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Alvaro Obregon’s facelift

bikesAll the different neighborhood groups that the city government called together to talk about their new project, agreed on one thing – they wanted the trees to stay.

“The other thing they said was bicycles,” said Rene Caro, part of the city’s public space authority, told me recently, “Even people who probably aren’t riding bikes – seniors citizens for example – all agreed that eco-bici and bicycles in general had an important place on the avenue.”

 

The Project

These snippets were part of a discussion about the city’s planned revamp of one of La Roma’s most important avenues, Álvaro Obregón – home to the majority of the colonia’s nightlife and also a lot of its daily chaos. Groups of neighbors with varying interests formed a part of a series of 4 workshops that the city government held to get feedback about the planned project and find out what was important to people about the avenue. The obvious issues raised their ugly heads – parking meters (one side of Obregón has them and the other doesn’t), dogs (some neighbors want dog parks, the others want no dogs allowed), street vendors (are they providing a service or adding to the chaos?) and noise (bars and restaurants, motorcycle gangs).

According to Caro, and the official project proposal, what’s first is a revamp of the trashcans_alvaro_obregonphysical area. That means fixing the streetlights, repaving the sidewalks, treating sick trees, renovating the fountains and (I hope) adding more trashcans. This will all begin after the first of the year.

The second phase of the project will be a little trickier.

 

The Long Arm of the Law

“What we’re not short on is rules,” says Caro, “the problem is enforcement.”

The project’s second stage is getting businesses and residents to follow some of the city ordinances already in place. That means restaurants are limited on the amount of tables they can have on the sidewalk (and what they can have can’t block pedestrian traffic), it means clubs and bars have to respect noise limits, it means residents have to pick up after their dogs. It also means that most sidewalk vendors will have to go.

This last issue is a particular bone of contention, with one side abhorring the vendors and the other side applauding their utility. For many people, their removal will be one more example of gentrification in La Roma.

But Caro says that along with vendors’ utility come issues of legality, mobility on the sidewalks and the trash that street markets and lines of vendors are notorious for leaving behind.

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“It’s all about creating a balance,” he says. “We’re never going to lose this culture of buying and selling the street, but we need to organize it in such a way that street commerce respects the space of the other as well.”

Win, Lose

As a resident of this neighborhood I hate the idea of reduced sidewalk seating at my favorite restaurants and I don’t agree with kicking vendors off Álvaro Obregón – they not only add to the vibrant street life of the city, but fill the streets with onlookers, an important part of making them safe, especially at night.

BUT on the other hand, it would be nice if the sidewalks were clear for disabled residents, if I had a place to lock up my bike and if the streetlights worked.

“We complain a lot about the government and its corruption and ineptness,” says Caro, “ but when it comes time to follow the rules ourselves we refuse. This creates a vicious circle of blame. We all have to learn how to become responsible citizens.”

Later we talk about Mayor Mokus of Bogota and his famous experiment in the 90s where neighbors were given red and yellow cards to flash at each other when they caught someone doing something wrong – cutting someone off in traffic, throwing trash on the sidewalk. Psychology and perception have a strong influence over how we act on the street. We’ll have to wait and see how Álvaro Obregón’s facelift changes the neighborhood (and the neighbors) – for better or for worse.

 

 

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Who Occupies La Roma?

Every neighborhood changes. People move in and out and back again with shifts in politics, prices and prejudice. It’s often hard as a newcomer to truly appreciate the evolution of the past two years, ten years, or half century of streets where you live, but it’s important history for understanding the social fabric and politics of a location.

jane-jacobs_2I have a particular obsession with the elements that make cities livable, a passion  ignited by my first reading of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs.

In this urban planning bible, Jacobs evaluates why certain cities (and individual neighborhoods within them) either flourish or fail, why some parks are abandoned and others maintained, why areas with a certain mix of buildings have a more vibrant street life.

