Tag Archives: cities

The Case for Small Cities

30 Dec

Many talented people around my age or slightly younger are drawn to large cities. It only makes sense: they’re interesting places filled with interesting people, with easy access to cultural amenities and excitement that just don’t come around in suburbia or small towns. I’m skeptical that this supposed millennial “back to the city” movement will endure once my generation (or, rather, the highly educated fraction of my generation) starts having kids en masse, and even now, suburban growth still outpaces urban growth. I’m certainly not going to rain on the progress made in cities in recent years, many of which have enjoyed renewed life after decades of declining populations and disinvestment.

I am, however, going to make a case for the cities that I think are the best for young adults. These are what we might call the second tier cities: metropolitan areas between 100,000 and 500,000 people; places that stand alone as their own functioning economies, but will never capture the national imagination of our biggest cities. They may not be as glamorous, but the opportunities they provide young people are second to none. They are also the cities that need injections of smart, talented young people who can carry them forward and keep them thriving. Big cities will have that no matter what, but these smaller cities can face more complicated futures, and their ability to adapt to the 21st century economy could well make or break this country: are its benefits confined to a few scattered enclaves, or can it reach across the country and include these supposed flyover towns that have suddenly become a source of political angst?

And so I will make my case for smaller cities, as someone who has just gone home to a small city after spending six of the past eight in large cities. The target audience here is well-educated white-collar millennials, but I think these can be tweaked to apply to other groups, too. Here are 12 things they have to offer that larger cities don’t:

  1. The cost of living is much lower. Sure, the starting pay also may be lower, but the overall financial picture often works out well. My savings in rent alone since coming to Duluth are probably equal to about $3,000-$5,000 in annual salary compared to Minneapolis; if I were in DC or New York or San Francisco, we might be talking tens of thousands of dollars.
  2. Commute time: nonexistent. Do I really need to elaborate? I live a few miles from work, yet it literally takes me longer to walk from my car to the office than it does to drive from home to the place where I park. The savings in time and mental anguish are remarkable.
  3. Access to positions of influence is significantly easier. In a few locations, good old boys’ networks can act as gatekeepers, but for the most part, anyone who wants an in can have it. Most of these cities love seeing fresh young blood come in to serve in leadership positions. For the politically inclined, reasonably talented people can win elections in their 20s, and don’t need to raise tons of money to do it. Provide some basic initiative, and you’ll be well on your way.
  4. As one gets older, those interesting things about cities that drew one in at the start become less important. Good restaurants, cultural opportunities, big dating pools…most people come to have less time or need to explore these things as they age, and as other family-related commitments arise. A small city will still have enough of these to keep most people going, too; don’t underestimate the amount of creativity a small place can produce.
  5. Speaking of family commitments, smaller cities are great places to raise kids. Access to reasonably good schools doesn’t cost an arm and a leg in real estate, and even the bottom end of educational options is probably a lot higher than in most big cities. Sure, the top end might not provide the easy pipeline to elite colleges that you see in wealthy suburbs, but if a kid comes from a strong home environment, the sky is still the limit. Factor in family-friendly neighborhoods, where crime and speeding traffic are negligible concerns, and it all adds up to a pleasant home life without trying very hard. Moreover, these places are small enough that even “wealthy” schools will give kids access to a fairly broad socioeconomic range. There’s much less of a bubble effect when everyone is thrown in together.
  6. Access to nature is so much easier. You need not be a tree-hugging hippie or a backwoodsman to appreciate this: free space means clean air and escapes from crowds and their annoyances, and facilitates everything from an adventure in the wilderness to an easy drive along picturesque country roads. This is refreshing for everyone.
  7. In smaller cities, it’s much easier to escape political or social bubbles. Even if the city itself may be a bit of an island, it’s probably surrounded by something else, and again, things are small enough that you’ll have some interaction with everyone. This may not always be fun, but at least you’ll understand what’s going on in several different swaths of the country. It’s hard to do that in the suburbs, and even in a large city with lots of surface level diversity, it’s very easy to cloister oneself, intentionally or not, and only interact with like-minded people.
  8. You can do more for the place you live, immediately. The utility of adding a talented new person to a small city is much greater than adding a new one to a metropolitan area. Being one of twenty people with an Ivy League degree in your small city provides way more influence than the 1,000th in a large one. Band enough of these people together, and you’ve got yourself a movement. A small core of committed people can completely turn the tide for an entire city. (Sidebar: not every local leader needs to go off to some elite school. It’s valuable to have some who do, so as to provide perspective, but it’s equally valuable to have some lifers who really get all the details. People who have seen the outside world are conversant in a common language and culture that’s useful in dealing with national issues, but credentials from distant schools say nothing about a person’s professional or political talents, or ability to harness them.)
  9. If you start a career in a smaller place, you’re highly unlikely to be pigeon-holed into one task or job function. You’ll probably be in an office that’s small enough that forces you to take on a variety of tasks, some of which will probably get you out of your comfort zone and make for a great learning experience. Jobs are far less likely to be “safe,” and that’s an excellent thing for résumé development, and generally just for enjoying one’s job.
  10. At the same time, though, people in smaller cities value work-life balance. There are no 100-hour-a-week slavish jobs here, unless you enjoy it so much that this is what you actually want to do. And if that is what you want to do, people will probably respect that.
  11. People like stories of converts or prodigal children, and anyone who can make that outsider’s case for a place is going to be compelling to outside audiences. Small cities need this so as to make their appeal clear to people who aren’t already singing along with the choir. Move to one of these places and accept it as it is, and you’ll have a chance to be its champion. Big cities don’t need such champions; inertia provides this on its own. But in choosing to take a different path, you instantly become a leader of sorts.
  12. You get to say you are actually “from” somewhere, instead of pretending that your suburban childhood connects you with a larger center city that you visited only for sports and museums when growing up. Sure, there are some mild quirks that separate most middle-to-upper-end suburbs, but for all intents and purposes, they’re the same. People may not know what it means when you say you’re from Duluth, but you do, and other people who are also from Duluth get it. If you value a sense of place, that’s huge.

