Wednesday, February 12, 2014

LOOKING AT MEXICO CITY: Neglect, Decay and Disintegration

Buildings with tilted walls, crumbling facades, rusting metalwork, broken planters, cracked and bulging sidewalks are common sights in Mexico City, the effect often heightened by proximity to some gleaming new high-rise. There is a notable tendency here to let things go to wrack and ruin, financial investment be damned. Depending on the mood I’m in, I can see it as a charming reminder of the temporal nature of life, or an indication of a complete lack of civic pride. But there's no denying that decrepitude is one of the characteristics that defines this city. Learning to appreciate this quality, like one would the nicks and scars on a piece of antique furniture, is necessary in order to fall in love with Mexico City. 

Among the most remarkable examples of this phenomenon is the high-rise Edificio Insurgentes (Insurgentes 300, between Zacatecas and Guanajuato), known by many here as the Canada Building, for a huge sign that once adorned it. Inaugurated in 1958, it was the most fashionable address in its day for the offices of politicians, doctors and lawyers. Now its a veritable urban ghost town. 

Its heyday lasted about 10 years, and then things started to go downhill. The earthquake of 1985 was the nail in the coffin, but a fire, and the murder of a tenant didn’t help. Spirits of those killed in the fire supposedly haunt the 15th and 16th floors.

Elevators no longer work, graffiti covers much of the ground floor, and upper floors are a hodge-podge of slapdash additions and makeshift alterations. In 2012 the city ejected the remaining tenants and closed the building. Rumor has it that it was being used as a halfway house for illegal immigrants from Nicaragua.

Take a look from across the street to fully appreciate the weirdness of this once grand edifice.

I think all this physical instability helps create a flexible and resilient culture. If you can't trust the ground under your feet, you must seek security elsewhere, preferably from within. Mexicans are the most Buddhist-like of westerners, embracing instability, change, decay and death as normal parts of daily life. Perhaps the remarkable calm one experiences here (at least as compared to my former hometown, New York City) is a result of this acceptance. The phrase ni modo (literally “no way,” sort of a resigned shrug) is more often heard in response to situations beyond one’s control than anything more aggressive or confrontational. A popular song by the beloved ranchera composer José Alfredo Jimenez has the refrain “no vale nada la vida” (life is worth nothing), sung to a sweet and lilting waltz melody. Mexicans of all ages know it by heart.  

                                     More images of decay in Mexico City: 

                                                Calle Puebla in Colonia Roma Norte

                                               Insurgentes and Niza in the Zona Rosa

                                             Abandoned penthouse in the Zona Rosa 

                                               Abandoned store, Calle Bucareli, Centro

Broken sidewalk


Torre Insignia (abandoned)

And this from one of my readers: 


Doug said...

I really enjoyed this post, especially your summation. I agree.

Don Cuevas said...

Hey! I know that spot on Calle Puebla. It's where first, the Vietnamese food truck, and now, the "Yucatecan" food truck park. It's also where Calle Puebla starts to get sleazy as it runs west to Av. Insurgentes. East of there, particularly from Calle Orizaba eastward, it's pretty nice.

It's not all bad, just menos elegante. A favorite Super Tacos de Guisados stand is in that black, on the other side of Calle Puebla, halfway to the corner of Calle Jalapa.

Don Cuevas

Rochelle Cashdan said...

I have almost finished Elena Poniatowska's, Nada, Nadie based on many testimonies of survivors of the terrible 1985 earthquake. It is giving me an unforgettable perspective on the still visible aftermath of that time. Available in English translation too.

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