Blog Post

Michael Waldrep: Understanding the Meaning of Sense of Place

Mexico City--I grew up in Los Angeles, a city of nearly four million that anchors an urban area that blankets much of Southern California and holds, depending on how it is measured, somewhere between 12 and 18 million people. More specifically, I spent most of my early life in the San Fernando Valley, in a suburban area in the foothills of the undeveloped Santa Susana hills that mark the boundary of the city and county of Los Angeles. While I spent my days over thirty miles from the city’s historic core and financial hub, I had no trouble thinking of myself as an Angeleno, even if I rarely saw the Hollywood sign or the tall buildings downtown.

Fast forward a decade or so and I’ve since lived in a handful of cities on both coasts of the U.S. and earned two degrees while indulging some passions—all of them born in L.A.—for the visual arts, for exploring, and for trying to understand cities. In a way, I can explain that last interest of mine least of all, even after a Master’s in City Planning. That said, I believe that in traversing a city, whether by foot, on a bike, in a bus, or behind the wheel, one can read in what they see and hear an entire history of that place. Its history, both in terms of nature and construction, a collection of the stories of its people, its politics, its customs, its desires.

It takes some imagination, and it’s probably often mistaken or superficial, but with a bit of practice, that sense of place that I’d like to think we all feel when we walk a familiar block after a few years or when we first walk up the stairs at a new metro stop really turns out to have meaning. That sense is a story that we tell ourselves about the city and our relationship to it, and perhaps also one that we’re reading silently to ourselves in passing.

Of course it’s harder when the city speaks in a language that you don’t natively understand. For me here in Mexico City, I mean not only the Spanish that I’m just now feeling start to click after years of study, or even the spray of chilango slang that peppers the conversations that I overhear. It’s also that the city and its parts are formed by and named for a history that is rich, massive, and almost utterly unfamiliar.

It’s not only that the city today looks very different than any city in the U.S.—the two are operating on wholly different scales. While an “old home” in L.A. might be from 1900, plenty of still-occupied apartments in Mexico City date from the 17th Century. While my big, state-school alma mater enrolled 25,000 undergraduates, the largest local university here enrolls nearly 200,000.

Amalgamation of Neighborhoods

In any case, a place that counts as its residents somewhere between 8 and 25 million people, depending on where the city’s boundaries are drawn, must necessarily be an amalgamation of divergent neighborhoods and characteristics. Taken all together, or even just taking the parts that I’ve seen, the city feels to me a bit like three parts L.A., three parts New York, and maybe eleven parts something completely unlike the cities I know.

I’ll spend 9 months in Mexico City studying its stories, and specifically those of the sprawling reaches that envelope it. Certainly, the city has its historic center and its charming European-styled boulevards close by. But outside of its strictest boundary, the line that divides the Federal District from the surrounding State of Mexico, a 21st Century city, simultaneously typical of global development and unique to the specificities of Mexico, is being built. It includes the massive, quasi-legal, cinderblock districts of Ciudad Neza (1.1 million people, or nearly two Bostons) and Ecatepec (1.6 million people, or larger than Philadelphia)—the informal settlements that loom large in the mental image of the sprawling edges of Mexico City.

Traveling the same distance from the center of the city, though, you can just as easily end up in Ecatepec as you can in the U.S.-styled middle-class subdivisions of Cuautitlán, or the opulent gated communities of Interlomas, or the undeveloped grandeur of the Ajusco range. The diversity in the periphery is both stunning and crucial to any fundamental understanding of the city and its region.

The Lessons of Mexico City

Through my chosen media of video, photography, mapping, and writing, I’ll be conducting a broad survey of these spaces and an in-depth analysis, relying on the experiences of residents, of few key places within. The idea, most of all, is to communicate a sense of this place and to gather together some of the lessons that Mexico City can learn from its own development, and that cities all around the world—not least of all those in the U.S., where sprawl is a fundamental fact of recent and contemporary urban development—can learn from as well.

Throughout my time in Mexico as a member of the first cohort of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, I’ll be blogging regularly here on my progress, and sharing the work in progress as it develops. You can watch most closely by checking out my Instagram, @michaelwaldrep, where I’ll be sharing daily photos of my experience. It’s a huge honor to be here and to have been given the means to pursue this endeavor, and so I hope that you’ll follow along and respond to what you see and read.

Mchael Waldrep is one of five inaugural Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling fellows. Read more about the program.

The first five Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows, clockwise from upper left: Ann Chen, Daniel Koehler, Erin Moriarty Harrelson, Michael Waldrep, and Mimi Onuoha. Photographs courtesy of U.S. Department of State.

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