I won’t pretend it’s all easy. Moving to a smaller city takes a conscious rejection of the easy trends for most young people, which push them to familiar networks and the largest paychecks. If you’re not from a place, it can take a little while to break in. And yes, the dating pool really is smaller. (Sigh.) But there is so much wealth to be found here, and these cities are practically begging for ambitious young people to sweep in and leave their mark. Take the jump. It’s worth it.

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Family Planning

10 Jun

In planning, we’re careful to say we’re planning “for people” or (better yet) “with people,” as a way to juxtapose us against those mid-century planners who pushed through giant, home-destroying highway projects in the name of efficient transportation, or from those architects who value form over function. It’s our way of showing we care about public opinion instead of self-interest or some ideological program.

At the same time, however, some efforts to plan run the risk of adopting some ideology of people based on whichever abstract version of humanity it chooses to adopt. Maybe it’s majority opinion, maybe it’s the opinion of the handful of people who show up to the public meeting or write angry emails, or maybe it’s a group that we believe will be ignored (if not actively damaged) by the powers that be. There are defensible reasons for choosing any one of these ideas of the public, and for ignoring them all in the service of some other end. The simple reality is that there is no logically coherent “people” we can claim to serve all of the time, so we have to make some careful choices.

Right next to the definition of the public we serve, however, there’s another important, often forgotten element of planning and policymaking: its temporal dimension. We not only have to consider the people we’re planning for now, but how the histories of the people and places we’re planning for affect things, and how they will affect people in the future. And when we think in that way, short-term decisions about which group of people we’re planning with can prove directly at odds with what might be right ten, twenty, or fifty years down the road.

This leads me to a recent piece by Benjamin Schwarz, and two accompanying follow-ups at The American Conservative (obligatory disclaimer: their definition of “conservative” is not what you think it is). Schwarz leans on planning prophet Jane Jacobs to show the importance of planning for cities with children, and how the rising urban young adult playground neighborhoods (called “vibrant urban neighborhoods,” or VUNs), which have revitalized some parts of large cities after years of decline, ignore them. (Think Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the Mission in San Francisco, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Uptown or the North Loop in Minneapolis). These neighborhoods, models for many in my field, are just shells of the bustling neighborhoods Jacobs lauded in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Sooner or later, these neighborhoods will need to accommodate children, or they’ll just stay on as temporary resting places for young adults before they head out to their suburban destiny. The “back to the city” trend will sputter out.

This emphasis on children is something I’ve instinctively looked for in communities: long before I considered becoming a planner, my first question in evaluating neighborhood health was, ‘are there children playing freely outdoors’? These may just be the instincts of a Duluthian who expects a ten-acre park a couple blocks from home, but even in fairly dense urban environments, this is more than possible, as Jacobs’ tales of mid-century Manhattan show. If we believe it to be a worthy goal, true urban recovery from the planning horrors, economic troubles, crime waves, and political disinvestment of the mid-to-late 20th century has to reach into childhood.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I also don’t think this is always a chief concern for many in my planning cohort. This is probably because most of my peers are twenty-somethings who, like me, have foregone child-rearing until after graduate school, if they ever expect to go there. Our slow lurch toward family life feeds into broader debates about my generation, which is famous for marrying and having children at later ages than its predecessors. Among planners and my fellow Georgetown alumni, it’s mostly a calculated move for career-life sanity and near-assured economic stability; say what you will about that trend, but it stems from genuine and understandable concerns. But elsewhere in my millennial cohort, it’s often an entirely different picture, and we’d be blind not to acknowledge that many of us still do settle down at young ages, and that others possibly would if there weren’t so many barriers discouraging them.

