The veins of the Centro Histórico, a United Nations World Heritage site and once the Gran Tenochtitlán, the island capital that was the throne of the Aztec empire, have been torn open–and it is not a pretty site. The narrow, jewel-box streets are dug up and deep trenches threaten to swallow unsuspecting tourists whole. Strewn construction gear and sagging metal barricades imbue this once-charming historic neighborhood with all the ambiance of a war zone. Commerce has bottomed out with hotels and restaurants bereft of paying customers. The gala weekend wedding processions from the venerable 16th-century Profesa Church to the rococo 19th-century Casino Español now features mud-spattered tuxedos and evening gowns. A penetrating stench seeps from the excavations where Indian workmen are replacing decaying, century-old drainage lines, and pervades the neighborhood like a fetid curse from the deep past.
This holocaust covers the first 13-block nucleus of yet another drive to rescue the Centro Histórico, a nine-square kilometer, 660-block enclave at the core of the capital, from irreversible disintegration. The last push in 1990 was grossly underfunded and eventually fizzled out without making a dent in the decay. Now Carlos Slim, the richest man in Latin America (Telmex, the communications conglomerate is a principal holding) has kicked in a cool $100-million donation to save the old quarter from itself. Indeed, Slim, whose father, a Lebanese immigrant, once sold notions on these ancient streets, now owns one of the Centro’s architectural gems: the House of Blue Tiles, the flagship of his extensive Sanborn’s retail empire. Slim’s largesse is augmented by city and federal funds, as leftist mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador and rightist President Vicente Fox bury the ideological hatchet to implement the rescue effort.
This mammoth undertaking is not confined to updating infrastructure under the street. Ana Lilia Cepeda, director of the Centro Histórico rescue fund, envisions broader sidewalks, leafy shade trees, and quaint 19th-century street lighting. The facades of crumbling buildings will be repainted and awnings and flower pots installed–in short, a virtual picture postcard of a neighborhood contemplated to attract national and international investment, upwardly mobile young professionals, and blocks of middle class housing to replace the dank, dark vecindades where thousands of poor families have been sheltered for generations.
Known from the 13th to the 16th centuries as Tenochtitlán, the island capital of the far-flung Aztec empire, the Centro Histórico was first “rescued” by the Spanish Conquistadores who silted up the lake and filled in the canal system that nourished this flourishing city, pulled down the Aztecs’ blood-splattered temples and erected churches and palaces on the sites.
The last “rescue” of the Centro converted the palaces into mafia-run discotheques (67 of them at last count, almost as many as the neighborhood’s churches), and leased out ground floor commercial space in buildings designated as historical monuments, to transnational franchises like McDonald’s and Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s and Shakey’s Pizzas, and Dunkin Donuts, all of which now blemish the neighborhood’s once-proud cultural identity.
In the middle of the past century, when Mexico City was still a manageable mountain capital where the air, as Carlos Fuentes titled his first novel, was transparente, the Centro Histórico was a thriving residential neighborhood. But as the city began to sprawl into the outlying suburbs, the population thinned considerably. The devastating 1985 earthquake, which buried thousands under the rubble, was thought to be a coffin nail for the Centro. Although damnificados (displaced victims) fought back valiantly to win replacement housing, almost all of that housing was condominianized, further depleting the Historic Center’s rental stock.
Today, although the Centro’s government, financial, and commercial institutions draw 1.2 million chilangos (Mexico City natives) to the old quarter every day, the resident population numbers only 71,000, 70 percent of whom have lived here for more than a generation. At night, when the day visitors empty out, the streets are dark and deserted and, like poor neighborhoods all over the world where tourists are a staple of daily survival, crime thrives.
Cognizant that the Centro’s persistent crime wave is not conducive to raising property values, Carlos Slim and unnamed business associates have hired former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani to install his draconian anti-poor people’s “Zero Tolerance” police policies here.
But the Centro Histórico may soon be rid of its poorest residents without Giuliani. Perhaps 20,000 central-city slum dwellers who continue to inhabit approximately 850 vecindades–rows of one-room hovels grouped around a common courtyard–are now threatened with mass evictions. A rent freeze that has endured since World War II and kept vecindad rents as low as 50 cents a month–if they were collected at all–was vacated by the city’s legislative assembly last January, and long, painful eviction processes loom for the largely elderly tenants, particularly so if the new rescue effort proves a success and the Centro Histórico becomes a hot property again.
