Blog Post

Wealth and Sprawl in Mexico City

As I wrote before I arrived here, I grew up on an edge of Los Angeles—I could ride my bike down the hill to the park and the comic book store in the strip mall, and, with enough energy, I could ride up the nearby canyon and into the undeveloped hills. I hadn’t been reminded of that sensation, of real, unmanicured nature in the city, until this past weekend. Even living on the very edge of Mexico City in Cuautitlán, where I could walk into farmland in matter of minutes didn’t do it—the neighborhood was so different from any I'd ever spent time in before that I couldn’t easily slip into unquestioned comfort. Last Saturday, standing on a hill on the western edge of the city, though, with scrub grass and oak trees overlooking the canyons and ridges of the city of the wealthiest parts of the city, I felt like I could be in California.

I recently got an ad-hoc tour of the sprawl on the rich, leafy western edge of the city. These expansive single family homes, gleaming condo towers, and leafy slopes are a far cry from the hot dry expanses of mass-produced homes in Cuautitlán, but both are comparable distances from the Zocalo, and both make up the surrounding Estado de México.

Despite being more or less alone on a quiet road in a remote corner of the city, I felt safe. That, in turn, suddenly, made me feel a bit guilty and self-conscious; the trappings of wealth, the toll roads, country clubs, and modern homes had lulled me into a sense of security.

The Torre Altus, presently the fifth tallest building, and other luxury homes in Bosques de las Lomas, DF. Photograph by Michael Waldrep, click to enlarge

I still don’t really know how safe I should feel in any part of the city. But I can say that a day in the hills districts of the city felt calming and familiar. I passed a long day taking photos and video, which is hardly out of the ordinary, but it was one spent lazily driving through green, curving roads, going to shopping malls (there are easily a half-dozen in the area), and being close to nature. That last aspect, after so many weeks spent in the urban fabric of the city, or even in the farmland in the northern suburbs, was almost shocking.

Informally Constructed Homes in Naucalpan, Estado de Mexico Photograph by Michael Waldrep, click to enlarge

After recording the view on the undeveloped hill at dusk, we headed back toward the city. On that drive back, we pulled over to the side of side that I could grab this photograph of concrete homes in the hills to the north of the elite, country-club anchored neighborhood, Bosque Real. This is Naucalpan, a vivid example of the third paradigm of sprawl in Mexico City; after the elite, US-reminiscent suburbia of places like the many "hills" and "woods" of the West, and the modest, subsidized homes of Cuautitlán, there is this sort of unplanned, informal, capital-deprived growth. These neighborhoods look startling, especially for audiences in places like the US, where it is all but unknown. But as I hope to demonstrate in my work here in Mexico, the families that inhabit these homes are living through the same processes that drive millions to the edge of the city: rich, poor, and middle-class alike.

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