The old and the new in La Roma

The old and the new in La Roma

In Jacob’s view, the best neighborhoods develop gradually and mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones. This kind of development allows for mom and pop shops and supermarket chains, for low-wage workers and high-class executives to all take part in the social cohesion that makes neighborhoods safe, diverse and economically viable.

Mexico City’s La Roma is an example of one of those mixed neighborhoods. It’s had a long history of poets, artists and vagabonds (including such characters as William S. Borroughs, Jack Kerouac, Remedios Varo and María Izquierdo) and has also been home to Mexico City’s high society.

Where the colonia now sits was once acres of abandoned fields just outside of Mexico City surrounding a small rural town called La Romita. In 1903, developer Edward Walter Orrin presented plans to the local city hall for the building of a suburb with wide, tree-lined boulevards and European-inspired architecture – La Roma. It was to become the home of Mexico City’s second-tier rich moving out from the historical center, who fifty years later would abandon it for neighborhoods like Polanco, Anzures and Las Lomas.

In the past few decades the neighborhood’s location, architecture, and social scene has made it once again the place to live.

According to Ricardo Nurko, an architect who lives and works in La Roma,”Six or seven years ago this place was abandoned at night, no one was in the street past eight o’clock and to be honest, it wasn’t that safe to walk around after dark. Now look at it!”

Converted Space

Converted Space

That said older residents and some new ones are concerned that while gourmet restaurants, hipster bars and delightful outdoor cafes have provided La Roma residents with plenty of nightlife, they have also brought higher rents and a new population of residents with no long-term memory of the neighborhood.

Talking to some of those neighbors is what pushed me to investigate the housing and history of my new home and part of what prompted Nurko and photographer Livia Radwanski to study the neighborhood’s process of gentrification. Nurko and Radwanski set out in 2012 to map out what percentage of Roma’s buildings were new, how many had been taken over, or “occupied” by residents and how many could be considered gentrified. What they found were some interesting statistics, a complicated web of neighborhood politics and a tenuous sense of ownership for some of the neighborhood residents.

DSCF1777Gentrification is generally thought to be an increase in rents or home prices due to higher-income earners moving into an area that was previously working class. These new residents (and the businesses that either follow or attract them) can slowly drive out long-term residents. It’s a common pattern in big cities across the globe; most neighborhoods go from lower to higher income and back again at least once during their lifetimes.

Nurko and Radwanski’s interest in the changing housing landscape of the neighborhood was piqued by a particular situation happening at Mérida #90. Some apartments in this building (that were damaged by the 1985 earthquake) were being occupied by a group of tenants. They were in the middle of a legal battle with the owner when Radwanski moved into a building across the street. Radwanski wrote a book about what was happening there called Merida90 and it became the catalyst for she and Nurko’s broader, joint project later on.

Before you read the term occupied and immediately envision militant squatters huddling around trashcan fires, you must understand that in most cases buildings were occupied by residents already living in them.

This is how they came to occupy them as explained by Nurko: The process was directly related to two major moments in the neighborhood’s history. The first was the rent freeze law put in place after World War II by president Manuel Ávila Camacho in order to control inflation. This law made the neighborhood virtually rent controlled until the 1990s. Property owners claimed that the rising cost of maintenance and taxes were no longer covered by what they could charge in rent. In many cases owners simply abandoned their buildings, leaving them to either be taken over by the residents already living there or occupied by outside groups.

The second major factor was the 1985 earthquake that rocked Roma and left a wake of destruction in the form of dilapidated and unstable buildings. Many of these buildings were also abandoned by owners with no money to repair them.

Some occupations of abandoned or damaged properties were led by political groups. They organized residents to take over the buildings, providing them with housing in exchange for political loyalty. Much of the money flowing into the buildings’ renovation and the renovations themselves depend on political sway and control.

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According to Nurko, as the real estate boom has hit the Roma in the last five years or so, many children and grandchildren of the original owners of these buildings have come back to claim their property. In certain cases the government has interceded to purchase the properties and offer residents avenues to secure right of ownership.