Schwarz is pessimistic about attacking these barriers due to economic forces, but does have one memorable line: “Two words begin and end any real effort to create truly vibrant city neighborhoods: public schools.” In the second comment, Emily Washington expands on this point, but only to make a vague argument for “education reform.” The details are unclear, but it’s obviously important. And yet, somehow, there’s no hint of education policy in planning school curriculum. School districts may not be governed by city planners, but they are an essential part of planning cities, and we ignore them at our own peril.

There are hopeful hints in planning ideas like “safe routes to school” and “lifecycle housing” that get back to some idea of planning for families. Still, in the end, a philosophical disconnect lingers: we plan for the individual abstract person, not the person within a dense network of relationships that define human interaction—of which the family is the most fundamental part. For related reasons, family-level thinking has been somewhat lost in the shuffle among the many important and necessary victories for women over the past half-century, as they’ve escaped potentially crushing norms and climbed toward economic equality with men. These are essential steps for sane policy as well, but in the process, talk about families and their roles in personal formation have often posited them as something to be liberated from instead of a goal to build toward. Both can be true, depending on the situation, but the state is a crude substitute for the closest of bonds. The future of cities is inseparable from future generations of humans, and a stake in its fate requires a stake in humanity that transcends the here and now. Trite as the phrase may be, families are the building blocks of society, and its motor forward into whatever comes next. There are enough economic and other issues pushing against them that we can ill afford to let planning trouble them.

Schwarz is right when he says that Jane Jacobs-style neighborhoods aren’t coming back. But there are still other ways to build more family-friendly cities. The solutions need to look beyond VUNs and the highly educated, upwardly mobile young people (like me) they seem to want to cater to. That alone won’t keep me here. We need housing that allow for more variation in family type that can accommodate multi-generational families or large families, instead of single-bedroom units. We also need varieties of housing types, both in age and style, from starter homes to modern-day palaces, from “luxury” flats to modest apartment buildings. Building this sort of city means real pedestrian infrastructure and connections to parks and schools, and assurances of public safety along those corridors. It means green space, both in backyards and inviting parks. It spreads people out somewhat, instead of segregating rigidly by stage of life.

The list could go on; the solutions aren’t secrets. But maybe more fundamentally, we need an understanding human life that remembers that people’s closest ties are often the most important drivers of decisions. Unless plans take meaningful steps to include the next generation, the cities they build for will have a hollowness at their core.

Mexico City, Revisited: Road Trips Beyond

14 Aug

As I’ve mentioned in the previous two posts in this series, Mexico City’s constant crowds will force most anyone with means to venture out from time to time. I toured many of the smaller cities in central Mexico during my four months there, usually on long weekend or over the holiday weekends for the Mexican bicentennial and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, both of which occurred during my stint there. None of my journeys were quite the road trip in Y tu mama también, though they all had at least one memorable moment.

With two exceptions, they were also all by bus. That may sound terrifying, but the Mexican bus system between major cities is one of the country’s more impressive feats. It’s at least as comfortable as its American counterpart, and sometimes more so; on some buses, a few extra pesos will earn one in-flight snacks and warm towels. Buses feed out of four Mexico City bus stations in each of the cardinal directions, all easily accessible by Metro and well-located for swift escapes. These buses, at least, are on time, clean, and populated by pleasant travel mates. The only real annoyances are the dubbed bad American movies inevitably playing on the TVs, and a few realities of Mexican highway life beyond the bus companies’ control, from ugly wrecks that clog traffic to understaffed tollbooths to animals wandering into the road.

I wrote about my Mexican bicentennial journey to Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato some time ago, and it is hard to beat the sheer Mexican chaos of that long weekend. My only other trip to the north took me to Tequisquiapan, where my host family had a cozy vacation home in a gated community. Tequis was a lazy provincial town, though Day of the Dead festivities did drum up an anti-Halloween protest in its zócalo. The north is Mexico’s conservative heartland, and Gonzalo Junior bemoaned the incessant norteño music—Mexico’s answer to country—on the radio. On our full day there we ventured out early for breakfast in a sun-splashed village before a hike up the Peña de Bernal, a stone monolith, one of the largest of its kind. In the afternoon we made our way to a Mexican winery—not bad, for a nation new to the wine cultivation—and whiled away the evening with another game of cards.

