Las Americas

Mexican Makeover


—Mexico City

From the observation deck of the Latin American Tower, thirty stories above this megalopolis, the Old Quarter of the capital resembles a warren of dun-colored anthills, the gridlocked traffic a mosaic of brightly-hued beetles, and the Alameda – the central city’s only greensward – a postage-stamp-sized squib of grass.

Life achieves such a calming perspective when viewed from Mexico City’s gleaming banks of rascacielos – or skyscrapers. The skyline of the most contaminated urban entity in the western world is filled with castles in the air, some in construction, others in deconstruction (while others are still on the drawing board).

The Torre Latino-Americana, the city’s first skyscraper, somewhat modeled on Manhattan’s Empire State Building, and a landmark since the sixties, is about to get a $160-million facelift in anticipation of its conversion to a luxury hotel. The refurbishing is part of the long-postponed “Alameda Project,” which turns over the sixty-four-block dilapidated central city area bordering the Alameda Park to national and transnational real estate speculators. Although the deals were cut when the city was run by the long-ruling (seventy years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), leftist opposition mayor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas has championed the development.

Two of the big players in the Alameda Project are Canadian landsharks from Reichman International and George Soros’ Quantum Real Estate Fund. The corporate duo has cleared several blocks around the park, evicting 130 families and businesses to make way for new rascacielos. Across the avenue from the Alameda, behind a huge billboard displaying Diego Rivera’s mural “Sunday in the Alameda,” jackhammers pound the concrete in preparation for laying the foundation of the five-star Alameda Central Hotel and commercial mall. Before the great earthquake of 1985, the celebrated Del Prado hotel, which housed the Rivera mural, stood on this site.

Reichman-Soros, in association with the Mexican mega-construction corporation I.C.A., will begin work in earnest once they have topped off the tallest building in Mexico City, rising further south on the already rascacielos-packed Paseo de la Reforma. At fifty-five stories, the Chapultepec Torre will best the national oil consortium Pemex tower by a single floor. In the early nineties, Reichman-Soros-I.C.A. made a killing on land reclaimed from a city garbage dump in the west of the capital – the Santa Fe project, where rows of high-rise luxury apartments and commercial offices rise above the redolent landfill. But many of Reichman’s other Mexico City projects had been on hold since the corporation lost its shirt in London’s Canary Row development in the mid-nineties. Now, under leftist mayor Cárdenas, business in Mexico is humming.

Reichman and Soros are not the only transnationals with an eye towards globalizing the Mexico cityscape. The Westin Group, Hilton, and Four Seasons have all thrown up high-rise luxury hotels in the Reforma corridor during the past two years. And international purveyors of commercial property such as Cushman-Wakefield (U.S.), Healy & Baker (U.K.), and Royal Lapaige (Canada) are snapping up Mexico City airspace faster than towers can be built.

The most grandiose of these vertical pipe dreams, the Torre Aguila (to soar sixty stories above the elegant Angel of Independence pillar on Reforma), collapsed with the peso in 1994 and never made it out of mock-ups. Similarly, at the southern end of the city, the high-rise ambitions of Carlos Slim (the richest man in Latin America, according to Forbes magazine) were thwarted when a coalition of neighbors and anthropologists forced the Mexico City tycoon to scale back a dozen twenty-story-plus condominium towers dwarfing Cuicuilco (the most ancient indigenous ceremonial pyramid in Mexico) to one seven-story building.

But the most colossal monument to fractured dreams has been the fifty-story World Trade Center, half the size of its twin-tower Manhattan namesake. Consecrated by then-president Carlos Salinas in 1990 as a totem to free trade, the city’s first “intelligent skyscraper” has fallen into dire straits, through complex real estate scandals, dubious government bail-outs, and mounting lawsuits. But even though the W.T.C. has been taken into receivership by the Zedillo government, the building’s troubles go unnoticed from its slowly revolving rooftop restaurant, where the movers and shakers of world trade gather to sip cocktails.

Down at ground level, Mexico City offers a grimmer perspective on urban living. On the ragged blocks surrounding the Alameda, where 3,000 families are at risk of eviction by Reichman and its fellow developers as commercial real estate prices zoom to a reported $1,000 a square meter, streets bristle with ambulantes (street venders), demonstrators clog traffic, motorists fume, and Indian beggars squat solemnly against the walls of the new hotels in the historic center of the city that was once Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. Out in the park, clowns and mimes and medicine men draw crowds around the fountains, lovers embrace without ever coming up for air, and families picnic under the shaggy shade trees. Pigeons, police horses, hundreds of skinny alley cats, and hordes of rats pass for wildlife in this narrow urban enclave. Under the park, street children huddle in manholes, huffing glue.