Indeed, the vecindades are already being transformed into commercial goldmines. On Mesones Street, once known as Flophouse Row, eager young entrepreneurs have moved the residents out and established a mini-mall that now houses two restaurants (not franchises), a cyber cafe, a tattoo parlor, a head shop with a huge selection of hemp products, and a much-needed neighborhood laundromat.
Another ominous sign for low-income residents: commercial real estate in the Centro Histórico is now being negotiated in dollars, an arrangement legitimized under the North American Free Trade Agreement that brought such yanqui real estate dynamos as Coldwell-Banker and Century 21 to Mexico.
Nonetheless, the potential boom is tempered by the old neighborhood’s decay. Despite the projected spruce-up, the interiors of many structures are crumbling–1,500 teetering historical monuments threaten collapse at any given moment. One cause is the eternal, infernal traffic: 350,000 mostly gasoline-powered vehicles move through the Centro daily. Their emissions stain the surfaces of the precious old structures and their vibrations undermine ancient foundations.
One obvious solution is to bar the cars and turn the streets into pedestrian walkways, but many merchants remain resolutely opposed. “The ambulantes will turn the walkways into street markets,” predicts Carlos Diez, proprietor of a popular downtown cafe, referring to the thousands of street venders who descend on the neighborhood daily to hawk their wares on the cluttered sidewalks
For a reporter who has lived in the Centro Histórico for 17 years, this fecund old quarter continues to be a source of much fascination. Behind industrial doors, one discovers colonial patios. Fine (if tarnished) murals cover the walls of public markets, and lunch times are always a culinary treasure hunt. Small white hand-painted tiles designate the birthplace of Chuchu El Roto, the fabled Mexican Robin Hood, and “The former House of Demented Women.”
But it is beneath the street where the real treasures are to be found. In 1978, workmen laying electricity lines under the sinking Metropolitan Cathedral came across remnants of the Templo Mayor, twin temples of the Aztec sun and rain deities that centered the culture’s cosmography, and the site has blossomed into a museum complex on one corner of the great Zócalo plaza. Construction of the subway system under the central city yielded a bonanza of artifacts. In fact, each new project threatens to obliterate an older patrimony.
Discovery of a cache of offerings and a shrine to Tlahuac, the rainmaker, has halted construction on the Casa de Las Aljaracas, the proposed new residence for Mexico City’s mayor (López Obrador has refused to take up lodging). Not so down the street at Guatemala #18 where the Spanish government is putting the finishing touches on a brand-new cultural center to be inaugurated this November by King Carlos and Queen Sofía. The construction rush worries investigators from the National Anthropology and Historical Institute (INAH) who are obligated to watchdog every Centro Histórico construction project–the INAH investigators have dug up an ancient rubber ball on the site used in the Aztec ritual game of pelota and believe a pelota court to be under the new center.
Similarly, the recent street digs to install new drainage lines have turned up fresh finds, including a portion of a wall that once surrounded the Zócalo when it was a sacred Aztec precinct. At the height of this past rainy season, a four-story building, overlooking a celebrated row of used book shops on Donceles Street, suddenly came tumbling down with a great woosh (mercifully, no book hunters were flattened). A block away, behind her desk in an elegant old colonial building that serves as the city archives, Ana Lilia Cepeda heard that woosh as a wake-up call. “We’re racing against the clock to rescue the Centro Histórico,” she tells me. In the end, though, the physical rescue of the old quarter may be a lot easier than saving this crumbling neighborhood from the transnational real estate speculators poised to pounce when the price is right.
“Carlos Slim and his friends are trying to run us out of the Centro Histórico,” complained Juan Acevedo of the Indigenous Artisans Movement (MAIZ)–which represents Indian venders on downtown streets–as he and 150 associates blocked traffic in front of City Hall one day in October. “He forgets this is still the Gran Tenochtitlán, our home.”
John Ross, author of The War Against Oblivion, the eight-year saga of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, has lived in the Centro Histórico since the great earthquake of 1985, and worries about its future. He is currently on the road in California searching for funds to underwrite his survival as an investigative reporter in Mexico.