The Peña de Bernal from the village below.

The Peña de Bernal from the village below.

Dreary Toluca rules the first valley to the west of Mexico City, though the majestic Nevado de Toluca with its year-round snows towers over the city and bestows some sense of grandeur upon the crowded plain. (One of my previous trips to Mexico took me up toward the Nevado and into the mountains beyond, though that’s a story for another time.) Some of Mexico City’s most extreme sprawl has been outward into this neighboring valley, though there are some pockets of solitude up in the pine forests that separate the beast from Toluca. One day the host family and some of their friends took my roommate and I up to the Desierto de los Leones National Park, the site of an old monastery, and then moved on for some horseback riding in the rain before a delicious meal in a little hilltop diner.

Further west, Michoacán is a state of great beauty, of rich indigenous heritage, and of serious conflict in the Mexican drug war, the only place in my travels where such qualms ever surfaced. The flavor of the month cartel at the time was La Familia Michoacana, not long after replaced by the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), both noted for their weirdly religious take on drug trafficking. They waver between rebellion and fractious alliances with the national cartels, building loyalty by pumping money into the small towns in the mountains of Michoacán. It was only in Mexico that I began to understand just how much geography—those towering hills and twisting mountains—can make it difficult for a state to assert any authority. La Familia grew bold during my time in Mexico, descended from the mountains, parked buses and trucks across the highways into the state capital of Morelia, and set them alight. Thankfully, my eclectic group from the university had no such obstacles.

Streets of Pátzcuaro.

Streets of Pátzcuaro.

The first stop in Michoacán was Pátzcuaro, a small city on a lake whose utopian origins I’ve discussed before. The Pátzcuaro of 2010 was no utopia, but it was a beautiful place, the wind whispering down its mountain lanes and cooling its plazas. We arrived late at night and wandered the silent streets in search of a hostel, finally stumbling upon one with a few concrete blocks disguised as beds. Woken by roosters the next day, we hiked up a mountain to survey the scene, then descended to the lake, where a boat ferried us out to the island of Janitzio. It’s a famous Day of the Dead destination covered in terraces and quaint homes, though on this weekend it was a poster child for indigenous poverty: there were only a handful of tourists on the island, yet it featured row after row of shops, all selling identical, tacky products, and no business on the way. In spite of it all there was beauty there, a sight best witnessed from the lookout in the upraised fist of a giant statue José María Morelos on the island’s peak.

None of the outlying cities I visited can quite match the scale of Morelia, whose entire city center is a colonial jewel. Our first day there became an endless walking tour of intricate buildings, but there was something worth seeing around just about every corner. We visited on a hopping weekend; an international film festival featuring a few big names was in town, as was a superb bread festival, with championship breads arranged in shapes of trains and eagles and Mexican flags. We split our time there between two hostels; the first was the Tequila Sunset, whose name tells you all you need to know about it, and the second was a far swankier establishment owned by a man who had just come back from a few years in Bloomington, Minnesota. Naturally, we bonded, and the evening of wine and cheese on the rooftop swiftly degenerated when he invited in all his friends.

Par for the course on the streets of Morelia.

Par for the course on the streets of Morelia.

One trip south of Mexico City was to a place I’d been before. My dad, a Spanish professor, has been running study abroad trips to Cuernavaca since the early 2000s, and I went down to visit for a time during one of the early years. It had been years since I’d last seen Gerardo, the Canadian expat who runs the program, but it was a seamless slide back into life in the City of Eternal Spring. My first night involved a dinner on the zócalo with Gerardo, who seemed to know everyone in the square and the nearby artisans’ market; after some shopping, I settled into his home on the outskirts for some quiet contemplation.

The next day, joined by Gerardo’s wife and his friend Álvaro the Marxist Economist, we bought some beer and went for a drive up into the mountains for lunch at a trout farm, where we mused about Mexican politics and joked about Rubén Aguilar and loved life beneath the pines. Back in Cuernavaca that evening I made the acquaintance of a young Canadian who knew Gerardo, and he took me on a novelty journey to a spa he often visited with his Mexican girlfriend (now wife). I sat in a temazcal, an Aztec sweat lodge filled with pungent herbs, and sweated away my troubles before a good, hard massage. After that we ventured down into the Cuernavaca club scene, though the pictures of that night have, alas, “mysteriously” disappeared. But there was no time to linger in that realm, as Gerardo took me to breakfast the next day with a woman from an outlying village whose life had nothing in common with the leisure of the past few days.

