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LAS AMERICAS Saving Tenochtitlan For Whom? BY JOHN ROSS The veins of the Centro Historic, a United Nations World Heritage site and once the Gran Tenochtitlan, the island capital that was the throne of the Aztec empire, have been torn openand 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 Espariol 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 13block nucleus of yet another drive to rescue the Centro Historic, a ninesquare 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 $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 Andres Manuel Lopez 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 Historic 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 installedin 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 Tenochtitlan, the island capital of the far-flung Aztec empire, the Centro Historic 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 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 onceproud 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 HistOrico 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 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 ter 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 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11/22/02