Unbalanced in the Sinking City
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

In Mexico City, all signs point to a metropolis that shouldn't even be here, much less be functional. Our editor explores the crooked lines of buildings and the straighter lines of segregation in the world's second–largest city.

Am I really that bad of a photographer? Every shot of a building looks crooked. It's like I got drunk in a cantina and then went on a photography spree around Mexico City, unable to keep the viewfinder straight as I clicked off shots of the sites. A slanted church, a leaning office building, a Basilica de Guadalupe that looks like it's about to fall on the bystanders.

But it's not the camera. Or me. In the sinking city, everything is a little off–kilter.

Mexico City shouldn't even be here. It should really be some pretty little island town surrounded by water, connected to the rest of Mexico by bridges, with volcanic mountains gleaming through the clear air in the distance. In the Museum of Anthropology there's a giant mural depicting what life was like when the Aztecs ruled in the early 1500s, with water covering most of the area where buildings and streets now sit.


Who is crazy enough to build a colonial capital city on muddy marshlands, on unstable ground surrounded by volcanoes, sitting on an earthquake fault line? The brash Spanish rulers dismissed the topography, confident in their belief that even 16th–century man could conquer nature with ease. Their grand cathedral starting sinking as soon as the roof went on, but they were too busy subjugating more kingdoms to worry about that.

Now the problem is getting worse. As the bulging population depletes the underground aquifers, parts of the city are sinking even faster, damaging drainage systems and weakening building foundations. Strolling around the historic center of the city can feel like a funhouse adventure, with leaning buildings next to unearthed Aztec ruins that now look like a child's clumsy drawing of a pyramid. Many of the historic restorations retain only the facade: the rest is too broken and bent to save.

Mexico's capital is now probably the second–largest city in the world, vying with Tokyo in terms of both population and sprawl. Nobody really knows how many people live here. There were an estimated 2.9 million residents in 1950, then 11.8 million just 20 years later. Now? It has at least doubled again, but maybe tripled. How do you count a city population that likely outnumbers the whole country of Australia?

In Love With the Bearded Lady
Mexican locals talk about their city with what could be called a verbal shrug of the shoulders. There are fundamental problems that will never be fixed, but that doesn't mean the residents are not still in love and proud. The city's citizens complain about the pollution, the traffic, and the inability of government officials to fix the simplest problems. Then they talk about the great food, the cultural attractions, and the energy in the air. It's a trade–off they ponder every day but continue to accept.

Mexican writer Juan Villoro once said, "There's a sense of deferred tragedy, our preferred strategy for coping with chaos. It is not ignorance that keeps us on this carousel of rats and stray dogs. To be honest, we like Mexico City. Like Don Juan in Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress, we have fallen in love with the bearded lady."

That was written two decades ago though and since then the lady's beard has benefited from a little electrolysis. In the most polluted days of Mexico City's past, children would supposedly color the sky brown when drawing their street scenes. Unless they had left the city or watched TV, they didn't know the sky was supposed to be blue.

"The air has gone from deadly to just unhealthy," says an associate I meet over coffee. "We no longer have birds dropping dead from the sky, so the government seems to have said, 'good enough for now.'"

CathedralThe usual Mexican fatalism is not really fair in this case though. Mayor Marcelo Ebrard—who lives next to a leafy park in Condesa—has become an ecological evangelist. When I first see a story online about his environmental campaigns, I assume I am looking at a headline from The Onion: "Mexico's Al Gore Wants to Create the Greenest City in the Americas." The article turns out to be serious but my natural response is to snicker and think, "Yeah, good luck with that."

The goal may be ridiculously ambitious, but Ebrard gets an A for effort. The main Paseo de la Reforma boulevard is now closed to traffic on Sundays. I pass by three different free bicycle rental stands in my walks around various neighborhoods. The metro is finally getting 15 miles of extensions and new lines, enabling whole neighborhoods to move from bus to subway, plus the buses themselves are being switched out for less polluting models. Carrots and sticks are both in place now to encourage rooftop gardens and solar panels on office and industrial buildings. On the days it is not raining, I see blue sky a lot, so I can only assume the children are using their brown crayons less.

The city center is getting its first real scouring in centuries too. Cleaning crews are at work scrubbing grime and chewing gum from sidewalks and building exteriors in the historic center. "Some of these wads have probably been here since chewing gum was invented," comments one full–time gum cleaner in the local newspaper.

Is there hope for the buildings though, the heavy stone structures going a bit deeper into the ground each year? While man tries to undo self–inflicted damage, crews also work to prop up what's sinking. The Metropolitan Cathedral and Sagrario (chapel) next to it by the huge main plaza tilt in opposite directions, the soft ground below unable to support the 127,000 tons of stone pilfered from the original Aztec structures. After extensive restoration and engineering work, now that tilt is relatively permanent. Massive concrete shafts underground have slowed the submerging, with the hope that the buildings are now stuck in place like Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa (minus the cable).

When I visit the spectacular Palacio de Bellas Artes, which houses a museum and performance hall, I ask the people at the tourism kiosk about the rumor the building will shut down soon for massive repairs. "Yes, we have to lift the whole building up and add support," the man replies. "Otherwise we think it will just keep sinking into the ground a little bit more each year."

Exploring the side streets nearby, I come upon Santa Veracruz church, which looks like it's about to keel over and drop on its side. Construction crews are busy digging holes that will be filled with concrete, but I can't help but feel it will take more than concrete and cranes to ever set this building straight again.

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