Trout farm in the mountains above Cuernavaca.

Trout farm in the mountains above Cuernavaca.

Somewhat less placid than contemplative Cuernavaca was an arranged trip to Taxco by the university for all the study abroad students. This was also not a first time visit, though this jaunt proved a bit different than a day trip with the parents when I was twelve. On the way down the bus stopped at the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa, a large cave complex to the north of Taxco, and wandered through towering stalactites and stalagmites and other features I can’t possibly remember. Down its in depths was a spring pure enough that we could drink straight from it, the only water I’ve had that can rival the stuff that comes from Duluth taps.

Taxco is an old silver mining city, and one of the best-preserved colonial gems of Mexico. Even the major streets remain narrow cobblestone lanes, winding their way up the mountainside to which the city clings. Its centerpiece is the church of Santa Prisca, a stunning baroque icon on its zócalo with awfully translated English signs next to the Spanish ones. Thanks to a rainy season deluge, however, touring much of the city beyond the church and the silver markets proved a chore. We settled in a bar for a Mexican soccer humiliation at the hands of Ecuador, then skirted the raindrops on the way back to the hotel. (Two umbrellas were pressed into service as doors on our van taxi, as the real door was nowhere to be found.) The rain did little to dampen spirits, however, and the party raged on in hotel rooms for most of the night, culminating in a nighttime swim in the pool and an ill-advised journey back down into the city in search of tacos, which somehow managed to go off without a hitch. Most of the group suffered ill effects the following morning, though I was raring to go, ready to push through the mists of Taxco and on to the ruins at Xochicalco. I’d been here before too, and it was a good thing, because the rains drove us from the site far too soon.

Santa Prisca in the rain, Taxco

Santa Prisca in the rain, Taxco

I never did get to Puebla, another regular stop on the central Mexico circuit, though I did pass through on a week-long journey into the country’s southeastern reaches. The first stop was Oaxaca, yet another city rich in history. We spent our first day at Monte Albán, a large Zapotec ruin atop a mesa-like mountain overlooking the city, but Oaxaca’s real wealth is in its living culture. The city is a culinary paradise, home to the riches moles and the purest mezcal and other delicacies, to say nothing of some good, crunchy chapulines. (Yeah, fried grasshoppers.) Southern Mexico retains its indigenous roots as well as anywhere in the nation, and that night the zócalo was the scene of a whirling pageant of dance. The next day our hostel gave us a wide-ranging bus trip around the area, with a visit to the Árbol de Tule—the fattest tree on earth!—and a Zapotec weaving operation. Next came Mitla, a ruin small in size but intricate in its Zapotec mosaic work, and then, a long, bouncing road up to the Hierve del Agua, a petrified waterfall. The tour ended at a mezcalería, where the Australian in our party won us a free bottle through feats of epic liver destruction.

The fattest tree on earth, Oaxaca.

The fattest tree on earth, Oaxaca.

That night, I chaperoned us along on to another bus trip, this time to Puerto Escondido, the lone beach trip of my four months in Mexico. It involved normal Mexico beach activities, albeit in a sleepy town with just enough tourism to give it a hippyish edge. (One expat, when asked of her origins, told us she was from the stars, though she’d also spent some time in Cincinnati.) We found a couple of cabins far enough up the shore for some privacy, but close enough to walk into town along the beach. For once, I set my itinerary aside and devoted myself to blissful nothing: leisurely meals in seaside shacks, long nights of festivities on the beach, lazy scrawling in a notebook in a hammock before drifting into a nap and waking without a care in the world.

San Cristóbal de las Casas

San Cristóbal de las Casas

The next bus took us up to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, the farthest southeast and the poorest state in the Mexican union. I covered our Thanksgiving day trip to San Cristóbal and the Zapatista community in rebellion in a previous post, but it was a valuable stop, one that made me think long and hard about how to find my place in the modern world. The next day the bus schlepped us along to Palenque, stopping at a pair of waterfalls along winding mountain roads before coming to the great Mayan ruins in the jungle. Its sprawling palaces peek out of the greenery, and its architectural variety and detail surpass anything in the center of the country. After declining numerous offerings of mushrooms and one last long overnight bus trip, my last Mexican road trip came to an end.