Last summer, the Cárdenas administration ordered the manholes welded shut and had the niños de la calle shipped off to the luxury resort of Cancún for rehabilitation. Now they are back, and many more central city residents may soon be joining the street kids in the coladeras Cárdenas thought he had welded shut. During April, the much-postponed end of rent control takes effect in the Centro Historico, where 20,000 very low income families could soon find themselves without shelter. The “unfreezing” is a remnant of the Salinas-era, free-market “reinvigorating” of the crumbling core of the capital. But for years, implementation of the Salinas decree deregulating rents – frozen during World War II to protect low-income tenants from speculators – has been fended off by a powerful urban movement that grew out of the ’85 earthquake.

A brief reprieve was granted last October as the deadline came due, when the lower house of Congress voted (almost unanimously) to postpone the death sentence until 2002. But the Senate, controlled by the PRI, vetoed the deal and turned the matter over to the capital’s municipal council, which must act by April. Although the assembly is dominated by Cárdenas’ Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which supports further postponement of the end of rent control and the evictions that will follow, internal demonstrations and takeovers by the PRI and the conservative National Action party (PAN) have paralyzed the council.

At stake in this political ping-pong match is shelter for perhaps 100,000 Old Quarter residents living in 20,000 units where the monthly rent is lower than ten dollars. Such buildings are known as vecindades, composed of low-slung series of rooms sleeping a dozen to a cubicle, set around narrow concrete courtyards. The vecindades date to the past century, and are homes for impoverished newcomers from the countryside, street vendors, pensioners, and diaboleros (hustlers) from nearby Lagunilla and La Merced markets. Already in a state of near collapse when the great quake struck in 1985, vecindad living today is more stressful than ever.

At Colombia 25, a dingy slum just north of the city’s central Zócalo Plaza, eleven families share one toilet and hundreds of rats. Frying quesadillas in turgid grease in the doorway of the rotting building, Doña Epifásnia Gómez explains that she used to pay thirty centavos a month (three U.S. cents) – until the landlord stopped collecting rents and abandoned the structure to the tenants. Now, with rents about to be liberated, she fears he will reclaim the building and push families out into the street.

Evicting huge numbers of the city’s oldest and poorest inhabitants would be a blow to Cárdenas’ presidential ambitions in 2000 – which might have been the PRI’s intent when it pushed the decision into the hands of Cárdenas’ municipal council. Tensions between the Cárdenas administration and the urban popular movement, without whose support he would never have been elected in 1997, began to grow soon after the PRD took over city hall and federal courts began to act on a backlog of 5,000 evictions stalled during previous PRI regimes. Evictions reached a rate of eleven per day, and now renter groups estimate that unfreezing rents and easing restrictions on evictions could up the daily average to as high as 600.

Violent clashes between ousted tenants and police dispatched to abet the evictions escalated in 1998. Bloody confrontations, like the Battle of Guatemala Street last spring (in which one building nearly collapsed when the residents fought the riot squad to a draw) erode Cárdenas’ support – even though the mayor has little power to halt the court-ordered evictions. “It’s a PRI plot to destabilize the city,” said PRD assembly leader Javier Hidalgo, a one-time leader in the urban popular movement.

According to Cárdenas’ housing secretary, Mexico City suffers a 1.5-million unit housing deficit. Not included in this census are 2,000 structures, mostly in the inner city, severely damaged by the 1985 quake but never repaired. Fourteen years after that tragedy, 200 damnificado families are still living in rusted tin sheds, awaiting replacement housing. Totaling up those living in such precarious conditions and those tenants whose rents are about to be unfrozen, Alejandro Varras, longtime leader of the September 19th Union of Neighbors and Damnificados, calculates that 55,000 families – a quarter of a million people by Mexico City demographics – could soon be crowding into the coladeras with the street urchins.

“There is no money to fix any of this,” complained Magdalena García, political director of the city’s social development secretariat. Last December, a PRI-PAN maneuver in Congress drastically cut the city’s borrowing limits to one-seventh of what it was in 1998, and all city services are threatened. Over at Housing, city officials concur there is no money for any contingency program to provide help for the evictees. “We have no program. There is nothing in the budget for this,” said an exasperated department spokesperson Raúl Rodríguez. “We inherited a bad situation.”

As Mayor Cárdenas is boxed in by opposition parties who are destroying the city to cut off his road to Los Piños (the Mexican White House), and the poor head for the manholes, high above the metropolis, in the hotel towers, revolving eateries, and proposed roof-garden casinos, the tourists and the transnationals and the movers and shakers of Mexico City seem fine. “For us, things are looking up,” a Reichman-Mexico City spokesperson said – on the condition that his identity not be revealed.

John Ross is currently traveling through the North American sun belt promoting his novel, Tonatiuh’s People.