It doesn’t always turn out the way tenants expect.

In the case of Mérida #90, residents, given deeds to their apartments by the government, then had to evacuate for a renovation process that dragged on for 10 years, as local administrations changed and priorities shifted.

Complaints fly from both sides about occupied buildings, from families who depend on these buildings for affordable housing and others who see the buildings as eyesores and wasted potential. What is not often discussed is that these buildings are an integral part of La Roma’s social cohesion. They not only serve as a barrier to further physical gentrification of the neighborhood, but also provide space for lower income, long-term residents who play an important part in conserving Roma’s economic, political and social diversity.

Through their research, Nurko and Radwanski found that of the neighborhood’s entire area, public parks and green space constitute 3%, new residential buildings (built after 1990), 12.3%, occupied buildings 4.7%, and properties converted into shops or restaurants (their definition of “gentrified”), 2.77%. A stroll around the neighborhood will show you that the percentage of gentrified and new residential properties is only going to continue to rise as long as La Roma continues to draw investors with its growing economy and attractive cultural atmosphere. According to this business insider piece, La Roma as a neighborhood compares with some of the most gentrified U.S. cities, like San Francisco with 13% gentrified land and New York with 18%.

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According to Nurko, he and Radwanski’s project was conceptualized as a way to bring awareness to the issue of gentrification in this neighborhood, not an explicit political statement about what the solution should be. They believe that the statistics they discovered are important to look at as La Roma decides what kind of a neighborhood it will be and how it will develop in the future.

“I know that as a resident of the Roma, whether new or old, it’s easy to just go to your favorite coffee shop or restaurant and simply not be aware of what’s happening here. We just wanted to force people to see it,” Ricardo explains.

Healthy cities are organic, spontaneous, messy, complex systems, says Jacobs in her book, but they are also cities where city planners, politicians and neighbors all have a say in the future of their space. Neighborhood evolution is inevitable, but it may be worth thinking about how we want it to happen.

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Monumental Rain

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Sunday’s Game (the other one)

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I know that it’s blasphemous to talk about any other sport right now other than soccer, but Sunday I went to my first baseball game in Mexico, something I have been hankering for since I moved here. And the game – which when there wasn’t a chile y fruta or michelada vendor in front of me I could completely imagine I was at home watching – made me curious about the love of the game here in my adopted country.

Aquí se dice béisbol
Mexico’s big baseball influence was of course, the United States. Soldiers who were stationed here from the mid to late 1800s played the game and the North American businessmen who came to Mexico to build the first railroads around the same time started up leagues and teams for their workers.

Lots of places – Sinaloa, Monterrey, Nuevo León and others – all claim to be the place baseball was first played on Mexican soil and it seems to have been popular first in the northern Mexican states (where many local teams played against Southern US teams) and in the Caribbean and Southern Mexico with their influence from baseball-crazed Cuba and other Central American countries.

The sport’s popularity has ebbed and flowed over time. In 1904 the Mexican teams established two leagues, the Liga de Verano (Summer League) for amateurs and the Mexican Association of Baseball for semiprofessionals. Charlie Comisky brought the White Sox to play in Mexico in 1906. He came for the good weather and what he thought was a money-making opportunity (charging for exhibition games) but as William Beezley explains in his book, Judas at the Jockey club and Other Episodes of Porfirian Mexico, “The crowds remained small, probably because of the extremely high ticket price of 3.50 a seat. The equivalent of seven pesos was nearly three times the cost of a seat in the sun at the bullring.”

In 1925, the Mexican Baseball League was established and continues today as an AAA minor league. Its founding was followed by a surge in excitement over baseball in Mexico, that petered out in the 40s and came back full swing in the late 1950s. According to MLB.com, the renewed interest was in part because of Mexico’s Monterrey Little league team winning the 1957 Little League World Series and putting the spotlight back on baseball south of the border.