*  *  *

These reminiscences on Mexico tend to be gushing tales of discovery and dalliance. That reflects reality, up to a point. But that isn’t the whole story, and I’d be remiss not to mention the other side. In a way, Mexico was liberation: I was wildly free to reinvent myself and surrounded by excess, in which I participated willingly. And yet I still had a vague sense that I was in this world, but certainly not of it. I both poured myself in the fun and remained a detached observer from on high, an exhausting effort that can be hard to articulate. More than once, returning to my Mexico City flat, I’d slump back in the elevator and run a hand through my hair, drained by the fullness of the life I lived, wondering what it all meant. For the first time since I’d started my aggressive writing two years prior, I had writer’s blocks: suddenly it didn’t come naturally, the world I’d built through those words no longer quite held together. In my relentlessness I was missing something; I didn’t always know what, and even when I did, I didn’t have the ambition to seize it. It took a trip abroad to see what was closest to home; a confrontation with different worlds to learn my place within the one I knew.

Lost in dreams in Puerto Escondido.

Lost in dreams in Puerto Escondido.

People often like to talk about finding their “true selves.” I find this deluded. We have no one true self; we are a wide array of forces and histories, all wrapped up in one body and one mind, trying to make sense of the whole mess. For me, Mexico is one of those parts, thrown in there with everything else.

What did Mexico give me? I can try to put it into words. There was a host family that showed me what family life ought to look like, and a friend or two who showed me the meaning of companionship. Those bonds endure. It showed me how to push outward, how to surrender parts of myself to others, even as I struggled with deeper truths. It showed me a country impossible to paint in black or white, a nation that swallows everything up and makes it all its own. It made me rethink my politics and my worldview, and gifted me with the man I quote more than anyone else. Above all, it turned me loose, however haltingly, and at the same time underscored how much more there is to life than mere freedom. Five years later, I await a chance to go back—but I carry it all with me, part of a living history, and those four months live on, forever renewing an old belief. Viva México, dador de la vida.

Mexico City, Revisited: Exploring the Giant

9 Aug

My last post tells the clichéd study abroad story: fun host family, mediocre foreign university, basic navigation of a different culture. I would like to think that my time in Mexico, however, goes beyond the most basic of study abroad tropes, and it owes that difference to the city I lived in. Mexico City is so gigantic that no one can dream of making their way through it in four months, though I managed to visit practically all of them on the day a pair of old high school Spanish teachers swung through the city on a visit. No East grad’s journey through Mexico is complete without a day on the canals of Xochimilco with Mrs. Bergum and Mrs. Melchert.

My university, the Ibero, gave its exchange students an easy way in via a Friday “class” that took us to sites around the city. The first trip with tour group took us straight into the city center, where a kindly but long-winded gringa used a bevy of props to lead us through some of the city’s more famous attractions. She knew her stuff, and we followed her across the great plaza known as the Zócalo—every Mexican city has one—and into the Metropolitan Cathedral and finally to the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the centerpiece of the old Aztec capital, rediscovered only during excavations by the national electrical company in the 1970s. But as we meandered through the site museum and the guide droned on and no promise of lunch came forth, a friend and I bailed. With a few quick steps out a side door, we left behind the self-conscious curation of Mexican history and entered the Mexico of today, a cobblestone street lined by small shops and teeming with the seamless ballet of urban life, as the shoppers stop and start and flow along down the avenue. We disappeared into a taquería, came out with some streetside delicacies, and, two days later, came down with diarrhea.

Leaving aside long nights on the toilet, the journey down the side street kicked off my many unguided wanderings of the city, and the Zócalo was a natural place to revisit. The Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, the center of the great imperial city that rose to glory under the Aztecs and became the seat of Spanish power in the northern hemisphere. At its center, a massive Mexican flag, the eagle on the cactus lilting in the breeze. The government, the church, and those Aztec ruins all spectate from the sides, but this is a living plaza, always the center of the action. Often a protest, sometimes a concert or a party, though never more novel than during my final visit in early December: a skating rink! This Minnesota boy could have watched for hours in delight. The rink featured at least a hundred uniformed attendants, all there to help out the poor Mexicans as they shuffled about the rink, clinging to the walls in desperation. Further along the intrepid city government had devised a mini snowman-building station, and an artificial sledding hill made an appearance as well.

Mexicans on Ice!

Mexicans on Ice!

