hecho en México!

National Numismatic Museum


No. 13, Apartado street (off Calle Argentina behind the Cathedral)


México City’s Historical Center


Delegación Cuauhtémoc. C.P. 06020


Phone numbers:


5526 6981 ext. 4522 y 4531


5526 1301


http://www.cmm.gob.mx/


Free visits are held from Monday to Friday at 10:00 am and 1:00 pm


The requests must be sent to: vmerino@cmm.gob.mx




Monday, October 31, 2011

MALINALCO--Mexico's Shangri-La




One way to deal with the craziness of living in Mexico City is to escape to the country once in a while, and my favorite place to go is Malinalco, a magical spot hidden in the mountains of the Estado de Mexico.
The Aztec goddess Malinalxóchitl thought the place magical enough to call it home, and the Mexican government officially endorsed her opinion last year when it included Malinalco in its Pueblos Mágicos program, which protects and promotes small town culture.
I knew it was magical the first time I saw it more than 20 years ago,” said Adriana Pérez de Legaspi, one of a small group of Mexico City residents who have weekend homes here, and who offers tours and cooking classes in ‘pre-Hispanic gastronomy’. “There’s a feeling of something ancient here, something secure and grounded. ”

Located 110 km (65 miles) southwest of Mexico City, Malinalco feels like another world. It’s nestled in a lush, semi-tropical valley where flowering shrubs, tumbling vines, banana and palm trees grow in jungle-like abundance, and undulating mountains frame every vista. Adobe houses with red-tiled roofs and painted stucco walls line the streets around the main plaza; an Aztec shrine, carved into the hillside, presides over the valley.

The division between town and country is blurred here. There’s only one asphalt road, bisecting the town east to west. Other streets are of cobbled stone, fading off into well-trodden dirt pathways, old creek beds, and winding animal tracks.
Exploring the hills around the town you’ll find rock carvings and paintings that date back to 600 B.C. When the Aztecs showed up in the 1400’s they built a ceremonial site known as the Cerro de los Idolos (Hill of the Idols). A zigzag staircase of 427 steps leads to the site, where priests once offered sacrifices to the Aztec gods.

Down below, just off the main plaza, is another sacred spot, the imposing Church of the Divine Savior, founded by Augustinian monks in 1543. The adjacent cloister is painted with murals depicting local flora and fauna, a mix of indigenous and Spanish artistic influences.

In the market, women with long braids and carefully ironed aprons sell hand-made tortillas and fresh cheese wrapped in cornhusks. The produce spread out for sale looks pre-historic: edible, scarlet colorín flowers, pink guavas, granadas chinas (the fruit of the passionflower), wild blue mushrooms, and guajes, wrinkly green pods whose seeds are used to flavor tacos and guacamole.

Several street food stalls stand against the high stone walls of the church yard. Locals and tourists alike line up for specialties like tacos of cecina adobada (dried, spiced beef) or tlacoyos de haba (oblong corn cakes filled with fava beans). The enchiladas verdes I ate at one stand were the best I’ve had in Mexico. The ice cream at Malinalli, across the plaza, is made with those exotic fruits you saw in the market like mamey, zapote, or guanábana. There are several 'nice' restaurants, too, like Los Placeres on the plaza across from the church, which has great food and atmosphere.
Malinalco, whose population is around 7000, is primarily a town of agricultural workers, but it’s been a getaway for privileged city residents for decades--in a flea market in Mexico City I found a travel magazine from 1948 with a cover story on Malinalco. Smaller and less developed than weekend retreats like Valle de Bravo and Tepotzlán, it has a few high-end hotels, a handful of good restaurants, two art galleries, a private golf community, and even a store where you can buy a set of US$500 Italian bed sheets. At the elegant Ollinyotl holistic center you can get a massage, take a yoga class, or wander in their meditation labyrinth.
Politicians, corporate executives, a museum director and even the grandson of Diego Rivera have homes here. But most of the wealth is discretely hidden behind high, bougainvillea-clad walls, and on the roads around town you’re more likely to encounter a stray cow or a herd of sheep than a Mercedes Benz.
It’s Mexico’s best kept secret, “ says Ada Marie King, a travel consultant, who along with her architect husband, Lynn Wallach, were among the first foreigners to buy property here. “Mexicans have heard about the town, but the lousy roads keep people away.” Indeed, my arrival by car felt a bit like slalom skiing as I swerved frequently to avoid big potholes. But the difficulty in getting there heightens the pleasure of arrival.
Like the mythical Shangri-La, Malinalco seems to exist in another time. Although you are able to connect to Facebook and find a decent cappuccino, it’s the feeling that nothing has changed for centuries that makes this place truly magical.