Those Devilish Defeños
The Diablos, Mexico City’s team who were originally called The Reds, got their nickname when they “played like devils” in a 1942 game – coming back from a 13-7 ninth inning to win the game 14-13. The team has won 11 championships since they were founded in 1940 by Salvador Lutteroth and the famous Diablos manager Ernesto Carmona. Their original rival team was the Blues of Veracruz but in later years they have sparred most with Los Tigres of Quintana Roo (the league’s current champion), going up against them in various play-offs and championship games.

On Sunday we saw the Diablos play against the Olmecas from Tabasco. The Foro Sol, where they have been playing since 2000, was filled with noisemakers, doughnut vendors, beer hawkers and kids with tiny baseball mitts looking for a fly ball. It reminded me of the many minor league games I’ve watched the Charleston Riverdogs and the Asheville Tourists play. Although the crowd was small, they were dedicated. The Diablos started out with a run and continued to steadily score in almost every inning, knocking out two home runs, and ended up winning 12 to 7.

There are a handful of things I miss about my home country and summer baseball games is one of them. There is nothing like spending a Sunday summer afternoon watching baseball and having a beer in the sun, but it’s even better with salsa music and tacos. The Diablos made have just made my summer.

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Ablution on the go and a circus tent cathedral

In Mexico, anything is possible. Even a drive-up blessing.

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During my parents’ recent visit, as a curious ex-Catholic is bound to be, my mother wanted to take a field trip to see the Tilma de Juan Diego with its miraculous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it.

I suppose miracles never lose their magic in our minds, especially ones we listen to reverently as children. Spend even a little time in Mexico and you will often hear the story of Juan Diego, so much so that I hesitate to write it down here for fear of overkill. But I will. This is for all of you non-Catholics who have never been to Mexico and have no idea why a star-spangled virgin with a moon at her feet is plastered all over hats, t-shirts, bumper stickers and birthday cakes.

juan diegoAccording to the legend, in December of 1531, Juan Diego, a poor peasant, encountered a beautiful woman on the hill of Tepeyac, outside of Mexico City. She spoke to him in Nahuatl (the indigenous language of the Aztecs) and told him to build her a temple on the hill. When poor Juan Diego went to see the archbishop of Mexico City, Father Juan de Zumárraga, and told him about the apparition, the archbishop refused to believe him, asking for a sign if the virgin truly wanted her temple to be built there. When Juan went back to the hill, saw the virgin again and told her what the Father had said, she told him to go to the top of the hill and pick some Castillian roses (out of season and continent) and carry them to the archbishop in his cloak. He followed her instructions and as he lay the roses before the archbishop an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appear on the front of his cloak.

And then there are other theories.

Mainly that this virgin, with her honey-colored skin and Nahuatl speech was the Catholic church’s peace offering to the indigenous converts of Mexico. The old, “give them their own virgin” ploy to win their loyalty. Historians say the devil is in the details. One hand of the virgin is darker and full, the other paler, clasped together to signify the Europeans and indigenous joining together to form a new race. She is standing on a half moon. The origin of the word Mexico in náhuatl is metz-xic-co, which means “from the navel of the moon,” the virgin is therefore standing, literally in Mexico. Her cloak of stars represents the southern and northern constellations (on the right and left side respectively) which were extremely important to the native peoples of Mexico. I could go on, but you get the idea. She was a virgin people could relate to, one of them.

This miraculous cloak is housed in the Basílica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, just a short metro ride from my house. So naturally, we went to see it.

I didn’t know beforehand, of course, that this would be the ugliest cathedral I globoswould ever set my eyes on. The basílica looks like a giant circus tent, with seventies wood paneling on the inside and a hideous front altar made with what looks like sharp spikes of gold. We wandered into a Mass and didn’t see the Virgin anywhere, so we decided the cloak must be in one of the other, older, more beautiful churches in the Virgin of Guadalupe complex. There are five churches here and one up on the hill, none of which have clear information about them posted anywhere. Is this the temple built to Virgin or to Juan Diego, the parochial offices or the baptismal? The museum sign is nowhere near the museum entrance and two dark staircases announcing comedores were decidedly foreboding in nature.

