Back in the 19th century, London was known as “the great wen,” a huge pus-laden boil on the face of the fair English nation. Nowadays some people — including many foreigners and Mexicans who live in the provinces — see Mexico City the same way. Through the prism of their jaundiced eyes, they see twenty million souls in torment amid a gigantic, filthy, urban sprawl. Maybe so. But Mexico City is also arguably the funkiest city in the Americas, one with a buzz that puts the others in the shade. In the words of the slogan of one of Britain’s most popular tabloids, “All human life is here.”
You can, of course choose to restrict your visit to the capital to the smart areas, the grand boulevard, Reforma—originally modeled on the Champs Élysées of Paris—or Polanco. But that would be missing the point. This big pineapple of a city is spiky, with blotches of rot, but plenty of sweet, juicy bits too. And none is juicier than the Centro Histórico, the historical center not only of Mexico but of the Americas.
In recent years, the Historic Center has been extensively revamped. Street traders who once blocked the sidewalks have mostly been moved on, though many still wage guerrilla warfare with the authorities, scooping up their merchandise and disappearing into the crowds at the sound of a whistle from a look-out. Streets and drainage have been mended, dingy lanes converted into bright commercial passages with sidewalk cafés, and dozens of historic buildings have been restored.
I’ve spoken with some long-time residents as well as a senior official with the Historic Center Foundation. The foundation is largely funded by Carlos Slim, who rivals Bill Gates as one of the world’s richest men, and whose huge business empire has its roots in the Historic Center.
Over the years, the Historic Center was stripped of inhabitants; the foundation has set out to bring people back. And how! Magnificent renovated apartments, some converted from warehouses and offices, are for rent at from about US$1,000 a month. I spoke with some of the residents. They like not only their homes, but the convenience of easy travel connections, and simply being able to step out the door to find good food, entertainment, lively bars and night clubs (some just a little too lively, perhaps) and high-class shopping.
Don’t believe me? American David Lida is probably the best chronicler of Mexico City in any language. His web site will lead you to a host of others, including my personal favorite: Nick Gilman’s food and drink blog.
Ronald Buchanan, a Scotland-born journalist, is a naturalized Mexican citizen.
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