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Sunday
Mar252012

Hanging over the abyss in Colonia Roma

"The first thing they tell me, the streets of Mexico, is that, there, we're all emigrants, emigrants of the Spirit. Ah, the beautiful, the never over-considered, the terrible Mexican streets hanging over the abyss while the rest of the world's cities are drowning in uniformity and silence." - Roberto Bolaño, "Visit to the Convalescent"

Edificio Francia on Avenida Alvaro Obregon. Photo by Myles Estey

When I first arrived to Roma, it seemed like a forsaken paradise that was mine to be occupied: a place where the phantoms were real, but was safe enough. I looked at an apartment in Edificio Francia, a grey building that leaned like a crippled aristocrat. Corinthian pillars supported an arch with a lion's head at its center, and classical piano notes echoed up the wide, circular staircase. The pull of the building's scummy beauty was visceral. My pen rolled along the apartment's floor while window shutters and doors swung open and closed on their own. I spent more than two hours there just to see if my vertigo would pass. I imagined an askew, absurd existence prompting madness that, if properly distilled, could yield inspiration. Yes, yes: self-delusion be thy name. Ultimately, I settled on less dramatic place.

Which isn't to say I resigned my romantic fantasies. I ambled along Álvaro Obregón and peeked into stores with books in orderless stacks; they would fill the library of the magnificent residence I would someday occupy. Gargoyles perching atop streetlamps watched over my shoulder as I inspected, but never bought, antiques at the weekend street market.

Avenida Alvaro Obregon in the 1930s, with the Casa Lamm on the left. The building on the right came down in the '85 quake. Photo by Col. David Guerrero

One night I lay in bed beside a friend and admired the flowered crown molding along her high ceilings. I envisioned sunlight streaming across the wooden floors and onto her still-sleeping face. The long, east-facing bay window was unmistakably a place to sip black coffee and read Hemingway.

"I want to wake up in the morning here," I told her, and she invited me to stay.

I stayed in Roma, but I was too close to the dominoes to see they traced a tumbling path toward transformation. A wine and tapas bar, Broka, replaced a candy store, in the rear of which I’d been taking boxing classes. The food was excellent, the menu inventive, and I swapped boxing for yoga and beginner's French. My $10 haircut at a barbershop where I drank cuba libres with oldsters who called me "young David" became a $20 appointment with a flamboyant stylist resident in a vintage clothing store. The young international set flocked to Roma's new mezcal bars, eager to join the scene.

"You have to make a reservation? Forget it," a middle-aged Mexican friend I invited to a fusion restaurant/gallery’s opening typed on Gchat, then hit Caps Lock. "I'M NOT GOING TO RESERVE ANYTHING IN A RESTAURANT THAT'S ON MY CORNER AND USED TO BE A FIFTH-RATE FURNITURE STORE."

I had my tipping point, too, when what had seemed pleasing happenstance revealed itself as an organized and irreversible process. No longer was I awed by places I could buy organic produce, find fresh pain chocolat, or order a pot of Darjeeling. I indulged in the trappings, but also missed nights on a friend's rooftop overlooking a forest walled off by a decrepit façade. Invisible from the busy intersection outside, it was our secret.

Photo from the 1985 earthquake, one block north of Casa Matus.

I'd lived in gentrifying Latin American neighborhoods before - first Buenos Aires’ Palermo Viejo then Santiago, Chile's Lastarria - but there was something uniquely unsettling about Roma's development. The banner announcing the 25th anniversary of the quake appeared on a side street, then vanished without further commemoration. Covadonga, for years a cantina of old men, smoke and dominoes, had become so trendy that the waiters' suits seemed mere costumes. My favorite pool bar – straight cues, great felt, cheap wine, no wait for tables – now shared its corner with busy restaurants and a boutique hotel. A café’s sign testified – incorrectly, and in English to draw tourists – to where William Burroughs killed his wife during a failed William Tell stunt.

Money moved in, but Roma’s streets still lacked proper lighting: it was ripe for opportunism. My friend’s long blonde hair prompted a man to pop out from a taxi, pistol in hand. We handed everything over, and she lay prostrate on the ground to signal submission. I stared into his eyes and asked politely for my IDs. He told me to go fuck my mother. 

A mugging will always be an affront to one's person, but I was just three blocks from my apartment. It was an invasion into my world. Suddenly I didn't trust my locks, and my own street looked sinister. The fractured sidewalks seemed set to split open and swallow me whole into an underworld of feral cats fighting for morsels. And I realized that this is the place I live, where I make my life; it was just another scene in the daily tragicomedy that comes with the territory. Mexico City tends to strain against itself and show its seams, and, in the improvised city, only the creative or opportunistic survive. They figure out their own way to carry forward, as in the aftermath of the '85 quake, and the only certainty here is altibajos, ups and downs.

Outside Casa Matus - the subject of my article in Guernica magazine - after eviction. Photo by Carlos Casas.

 

The squatters watching footage of the eviction on a computer screen. Photo by Myles Estey.El Chube outside Casa Matus. Photo by Carlos Casas

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