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Mexico City: Back From the Brink?

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Growing up in what by the 1980s was the biggest metropolis in the world, my friends and I thought we were very tough. Taking to heart the naïve view that “things that do not kill you make you stronger,” there was plenty to choose from in Mexico City. To name but a few, the city had the worst quality air anywhere, and we still managed to play soccer, basketball and water polo at 7,300 feet above sea level without collapsing. We learned fortitude and patience from the three-plus hours lost in traffic as we fulfilled our daily obligations. We developed good negotiating skills, given that by 18 or 19 years of age we each had been mugged at knife- or gunpoint at least a couple times without suffering major consequences. Of course, our smugness was baseless because we were among the lucky minority to have been raised in middle-class or well-to-do households, and therefore our exposure to the dangers and hazards of the city were minuscule in relative terms.

Still, by the end of the 1980s, forecasts by urban planners, demographers, environmental scientists and criminologists were not far from equating the city's future with the dystopia depicted in the science fiction film Blade Runner if serious remedial policies were not implemented. The movie, set in Los Angeles in 2019, portrays millions of alienated individuals, going about their business in haste and fear, engulfed by perpetual fog and smog alongside acid rain, against the permanent sound of sirens and blinding red and yellow lights of emergency services vehicles responding to unstoppable criminal activity. Fast-forward one-quarter of a century: Mexico City at the start of the 2010s has confounded the more pessimistic predictions and although facing many serious, large-scale challenges seems to have come back from the brink. 

No longer the world’s largest metropolis (it is now among the top 10 by population, with around 21 million inhabitants), the high plateau where Mexico City is located nonetheless has the greatest population density of the Western Hemisphere’s three largest megalopolises (the others are São Paulo and New York City). The city, whose official name is Distrito ­Federal, is the capital of the country, and despite the growth and diversification of other cities—such as Guadalajara, León, Monterrey, Puebla and Querétaro—it remains the neuralgic center of political, economic and cultural life in Mexico. The metropolitan area produces close to one-third of the country’s annual gross domestic product at around $400 billion and is home to more than 20 percent of the country’s total population (around 110 million to 115 million in 2012).

Unsurprisingly, given the city's centrality in the national conversation­ and the vast amount of resources it consumes and goods and services it produces, Mexico City and its inhabitants have traditionally elicited hostile reactions from Mexicans elsewhere. For example, the pejorative reference to a native of Mexico City is chilango. While the etymology remains deeply contested, its usage is not as in car stickers for non-Mexico City residents that read, “Haz patria, mata a un chilango” (“Nurture the motherland, kill someone from the capital”). Self-aware and a bit embarrassed, chilangos have replied to the challenges with a variety of measures that have improved living conditions for many of the city's residents, but reality remains characterized by abysmal differences for different population groups.

One City, Three Universes

Román Gómez, Mexico-based senior consultant for the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (U.N.-Habitat), describes everyday life in the city as occurring in three parallel universes. Around 5 percent of the population are members of rich households. Their daily routine is relatively functional, although it unfolds in small bubbles kept in place by heavy spending on private security—in some cases, the idea of belonging to a gated community implies three or four checkpoints to reach your destination—and they still have to suffer general problems such as few secure, open green spaces; an intermittent supply of potable water; and long battles with moving around, given chronic vehicular congestion on the roads.

Another 15 to 20 percent of the population is made up of middle-class households that, in addition to experiencing the common transportation and environmental problems, are at higher risk of suffering from criminal and violent acts. Kidnapping, an industry that flourished in the mid-1990s after Mexico's financial and economic implosion in 1994Ð95, evolved from a specialized activity carried out by ex-police and ex-military who targeted the very rich to one where the lower to upper middle classes are the main source of revenue.

In turn, life for a staggering 75 to 80 percent of the metropolitan population is characterized by features associated with traditional urban poverty. Most live in consolidated squatter settlements and emerging peri-urban areas “misery belts” surrounding the city. Commuting time for individuals who work in the city as office support and cleaning personnel, as house servants, and in the informal car parking/car watching/street cleaning industry can be three to five hours. A majority get bad-quality water intermittently from the network and via pipe trucks that show up two or three times a week and sometimes sell at 10 times the going price. Sewer systems are close to nonexistent, and waste most frequently ends up in ravines, with disastrous pollution impact.