**************************************
TRAVEL TIPS:
By car from Mexico City, head toward Toluca (toll road), exit at km 32 (toward Chalma), then follow signs to Malinalco (MX15 is the road number).
By bus from Terminal Observatorio, there are a few direct, second-class buses in the afternoon. Otherwise take a bus to Chalma (they leave every 30 minutes) and then a taxi (40 pesos) to Malinalco, 10 km away. Look for the Aguila Bus Line.
There is a kiosk in the main plaza where you can get tourist information.
Pre-Hispanic Gastronomy Tours: https://www.facebook.com/adrianaperezdelegaspi
Hand woven rebozos: http://xoxopastli.blogspot.com/
Wednesday is market day when the streets fill with vendors of everything from avocados to zippers—lively and fun.
August 6th is the Feast of San Salvador, the town’s biggest fiesta. There's lots going on during the week leading up to that date.
The tamales sold in front of the Pemex station (mornings only) are exceptional.

View of the vally of Malinalco


Hand-woven mats sold in the market

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

ARTES DE MEXICO: Celebrating Our Culture



Anyone who has poked around bookstores in Mexico City, the magazine section at Sanborn's, or the gift shop at almost any museum in the country, has probably encountered the publication Artes de Mexico.

Founded by Miguel Salas Anzurez, with Vicente Rojo as graphic designer, this large glossy magazine has been celebrating Mexican culture since 1953. After more than 200 issues, it fell on hard times in 1979 and lay dormant until 1988, when a group of investors decided to bring it back to life. Margarita de Orellano and Alberto Ruy Sanchez were invited to be general directors and since then, they have maintained its position as one of Mexico's most important cultural publications. They have enlarged the scope of the business to include books on poetry, photography, travel, as well as titles for children.

According to the website, the magazine's function is to promote "el placer de contemplar nuestra cultura" (the pleasure of contemplating our culture) and "comprender mejor quiénes somos" (to better understand who we are). Artes de Mexico is recognized around the world for the high quality of the research and writing, as well as for its elegant graphic design.


Margarita, (or Magui as she is known to friends), is the 'hands on' manager of the magazine. It's comfortable, old-fashioned offices are located in a converted Porfiriato mansion in Colonia Roma. Magui recalls first seeing the magazine as a young girl when she got into trouble at school and was called to the principal's office. "He had a copy on the table in the waiting room that I looked through--I was very impressed."

Alberto Ruy Sanchez, her husband as well as co-director, is a renowned poet, novelist and essayist. He travels the world as unofficial cultural ambassador, speaking frequently about Mexico and literature. France's Le Monde recently published a series of articles he wrote about contemporary Mexican culture.

The bi-lingual (Spanish and English) quarterly has covered a wide range of topics. Some of the most popular issues have been those on Talavera of Puebla, the Centro Histórico of Mexico City, Dia de los Muertos, architect Luis Barragán, and the textiles of Chiapas. There are hundreds more.

Artes de Mexico's Colonia Roma headquarters features a store which carries the magazine and a selection of Mexican handicrafts. Be sure to go
upstairs and check out the beautifully preserved interior of this architectural gem, located at Cordoba 69, between Durango and Colima. The store is open Monday through Friday from 9 to 6.