Maybe a native speaker would have been able to sort it out easier or maybe growing up Mexican your mother or grandmother takes you to the basílica for the first time and explains the layout.

There is an Aztec Calendar in the back part of the courtyard along with a Roman Numeral clock, an astrological clock and a few other clocks thrown in for good measure.

Mexican Catholicism has always been a mix of official and not-so-official imagery and rituals. But an explanation or two would have been nice.

sinking basilicaThe original basílica (we figured that one out), in contrast to the new version, is gorgeously ancient and slightly off balance. The church is slowly sinking like so many other things in Mexico City, but still has the most charm of all the buildings on the square.

I finally asked a lady selling medals inside the old basílica where the original tilma was because I was pretty sure it wasn’t the one going virtually unnoticed as the midday prayer group chanted their prayers. She confirmed it was in the new basílica but that it was up front in a frame and that’s probably how we had missed it.

So back to the circus tent. By this time the Mass-goers were filtering out and we could get closer to the front altar, where a million miles away we could see a teeny, tiny framed image of the Virgin, who could have been Cher for all your could see of her from that distance. If with my zoom lens I couldn’t get a good shot of the Virg I could only imagine how people were faring with their iphones as they posed in front of the distant virgin for a snapshot souvenir. Suffice it to say, we were all disappointed.

virgin at the altar

I expected a continuous line of pilgrims slowly passing the virgin, pausing a moment to pray or light a candle, more solemnity, less iphone. This was the coldest expression of faith I had ever seen in Mexico – a place where people reenact the crucifixion, bloody Christ and all. It all seemed a little too hands off.

Regardless of its sterility, this church is one of the most visited Marian sites in the world, and I am sure is number one in Mexico. It was definitely hopping when we were there.

If none of the five churches or a visit to the Virgin fulfill your need for sanctification you can always stop by the blessings booth on the way out, where a priest stands all day long with an extra-long aspergillum and sprinkles visitors with Holy Water. It’s amazingly quick and convenient.

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Mexican Chamorro Adventures (complete with recipe)

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I have three chamorro recipes and I’m still nervous.

Maybe there is something to be said about too many options.

But it’s Erci’s birthday and I need to make sure it’s right. We are both obsessed with the chamorro tacos and clear-your-sinuses salsa at the Serena Gorda in San Miguel de Allende and that’s how delicious I want it to be.

Plus, it’s our first official day on the beach and even though I realize roasting a ham hock in the oven may not be the best idea for an April night on the beach, our friend Gonzalo is allergic to shellfish and I want so desperately to make something that he can eat and that will blow everyone away at the same time.

That has led me here, to the Zihuatanejo market, in the boiling 10am sun to order a leg of ham a little over a kilo and half. It’s frozen, a momentary setback, but it’ll defrost in an hour in the tropical heat. The other items on my list are bay leaf, garlic, onions and white wine. I have no idea about the rest of it. I can feel the anxiety of winging it for my girlfriend’s birthday closing in on me a little, but I gotta keep it together. I am the cook, everyone has placed their faith for dinner in me.

The ocean is blue, the palm trees are green and the chamorro is bright pink.

Back at the bungalow, the kitchen and I meet face to face. There is no thermometer for either the lemon mousse or the pork. The chamorro is just about an inch too big for the pot. There’s no regular salt or pepper which means my tiny ziploc packages of sea salt and peppercorns are going to have to do. The tea pitcher leaks. The oven is rusting in the salty breeze. For some reason I can’t get anything to come to boil. I need another lemon for the mousse and there is no grater for the peel.

But it’s such a damn nice day.

So I attack the lemons with a carrot peeler, send Erci to search the other empty bungalows for pots and pans, crack my peppercorn with my chef’s knife (thank god I brought it) and open myself a beer. Ercilia is looking for yet another chamorro recipe, standing in the only tiny corner of the garden where the internet signal reaches us from the neighbor’s house.

