La Ciudad de México

“Art is not to be understood, it is to be lived.”

Translation of the message printed on the admissions ticket for Mexico City’s Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo.

So too, with cities.

It seems it is easier to write about a place that you just pass through. When you’re a visitor (and one could argue about how long it takes to shed the ‘visitor’ status – a week? a year?) you collect a handful of specific, vivid, vignettes from a place, prime for recounting. When you hang around, it becomes easier to perceive a place’s layers; the stories for retelling begin to accumulate, intertwine and blur. This is neither good nor bad, but it has made writing about our month in Mexico City hard.

And, neither Drew nor I have been quite as excited about a place since our respective arrivals in Berlin and New York City, about a decade ago. As urbanists who both came to the profession from a deeply emotional connection to the ‘sidewalk ballet’ of cities, Mexico City moved us. For this reason, no single or sequence of blog posts could possibly convey all we absorbed and relished, nor do justice to the entirety of the place and our slice of experiences in it.

But I do remember our first morning. We stumbled back into North America the night before, dry mouthed and bleary eyed, with the awe of Machu Picchu on our backs. We took a short taxi ride to our lodging, where our mom-of-a-host greeted us warmly and without complaint at 2:09 a.m. She demonstrated how to use the purified water dispenser, warned us not to look at our phones on the street, told us to have fun, and said goodnight.

We crashed and awoke a heavenly nine hours later to a Mexico City morning.
Outside our yellow building on a dead-end street, we greeted a sun-drenched day in Roma Sur. A leap away from our front door, a bursting jacaranda tree released a handful of its endless purple petals onto the sleepy intersection below. The air was dry, clear, and cool, though the sun had warmed it in patches. We walked towards breakfast in silence, taking in this new home.

The buildings in this part of the city are colorful and old, charmed with wrought iron and a largely pastel palette. Roma Sur has all of the easy charm of its neighbors Roma Norte and Condesa to the north and west, but less of the polish. Parts have a colonial feel, while a strong art deco theme also makes its mark. Cars move slowly and the abundant, leaf-heavy trees have been leaning over the sidewalks with wisdom for decades.

Our first meal consisted of several different components (my favorite way of eating), including panqué de elote (a kind of dense, cake-y corn bread), café de olla (coffee with cinnamon, a little cane sugar and other spices, traditionally prepared in special ceramic pots), fresh squeezed orange juice, enchiladas, chilaquiles, and fresh bread (because why not?). We lingered over it, smiling, and smiling again.

Having nothing to do with the morning’s meal whatsoever, later that afternoon we went for a run. Our destination was the public office of Ecobici, the city’s bikeshare system. There, we took a brief digital road test to confirm we understood CDMX traffic safety laws (we both proudly passed the test – in Spanish – with 100% scores) and paid our $25 USD for an annual bikeshare membership, allowing us to freely zoom around the city on two wheels.

Sweaty mid-run selfie because look at those jacarandas!

That is about where, more than a month later, my memory begins to blur (though I’m fairly sure our next stop was tacos). So, in no particular order and again, without anything close to completeness, a few other things from the next 27 days that blew our minds:

Noche de Primavera. A free music festival in late March. The organizers selected sixteen unique locations throughout the city to erect stages on which 96 musical groups performed across genres. Pictured, a solo female bassist from Chile performs on a stage in the middle of the street near the Zócalo. Later, we found two opera singers performing famous French pieces in the Guimard entrance to the Bellas Artes subway station. (In 1998, the Paris and Mexico City subway systems performed a cultural exchange; Paris sent an Art Nouveau subway entrance; Mexico City sent an indigenous mural, now found in the Palais du Louvre station.)
Diego Rivera murals, on display at the Palacio Nacional as well as the Secretária de la Educación Pública (pictured here). Both buildings are works of art in and of themselves, but the highly accessible murals, painted right on the walls of the interior of both institutions, were an outstanding examples of public art, visual storytelling, and history.
The CDMX subway, which we were told repeatedly not to ride. It was clean, absurdly affordable (~$0.25 USD per ride, free for seniors and other vulnerable populations) felt safe, and was easy to navigate, thanks in part to the pictured icon-based station system map (a solution to low national literacy rates when the system was built). You should ride the subway!
Let this photo be a proxy for all the parks & urban green space we loved and lounged in all over Mexico City. This is in the succulent section of the botanical garden in Bosque de Chapultepec (the city’s ‘green lung’), which we enjoyed when my mom came to visit (guest post forthcoming!). For those taking notes, other parks we loved included: Parque Bicentenario, Jardín de la Bombilla, Parques México y Espana, Jardín Lopez Velarde (and nearby Huerto Roma Verde), Viveros de Coyoacán, and Parque Lincoln.