The rink was one of the more lavish flourishes of mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s urban vision. Ever since it gained home rule in 1997, the Federal District has stayed firmly in the hands of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), a left-leaning party that has been decimated in the rest of the country thanks to the egotistical handiwork of Ebrard’s predecessor to the top spot in the Federal District, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. To be fair, López Obrador’s administration helped push Mexico City’s urbanism toward the vanguard, and under PRD rule, the city has had a renaissance of cultural life and chic vigor. A large urban elite allows for a center-left party to flourish, and even if it’s not on the cutting edge of the war on poverty, it runs a fairly clean and efficient ship, which is no small miracle south of the border. But Ebrard lost out to the more ruthless López Obrador in the 2012 succession battle, and the PRD split into two, its moderate core left only in Mexico City. The result: a city whose governing vision has more in line with New York or San Francisco than it does with the villages just beyond the Valley of Mexico.

If the Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, then the Alameda, some six blocks to the west, is its soul. Or so I thought when I first laid eyes on the great Diego Rivera mural back when I was in high school, the one that showed the whole of Mexican history promenading down its leafy walks on a lazy Sunday afternoon. On one of my first Sundays in Mexico City I walked from my place in Polanco up Paseo de la Reforma to the mural. I sat before it for a while before venturing into the square itself. The Alameda of 2010 had no great politicians or artists striding up its walks, but there was a complete cross-section of the country: the wealthy on parade, young lovers in the bushes, beggars, the inescapable rows of vendors, protesting leftists, break-dancers, and every possible shade in between. And on a bench in the middle of it all, a dreamy American kid, enmeshed in that urban fabric and in love with it.

A dreamy Sunday.

A dreamy Sunday.

The rest of the center city has chaotic but ordered streets, and is well-serviced by the packed but slick, highly subsidized, rubber-tired subway system. The urban grid conforms to the Spanish colonial Laws of the Indies, with churches and government centers grouped around plazas of varying importance. There’s a bike share system, a number of pedestrian streets, and little monuments or plaques at every turn. The architecture impresses, from a gilded post office to the Casa de los Azulejos, the original home of the Sanborns owls that now roost about the city on the department store’s logo; from the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts to the iconic Torre Latinoamericana, long the city’s tallest building. To the North is Plaza Garibaldi, perfect for one’s mariachi rental needs, and unrepentant debauchery once the sun goes down.

Paseo de la Reforma is the artery that feeds the body of the beast, a grand avenue that belongs on a short list with the Champs-Elysees, the Rajpath, Broadway, and Las Ramblas. Every major intersection brings a traffic circle and a monument, the statues ranging from Columbus to Aztec emperors to Roman goddesses to the city’s most famous icon, the Angel of Independence. It’s wide enough to handle hordes of both cars and pedestrians, and on Sunday, the whole thing shuts down for bicycles. The neighborhoods along it to the west of the center are the trendy and artsy core: Roma Norte, the gay-friendly Zona Rosa (under Ebrard, Mexico City legalized gay marriage in 2009), and La Condesa, the D.F.’s answer to Williamsburg. The streets in each neighborhood have themes, with national heroes and dates in the city center, European cities in Roma, and Mexican states in La Condesa. La Condesa is at once the most happening and perhaps the least Mexican place in the city, a cosmopolitan neighborhood filled with fusion restaurants and clubs for travelers from afar. It was a popular home for the European students at the Ibero, and I spent many nights in its apartments and parks, dining or heading for the Pata Negra, the club where all twenty-somethings’ paths seem to cross while in Mexico.

View up Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.

View up Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.

West of La Condesa sprawls Chapultepec Park, a giant green space that makes Central Park look quaint. It hosts many of the city’s great museums and monuments, from modern art to anthropology to Chapultepec Castle atop the hill. Below Chapultepec is the monument to the Niños Heroes, six boys who wrapped themselves in Mexican flags and threw themselves from the ramparts rather than risk capture when the American army sacked the palace in the 1840s. Los Pinos, home to the Mexican president, is here as well, but so are the unavoidable vendors, brackish lakes, and price-gouging toilets. There is no such thing as a free leak in Mexico.

North of Chapultepec and Reforma, beyond the Parque Líbano, lies my old haunting grounds. Polanco is densely urban, filled with apartment towers and shopping streets, though it’s statelier than La Condesa, and the streets are so robed in trees that it seems sheltered from the oppressive crowds downtown. The streets here, all named for great philosophers or writers, make one want to stroll to a café and discuss some great work with other learned people. I meandered its placid streets whenever I needed to get out of the apartment and breathe, stopping for an ice cream or touring the Tianguis market on Fridays, perhaps flagging down the tamale bicycle. At its heart is the Parque Lincoln, a quaint monument to the American president, who gazes across the street at Martin Luther King. A few blocks north is Presidente Masaryk, Mexico’s swankiest shopping street; a few blocks south, the Campos Elíseos: Champs-Elysees, Elysian Fields, one of those streets that just basks in presumption, playing host to embassies and luxury hotels.