The recipe she finds sounds better. It calls for red wine (got it), a liter of beef stock (I have a mason jar full that I brought from home – is that a liter?), olive oil, sea salt (!) celery (nope, but I hate celery anyway), chile powder ( I have aji from our trip to Argentina in December) carrots (no) tomato (yes) dry chiles (nope again), pork lard (what?). Ok, so it’s getting out of hand.

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We’re gonna have to go with what we got. So we rub the chamorro with oil and sea salt and clumsily brown it in a pan that it doesn’t really fit into, holding it up with the grill tongs and a chef’s knife so that it will brown on each side. Then we throw it in a pot stolen from next door, deglaze the pan with a cup of red wine, add the stock and throw in the following: a half an onion, a whole tomato, five bay leaves, thyme from my garden at home that I drug twelve hours in the car wrapped in wet paper towels, two cloves of garlic from the market, cracked black pepper, ground aji, and cracked coriander.

It’s looking good and smelling heavenly when Tamar saunters out, half awake after her afternoon nap and reminds us that Gonzalo is also allergic to red wine. Damn sulfates. So for the next half an hour Tamar wanders around the garden, looking for the wi-fi signal and trying to find out if sulfates burn off when cooked. We find three sources that say yes, so we figure we’re good to go. In goes the Chamorro to simmer in the oven while we sweat beside it.

chamorro_taco_Mexico_city_streetsThree hours later I am frying plantains, making rice and beans and warming tortillas. When the leg of pork finally emerges from the oven it is as smooth as butter and falls off the bone into the green salsa pools that gather in the center of our tortillas. No one gets sick and everyone toasts and the lemon mousse is the peak of perfection. It just goes to show that you don’t need everything in the recipe to make a delicious meal. But if you are hesitant to wing it on your own, here it is:

1.5 kilos of chamorro (leg of pork)
1 liter of Beef Stock
1 1/2 cups of red wine
1 large onion (chopped)
2 large tomatoes (chopped)
3 bay leaves
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 carrots (chopped)
ground aji (or chili powder) to taste
sea salt
olive oil
cracked black pepper
2 large cloves of garlic
crushed coriander (about a teaspoon)

Brush the chamorro with olive oil and sprinkle with cracked black pepper and sea salt. Place it in a large (enough) pan and brown it on all sides. Take out the chamorro and de-glaze the pan with red wine. Add in everything else, simmer till the tomatoes start to break up. Throw the chamorro back in the pot and put it in the oven for 3-4 hours on medium heat (or until super tender) remembering to continually bast it with the sauce.

Hot tortillas and a good salsa verde (I gotta get Tamar’s recipe) are a must.

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My Top Five Favorite Views of Mexico City

Mexico City dares you to try and take it all in.

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From the Torre Latinoamericana

I swear that this is the view that made me fall in love with the place where I live. I know that for some those lights crawling up the surrounding mountainside may signify sprawl and population explosion but all I can see are streetlights I want to stand under and neighborhoods I want to explore. There is nothing like having a drink and looking down at the constant motion that lies just below the Torre’s 44 floors.

By Leandro's World Tour [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsBy Leandro’s World Tour [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

From Inside Chapultepec Park

Looking at the skyline from inside the park, it’s as though the whole city is filled with greenery that sprouts skyscrapers and antennae. If only that were true. Still, I like the edges of the park framed by the city, it makes me breathe a little easier.

I got this photo from http://acidcow.com

Via acidcow.com

From the air, on a night flight

Mexico City never seems so big as when you are flying over it. I remember when I first started traveling I felt that coming home and seeing the lights of the Lakeshore was awe-inspiring, but Chicago has nothing on Mexico City. Like a mighty star in the desert, it never ceases to overwhelm me with its brilliance.

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From a restaurant terrace on the Zócalo

As you look down onto the Mexico City Zócalo, day or night, it’s impossible not to think of all its reincarnations. The once center of a marshy lake is now home to temples, government buildings, commerce, protestors, cyclists, taxi drivers, indigenous dancers, politicians, rock stars, beggars and thieves.  It’s a cliche stop on your tour of Mexico City, but necessary for getting under the city’s skin.