Regarding crime and violence, many of these communities are beyond the reach of the state's authority. They are run and fleeced by local criminal groups who set their rules based on theft, extortion and gender-based violence (feminicides remain an epidemic not only in northern cities such as Ciudad Ju‡rez but also in poor neighborhoods of Mexico City's metropolitan area). In some big shantytowns, such as Ciudad Nezahualc—yotl, Ecatepec  and Iztapalapa, the police dare not show their faces when criminal groups make it explicit that they are settling accounts.

As a consequence of such bitterly different realities, the average perspective of Mexico City dwellers regarding their quality of life, their challenges and their hopes is close to meaningless. Yet a majority of the city's very diverse population agrees that some issues have been characterized by improvements in the last one and a half decades.

Progressive Politics and Business Pragmatism

Up until 1997, the Mexico City government was appointed by the country’s president. That year the city had its first democratic elections to choose its authorities. Since then, the left-wing party Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) has won four successive elections and ruled uninterrupted. The Federal District and a few of the 31 states that make up Mexico’s federal system are in the minority that have enjoyed continuous “unified government”—that is, the same party controls the executive and legislative branches. While the city boasts a healthy plural spirit in terms of citizen beliefs, values and attitudes, a majority have backed progressive policies that have been implemented by the PRD, such as abortion, same-sex marriage and a limited use of euthanasia. Overall, Mexico remains a socially conservative society, and therefore many educated youngsters with liberal views continue to leave the choking conservative environment of provincial cities to join a cauldron of permissive, liberal thinking and practice in the capital.

Likewise, breaking with the stereotype of Latin American leftists as inveterate nationalists who are antagonistic to private entrepreneurs and business in general, PRD governments in Mexico City have forged successful working relationships with tycoons such as ­Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, to promote the construction of public works. Thus, a multibillion-dollar urban renewal project has contributed to redevelopment of the city’s downtown since the second half of the 1990s. Other projects include a large-scale effort to improve human flows in the city via the construction of new subway system routes, including Route 12; construction of the second tier of the Periférico, the main city’s ring road; and the growth of the other public transport infrastructure, the Metrobús. All these represent cases of successful and pragmatic private-public partnerships (PPPs). In the case of water, a PPP scheme involving, among others, Slim’s IDEAL construction company, is building the Atotonilco water treatment plant, considered the largest wastewater treatment project in the world at a cost of $790 million. As a result, some of the capital’s biggest tycoons have a reputation for respecting and being able to work with the left, in contrast with the conservative and hostile attitude that business communities in other big Mexican cities—Monterrey, in particular—have traditionally espoused.

Breathing Better Air

Another area where a majority of capital dwellers perceive a significant improvement vis-ˆ-vis the 1980s and '90s is air quality. This result is squarely thanks to bold policymaking and implementation. Starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, successive federal gov-ernments pursued a policy of industrial de-concentration, whereby heavy industry particularly heavy polluters such as cement and paper plants were banned from the city. Likewise, the introduction of regular unleaded ­gasoline and high-octane gasoline in the 1990s, coupled with the expansion of subway lines, conversion of the public transport fleet to natural gas fuel and creation of suburban train lines, has improved air quality significantly in the Valley of Mexico.

Visitors today rightly continue to complain about the high levels of pollution in the city. However, any judgment is relative. I still remember, as a youth, the radio and TV reports, particularly during winter, recounting dozens of daily hospital admittances of babies and the elderly suffering from breathing complications caused by high levels of air pollution. And poor air quality caused suspension of classes, from primary to high school, sometimes for weeks at a time.

Had present-day visitors been in Mexico City in the late 1980s or early 1990s, they almost certainly would have reached a conclusion opposite the one held by my teenage friends and me: Chronically breathing high-pollution air does not strengthen you but rather weakens you, makes you ill and eventually kills you.

Defying the Doomsayers

Chilangos have neither ameliorated the abysmal differences in life opportunities and basic living conditions that separate the main socioeconomic groups nor made their city into one of the “top 10” places to live, according to lifestyle magazines for the well-heeled such as Monocle. Nonetheless, they have made improvements that have confounded doomsayers who thought the place would become unlivable.

Today, the megalopolis continues to capture the imagination of travelers the world over who consider Mexico City a “happening” place, a rich multicultural space of dramatic contrasts that regardless of their wanting to live in it or not leaves an indelible mark on visitors and dwellers alike.


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