Melting pot above the clouds
Text Johannes Thumfart Photos Rachel de Joode Illustration Roman Klonek
When the first Europeans arrived in America five hundred years ago, they were awestruck by Tenochtitlan with its canals and magnificent temple grounds. The city, at an altitude of over 2000 metres, was the only metropolis in the New World back then. Even today it is a breathtaking sight for first-time visitors to the city. Against the backdrop of the twin volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, today the megacity stretches far beyond the horizon.
Above all, Mexico City represents unrivalled variety. The eye finds no place of rest, jumping from the Aztec buildings to the hustle and bustle of the marketplaces and public squares. Modern Mexico with its impeccable skyscrapers rubs shoulders with improvised corrugated-iron huts. Splendid, colonial-style residential areas flow seamlessly into areas dominated by dingy apartment blocks. Immigrant Chinese, European Jews, Lebanese, Indians, Italians, French and Germans have all left their cultural marks on the city’s character over the past few centuries. Like in New York, taking a walk into the next district can be like taking a trip around the world.
Since the days when the beatnik poets William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac stopped off here on their travels and the surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel spent his most productive years here, the city has attracted an international bohemian crowd. Nowadays, in the art and cultural scene there are strong links with the Spanish metropolises of Madrid and Barcelona, as well as with Los Angeles. There is a real buzz everywhere and new locations are sprouting up all over the place, especially in the Colonia Condesa and Colonia Roma. Destroyed in the earthquake of 1985, these neighbourhoods gained a reputation as problem areas. But nowadays it’s the exciting concept stores, clubs and galleries that are attracting the public’s attention rather than the crumbling façades of the buildings.
Due to its multifaceted history and present it is impossible to make generalisations about Mexico City. Some US-Americans refer to it as “the capital of the 21st century” due to its incredible population growth: the total population of Mexico City is almost at the 20-million mark. The locals, however, express their ambivalent relationship to the city by calling it ‘El Monstruo’, the monster. If anything, the dominating characteristic of this megacity is its heterogeneity. The social contrasts are striking, but nevertheless the inhabitants exude a cheerful optimism. Despite extreme poverty you will come across very few beggars on the streets; everyone is busy going about their business, even if it’s selling brylcreem or cigarettes in the subway.
The question that remains is what impact the heavily publicised smog has on the quality of life here. Yes, it’s true, sometimes it is actually quite hard to breathe in Mexico City. But on the other hand, the so-called monster is remarkably green. Trees are certainly not in short supply, neither when lining the streets nor in parks, and thanks to the altitude, the sky is usually a pristine sparkling steel blue colour. And to clear up another common misconception: the city is a lot safer than most tourist guides would have you believe. Where the zero-tolerance policies on drug warfare plunged the northern part of the country into chaos, here in the city it was very successful. Contrary to all the rumours, travelling by taxi or on the subway and even walking around at night are no more an issue than in other comparable urban cities.
Speaking of the subway: this could actually be the best place to really get to know the city and its inhabitants. Nobody pushes or shoves, and politeness is a welcome old-fashioned virtue of the ‘Capitalinos’, along with their unshakeable pride. On behalf of J’N’C Johannes Thumfart and Rachel de Joode embarked on a journey to lift the lid on Mexico City’s approach to life.