You can buy Artes de Mexico at the places mentioned above, or through the website: www.artesdemexico.com


Monday, October 3, 2011

COLONIA ROMA, Part 2: BRAD'S PAD

CREATING A PIED-Á-TERRE IN MEXICO CITY

Colonia Roma (see my last post) has become one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Mexico City, and it's attracting increasing numbers of foreigners. I wrote a previous post about an American/French couple who retired there.

When my friend Brad (an American who lives in Mexico and New Orleans) first told me about his new apartment in Roma, I thought he was joking.

“It’s on top of an fabulous art-deco building. You walk down a narrow alleyway, past the old incinerator, up a rattling metal staircase, then zigzag through lots of laundry cages to get there. It’s got five rooms and a tiny balcony that overlooks a synagogue. Oh--and it all measures 32 square meters.”

Five rooms? Thirty-two square meters (about 350 square feet)? It sounded like a dollhouse to me. I was skeptical.

Brad found his apartment by walking around the neighborhood and writing down the phone numbers of any ‘for sale’ signs he saw.

“I covered every street in Roma. I looked for about 10 days to find this apartment. It’s the only building in the neighborhood designed by Francisco Serrano, the architect of many art-deco gems in La Condesa. Unfortunately, the building is in a sorry state. Nobody pays maintenance, so nothing gets repaired. But I’m up on the roof in my own little world. It was pretty awful when I found it,” he confessed. “But the place had good bones and the price was right.”

As a foreigner, he needed a permit, which cost about 600 dollars, to buy the property, . “In general, the buying process went quite smoothly. I had to find three Mexican citizens to vouch for my character. That was a little odd but it all worked out, and now I have the escritura (deed) in my name.”

Three months later he invited me over for champagne to celebrate the completion of his renovation. After climbing and zigzagging to his rooftop hideaway, I was amazed to see what a combination of daring and imagination had achieved. This doll’s house is a real home.

The apartment has a funky, retro look, while maintaining the integrity of the original architecture. The boldest move was to paint the living room, dining room and bedroom all one color. Even the ceilings are a vivid pink (Comex bugambilia).

“I jumped when I first saw the color chip,” Brad confessed. “But once the apartment was furnished, and lit up with carefully placed lighting, it took on a warm glow. I painted the ceilings the same color so there wouldn’t be lines to show how small the apartment really is.”

The tiny bathroom is completely covered in half-inch glass tiles—six different colors in a random pattern that creates a lively feel. The tiles undulate over pipes and bumps in the wall, giving it an organic, slightly humorous look.

A small balcony faces the street, and there's an outdoor dining area in the jaula, a fenced-in area that was used to house the gas tanks and to hang laundry. "Having a bit of outdoor space makes a huge difference," said Brad. "Otherwise the place might feel claustrophobic."

The furniture is an eclectic mix gathered from flea markets and antique stores. “Some things were really inexpensive, like the sky-blue floor tiles in the kitchen--they practically gave them to me. What I spent the most money on, by far, is the portrait over the sofa of an Indian girl by Alfonso X. Peña, a contemporary of Diego Rivera who hasn’t yet gotten the recognition he deserves.”

“I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to do this kind of thing anywhere else but in Mexico. There’s something about the light, about the culture in general, that makes strong colors feel natural. It’s one of the things that keeps me coming back. And I love living in Colonia Roma--it's constantly changing and getting better all the time.”

Brad spent about $30,000 to buy his apartment and other $15,000 to renovate and furnish it. Once you own property in Mexico City the expenses are reasonable, e.g. his property tax last year was a whopping 195 pesos (about $16 US--yes that's sixteen dollars, not a typo).

If you're thinking of moving to Mexico City check out my previous blog for more tips.

Note: Read my review of Colonia Roma's hip Hotel Brick at www.luxurylatinamerica.com--a great place for a drink and people watching.