"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City
forty-seven. city edges.
9.19, Vitali + Cuautepec
heavy rain made the evening commute more brutal than usual. usually walkable distances were rendered intolerable (street and sidewalk flooding due to poor drainage is a serious issue). moreover, the frequency of trains can be erratic, so flow volume accumulated quickly and the 5 minute waits yielded already-full compartments. after waiting two rounds without successful embarkation, i ran home in the rain – by far the quickest way to cover a mile in such conditions, rail, taxi or bus included. for all the traffic, however, the paseros here are so easy to use, as most routes end or begin at Metro stations, so even if you’re not sure exactly where you’re going there are navigable benchmarks that allow you to plug back into the mapped Metro system. more importantly, the buses are well-signed, in contrast to Jo’burg, where mini-bus know-how was entirely by word of mouth and experience. however, some residents swear against them – their horrid road rules (or lack thereof), the corruption and perceived disorganization of the system (cronies leasing buses at impossible rates, licenses which are sold first and foremost for profit), the sheer shoddiness of some vehicles.
the day was incredible though, and was spent traveling to the city fringe by Metrobus, pasero, and then foot (Mexico city is the first city i’ve been in that supports the textbook zoom derive). it pertinently ended at a gallery opening of Massimo Vitali’s “A portfolio of landscapes with figures.” (http://www.massimovitali.com/) his large-format, washed out photos feature hordes of people vacation-playing against a backdrop of sea, snow, and industry. the human figures loom plasticine and super-saturated while the mountains, smokestacks, or granite-cliffs fade into abstract washes in the background. the density and clarity of his figures render his canvases into ‘Where’s Waldo’ exercises; invariably he captures a handful of figures either looking straight at, or deliberately hiding from, the camera. more innocently, he also captures couples in various states of (dis)affection, people frozen in physical play, or in self-conscious self-scrutiny (a women primping in a compact mirror, another women adjusting her bikini-clad breasts, etc.). the tone of his work is complex – at first the harsh, surreal color schemes read like frigid satire, but the subjects are too detailed to become symbolic; in spite of their sheer number each remains a subject clearly demarcated in space, suspended in water, sliding over snow, sunning on rock, pursuing health, beauty, and fun, but imperfectly so – bodies are squishy, faces are caught in distorted expression, azure waters support oil tankers in the distance. his panoramas are especially poignant, as he leaves the edge of each frame ambiguous and slightly overlapping, such that the movement of figures can be followed from one frame to the next. i can’t say whether the work is politically laden, but it does offer a succinct representation of the human compulsion to embrace nature, industry, and play in equal measure. the fact that this juxtaposition is rarely idyllic simply highlights the ultimate inevitability of human fallacy.
today’s earlier exploration out to Cuautepec was marked by topography, density, and an essential interplay of the official and informal that is distinctly Mexico City (or what I have observed of it). Indios Verdes is the northern terminus of both the Metrobus and line 3 of the Metro; from there it is a stop-start 45 minute ride further north into the Cuautepec district, which is pressed against a mountainous ecological conservation zone and is within the northernmost protrusion of the Federal District’s boundary. as the road gently slopes up to meet the hills, dense commercial activity and stoplights give way to smaller-scale shops, diminished traffic, and densely packed CMU housing that clings and climbs up the hill. however, the sense of a main road (or two) is maintained, from which near-vertical stairs or secondary roads off-shoot perpendicularly, maintaining a surprising loyalty to the grid which rules so much of the downtown layout (and which is a legacy of cosmically-driven Aztec city planning). from a distance it was unclear whether the neighborhoods were serviced by infrastructure, but powerlines, streetlights, paved roads, and sewage pipes that follow the road layout attest to the positive, as did an FD garbage truck and squeaky clean streets. visually, it is difficult to not feel enamored at the sight of this extremely topographical, high-density residential area where most grey single family homes reveal vivid splashes of color on doors or window frames (although some older, lower, larger houses were entirely painted, and not necessarily for the better).
the pasero climbed up into this well-ordered melee for a surprising distance, almost to the visible edge of allowable building zone. this is marked distinctly by a wall which snakes horizontally over the ridges of the hills, and resembles a less-glamorous Great Wall. (this settlement boundary is visible on other hillsides around the city fringe and is not limited to Cuautepec). the walls are built once the informal settlements begin to grow, and the infrastructural services are the result of community mobilization and petitioning of the government. curious as to what happens at this literal edge i climbed further until the wall revealed itself as a simple concrete boundary, no higher than my 5’2”, mostly grafittied, and usually topped with a second layer of chain-link. however, the wall had a gate, which was open, and which led into the conservation zone and along a path of extremely green, pristine grass, lush wildflowers, and copious eucalyptus trees. it was stunning, the contrast to the hill houses made more startling by the proximity of the highly built to the left-untouched, and the apparent respect for the wall’s function as boundary seemingly total. in other words, the hardness of the boundary and its efficaciousness allowed for the proximity and extreme contrast, and i was left wondering how/why the wall’s legitimacy is so-well maintained. perhaps the presence of infrastructural service (and its obvious absence of the other side) might partly account.