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The View from the Sidewalk

The mass of human bodies that daily navigate this city makes me feel like plankton in the ocean, swimming and bobbing alongside all the other sea life. We naturally weave and swerve to avoid and accommodate each other and fill the city’s veins with its human blood.

My dream vistas:

- From a hot air balloon

- Traveling by canal, 300 years ago

- From the bell tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral

 

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Museo de Arte Popular

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I’m adding the MAP to my list of museums you can see under an hour and not want to kill yourself. There are four rooms, Art and the Sacred, The Essence of Art, Art in the everyday, and the Art and the Fantastic. In the center of the museum is a stunning display of massive paper kites and as you ride the glass elevator up through them, it feels like a dream.

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When we moved here a year and a half ago,  I used to always see the same woman, our neighbor, out walking her two Basenjis (“They’re a wild African breed,” she tells me). Then after awhile I would hear her call their names from a distance as she waddled behind them with her pregnant belly. Then for months I only saw her husband in the park. And today I saw her walking her dogs again, this time with a baby carriage. It’s so nice to watch the neighborhood grow.

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Antolia: The Newest Exhibit in the Zoo

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All photos courtesy of Antolia

My girlfriend is eating the honey and achiote glazed short rib with jicama, chile serrano and sorrel slices and melon. I’m trying the turkey steak with hoja de santa pesto on top of sweet potato puree and pickled carrots. We’re drinking Antolia’s house red from Baja California at a tiny corner table near the street.

We weren’t even going to stop, but René Cremieux is a persuasive guy and when he went so far as to pull out his iphone to show us photos of Antolia’s food AND told us we could bring the dogs inside if we sat at the corner table, we knew that this man was either passionate about his restaurant or in desperate need of our patronage.

food018Turns out it was the latter. In the past two months, Antolia restaurant, on the corner of Zacatecas and Tonalá, has been drawing a crowd, despite the fact that our first time eating there was just last week. It might be the chill atmosphere or the eclectic art that graces its walls, but I’m betting it’s more the quirky and delicious flavors.

René and his partner started converting the space on Zacatecas into a tiny dining room and bar months ago. Dan, his partner, still lives upstairs, where his family has lived for years. Right across from Maximo Bistro, I sensed plans for a mini culinary corridor, but Rene shrugged off my conjecturing.

“For me Maximo is neither competition nor advantage, we’re doing something completely different here. I started this restaurant because I like to eat well, and what better way to get to taste everything for free than to run your own place?” he smiles.

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Goat cheese, salmon and candied citron fritters

Still, you have to admit that the foodies get excited when good restaurants start popping up in their neighborhoods — like this foodie for example. That takes us to the topic of the Roma. René spent a lot of time here as a kid, and he says it still feels very much like home, even though now he rides his bike in everyday from Coyoacán. What does he think is going to happen to the neighborhood in the next five years?

“Hopefully nothing.” he says. “This neighborhood is just like a zoo with all its biodiversity. I wouldn’t want it to change.”

A rambling entrepreneur, René has worked in music, art, publicity and production and this, his newest project has obviously got him fired up. He waxes poetic about the food, the art on the walls and the heavily Mexican wine list.

“I used to think, who am I to say something tastes good or tastes bad, but now I realize, maybe what I like is more common than I thought because people seem to like we’re doing.”

What does he recommend for newcomers to Antolia? Boquerones with watermelon.

Boquerones con sandia

Boquerones con sandia

“The flavor of that dish is brutal. It’s everything that is this restaurant on one plate.” – a little French, a little Spanish, a touch of Italian, always a hint of Mexican, seasonal ingredients and an ever-changing menu so no one gets bored, including René.

Antolia – corner of Tonalá and Zacatecas Streets, Roma Norte

@MexCityStreets

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