An Ai Weiwei exhibit (his first in México) at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). The exhibit tells concurrent stories about the “destruction of cultural heritage and our relationship with our ancestors,” through the story of the 43 student protestors who were kidnapped and disappeared in 2014 in Iguala here in Mexico (a national scandal that helped us better understand government impunity and some of the fallacies of democracy in modern México) and the commodification and loss of cultural antiquities in the Chinese revolution. The exhibit is open through October 2019 for anyone visiting before then.
Biblioteca Vasconcelos. An homage to Brutalist architecture on the outside, and on the interior, a masterpiece of contemporary design. It was so fun to explore both the way this space was conceived and executed, and to see how well it was being used by people from all walks of life.
These particular tacos and quesadillas (among the hundreds we consumed), which we stopped for on the way home from an evening out in Roma Norte. We caught the proprietors just before midnight as they were starting to pack up. We shared this meal on pink plastic stools on the sidewalk, and had a good long laugh about something neither of us can remember now.
Our dear friend also Dana came to visit, and we spent one evening at the Chapultepec Night Picnic, a free public event where the park remains open after dark, trees are lit with colorful lights, and you can spend the evening drinking wine and playing cards (or engage in whatever leisure activity you desire) on rattan mats with hundreds of other city residents.
The street art. I loved this piece, though my favorite place for art in the open was in the Buena Vista-Guerrero corridor, which invested heavily in public art as a community revitalization effort.
Though we will forever give due respect to Bogotá for pioneering the street closures that now bring thousands out on bike and foot in cities all over the world each Sunday, the CDMX version – Paseo Dominical – was a particular joy. Here I am with our bike share bikes on Paseo de la Reforma, a key artery of the city, dotted with regular roundabouts centering on spectacular sculptures and monuments. You can see one of the more famous – the golden Ángel de la Independencia – in the distance.
That time Yo-Yo Ma played a cello made out of guns. As part of his 36-city world tour (see: Bach Project), Yo-Yo Ma stopped in CDMX. He played Bach’s six cello suites for free, outdoors, in front of a 17,000 person audience. The following evening, he hosted a panel discussion with cultural leaders in the city (also free and open to the public), exploring the topic “What is the Responsibility of a 21st Century Cultural Capital?” At the end of the dialogue, one of the panelists – an artist – brought out a cello he had made for the event out of repurposed weapons, and Yo-Yo Ma deftly eked out some cello-like sounds.

In the end, the best thing about this city was everything about it. We were fattened, stirred and inspired.

Certainly, Mexico City is not without flaws. Like any big city, poverty abounds outside the well-trodden corridors. Sanitation and lack of clean drinking water are major issues, and income/employment inequality – particularly for indigenous populations – are very real issues, as is a fragile judicial system and rampant corruption (we might someday share our tale of paying off a cop to avoid a night in prison for a minor infraction in a public park).

And I would be remiss not to acknowledge the many ways in which our brief life here did not, could not, mirror that of true residents. For one, most of the time, we had nowhere to be. We could wander, sleep late, avoid traffic, act on impulse. For another, we were treated as visitors, all the more welcomed for our earnest attempts to crack jokes in Spanish and our goofy and constant excitement for everything we saw, ate, and experienced. This kind of enthusiasm tends to endear oneself to others, and we were largely rewarded with treatment that typical residents may not enjoy from the average street vendor or subway station attendant.

Concessions and admissions duly noted and fully factored in, it is still the case that we fell in love. And we’ll be savoring these memories and this rare thrill as long as it takes to return (which we hope, is not long at all).

p.s. Our initial explorations of CDMX were guided by a handful of helpful resources shared by various friends who had come before us. Building from a great map created by our planning school classmate, friend, and Mexico City native, Ulises, we tracked a lot of our destinations – food-based and otherwise – in the map below! For anyone who’s planning their own visit (or just curious) feel free to peruse for more insights on what we did and where we went, including some personalized commentary within each pin.

4 Replies to “La Ciudad de México”

  1. We are inspired to visit Mexico City. It has been on our list, and may well hit the top next spring.
    Sadly, we won’t spend a month.
    Recently, at the Castro, Ai Weiwei was present for the film premiere of the doc made about his Alcatraz exhibit. We were pleased to see him in person, and he had just flown in from the Mexico City exhibit .

  2. Ah ha! Now we know how you’re financing this elongated honeymoon: you’re sponsored by the Mexico City Tourist Board! Sara, your homage to CDMX was beautiful, inspiring and evocative. Muchas gracias.

  3. So glad that you guys connected with the DF (now CDMX) in such a profound way (and wrote about it so eloquently). Visit after visit, Marcia and I always seem to tap into some of the DF magic, and its clear that the magico was there for you. I am really pleased that you visited the Vasconcelos library as I think it really represents a certain intersection of the intellectual and communal culture that is not so readily visible outside of museums and special events. I also was pleased to find out about the (previously unknown to me) botanical garden in Chapultepec – definitely will see it on our next visit (maybe December – not sure yet).

    Saludos y vaya con dios. Alfredo

  4. Um now that you have left the country perhaps now is the time to share that story about your almost night in prison….!? I’m sure whatever I can imagine in my head is much worse….! 🙂

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