also noteworthy was the fact that in areas where the foothills were steepest and closest to the main street, social and commercial activity were more vibrant, perhaps due to a greater population flow down into flat open space, but also, i surmise, because of a spatial-visual effect that renders the main street + hill into something of an abstract, intuitive plaza or coliseum-like space. as i mentioned before, i have seen churches and public spaces here that are demarcated by descent, and wonder if public space in these hills isn’t created as a hollow collects water by gravity. relatedly, the steepest streets were the most colorful -- the most well-planted, the most occupied, the best-cared for.
back-tracking here... Ecatepec municipality is beyond the boundary of the FD but is still within the Mexico City Metropolitan Zone, and is the conurbation’s largest municipality (after the FD). many of its residents commute into the city, thus justifying Metro line B’s extension far beyond the FD boundary in order to service the area (while most Metro lines stay within the FD). out here the line resembles the Pittsburgh-Bay Point BART -- aboveground, sandwiched between opposing lanes of Av. Hank Gonzalez -- the station serving not so much as an urban node as a pit-stop along a highway from which subsidiary transit carries passengers into the towns that have their own centers, far from the highway. immediately adjacent to the highway and the overpass-station there is a hectic tangle of paseros, a smattering of street-stalls, and another Wal-mart/Suburbia shopping center. everything feels transitory in this zone, ready to escape.
the VW-style mini-van pasero is more prevalent out here than the army-tanker style pasero that runs roughshod in Mexico City center. since the highway + metro split the area into two distinct halves, i headed west, towards the distant hills which were draped in what looked to be informal housing. true to the grid, a highly developed thoroughfare ran due west perpendicular to the highway, and i walked for a couple miles along this road, passing through several distinct zones – a predominately noisy and congested commercial area close to the highway, followed by a smaller-scale, predominately auto-repair area with perpendicular mews-like shared yards between rows of facing homes (see photo above; they were amazingly tranquil and well-planted spaces for such proximity to the main drag), then over a canal which was a distinct border into a slightly less well-kept area of similar use, across the busy Via Morelos and suddenly into an industrial zone of semi-trucks, warehouses, dusty roads and mostly men. food processing seemed to be the dominant industry; i saw a truckload of beans, and smelled sweet caramel as i continued towards the hills, trying to look as non-chalant as possible with my Chaco’d toes and double X chromosomes. i never got there, however, as the industrial zone dead-ended into the Autopista Pachuca, with no visible way across, so i hung a sharp south and headed instead for a renegade hill with a smaller neighborhood clinging to its slopes.
this settlement hovered directly above the small industrial area in what was a poster-child candidate for environmental injustice. fortunately, the factories weren’t spewing smoke but emitting sugar-smells, and the only immediate pollution was that of a low rumble of machine noise. the several hundred houses up here were serviced only by uneven dirt roads that could barely support auto-traffic but that were a healthy playground for 4-legged furries (dogs, cats, horses) and that provided the best views in the area. it is still strange to see this socio-economic inversion in relation to topography; i am accustomed to hills, as in the U.S., being areas of prime real-estate for the views they afford. here in Mexico, the plain is prime, the hills are inconvenient, and create an edge against which the undesired is pushed, along with the highways and the industry. in a city that developed long before the engine and was once surrounded by lake, this penchant for the flat and center makes sense, while i surmise that SF or LA’s initial spatial divisions are less divorceable from a carriage, tram, or car’s ability to navigate the distance and curves.
after a quiet hour exploring the hillside, i descended dusty-footed down an informal footpath that overlooked a grocery store and landed in the backyard of a gas station where i waited for my maniacal bus-ride home. along the (terrifying) way we followed a decommissioned railway track that ran down the middle of a grassy median dividing the 6 lane road. although my driver believed otherwise, the road wasn’t a highway but was lined with shops, neighborhoods, pedestrians, and the railbed-median was tree-lined, suggesting great potential for a linear park. in other areas the tracks had been sheared to make room for a built intervention, leaving behind a ruin of of thick, cleaved iron ties.
once back downtown and re-plugged into the Metro system, i witnessed a chaotic outbound rush hour scene in which arm-waving cops were stationed at flimsy portable barricades in order to ensure that no men lined up for the first two train compartments. a recent campaign to reserve these cars for women-only is the result of an alleged increase in harassment, and while many stations yield signs demarcating as much, these are rarely heeded. in a crowded city where 2 out of 6 seem to travel as a couple, the system has yet to prove its pragmatism or pragmatism, and as such, it is not yet defened by the city's public.