Street corner in Polanco.

Street corner in Polanco.

Further up the hill the men of letters give way to mountains, and the lanes loop around walls that guard the estates of Lomas de Chapultepec. I myself lived right on the line between Lomas and Polanco, on Monte Elbruz, a short wedge between two highways that still managed to fill the obligatory quota of 7-Elevens and Starbucks on a Mexico City block. My tower overlooked the Periférico, the ring highway that loops about the center of the city. At night I’d gaze down from the picture windows as the traffic weaved along the canyon below, threading its way through a small regiment of financial and corporate towers. The cool mountain air poured in through the slits beneath the windows, breathing life back into the giant’s lungs.

To the north, a pyramid, a church, and the State Department share a square. It’s the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, still better known as Tlatelolco. This was once a booming native market town, but now this name recalls a different memory, the moment that ripped the mask off the PRI regime. In 1968, the government gunned down scores of student protesters here. The regime ruled ably for forty years, overseeing an economic miracle that pulled Mexico to the brink of the first world. The 1968 Olympics were supposed to prove that greatness, and celebrate the “perfect dictatorship,” the system that seamlessly transferred power from one party boss to another, all the disparate factions of Mexican society united within one machine. Instead, they kicked off a national nightmare.

The next thirty years saw a slow but steady decline. The party couldn’t buy off the far left the way it could with other groups, and its patronage machine went from competence tinged by low-grade corruption to a downright bloated bureaucratic cesspool. The nation’s fortunes rose and fell with oil prices and presidential terms, and after a stolen election in 1988, the PRI was in crisis. It held on for another twelve years, enough time to oversee the lurching implementation of NAFTA and a privatization scheme that simply put state agencies into the hands of wealthy cronies rather than fostering genuine competition. To the credit of President Ernest Zedillo, he was willing to hand off power when the PAN won the 2000 election. The PRI returned to the presidency in 2012, but it is a shell of its former self, with the El Chapo jailbreak showing the bankruptcy of Enrique Peña Nieto’s pretty PR machine. The ghosts of Tlatelolco have come home to roost.

Further north Reforma splits in two, and the Calzada de Guadalupe and the Calzada de los Misterios lead the way up to the Basilica of Guadalupe. The current basilica is an unfortunate modernist thing, but all the beautiful old churches and chapels on the hill at Tepeyac are still there, and one can still mount it for a view of what a sixteenth century miracle has wrought. The shrine marks the site where the Virgin Mary revealed herself to Juan Diego, and the image seared on his tilma became the foundation of a nation. Mexico is a fractured place, filled with hundreds of indigenous tribes and regional cultures, and riven by stark mountain ranges. Many of its Catholics practice something that my Polish and Irish grandparents could never recognize as their own.

Juan Diego's tilma with some not-so-subtle symbolism below.

Juan Diego’s tilma with some not-so-subtle symbolism below.

But the Virgin courses through all Mexican life, and the flag hanging around the framed tilma drives the point home. While the southern Latin American countries killed their natives and the Andean and Central American ones still live in serious racial tension, Mexico approximates a blended nation. Reality still shows stark divides, but ever since its great revolution in the 1910s, Mexico’s official narrative has aspired to a blended mestizo identity, the raza cósmica that takes pride in both its indigenous roots and its Spanish inheritance. The PRI, for all its failures, built a country around that vision. It is no small victory, and while some racial divides endure, the rest of the world has something to learn from Mexico.

In the far north lie the ruins of Teotihuacan. The name means ‘City of the Gods’ in Nahuatl; the story claims that the Aztecs, still in their exodus phase and wandering the Valley, stumbled through its ruins and figured that no man could have built them. Sitting atop the Pyramid of the Sun today, it’s not hard to see why: its base rivals the Great Pyramid in Egypt. But if the Aztecs aspired to godlike status, they found it soon enough. They found that sign they’d awaited, the eagle perched on a cactus, and build a city to rival Teotihuacan in the center of Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan stunned its Spanish conquerors with its size, beauty, and cleanliness, though that did nothing to stop them from slaughtering the lot of them and filing in the lake.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Today, the only living remnant of the Aztec imperial city is on the far south end, in Xochimilco. These canal-filled gardens sum up Mexico simply: a historical artifact kept alive by a raucous party on boats, with vendors paddling along the rented trajineras peddling food and flowers and booze. The traffic is just as hectic as the Mexico City streets, the oarsmen worryingly young, yet no amount of social scrutiny can dim the festive atmosphere. Here Mrs. Melchert showed incredible poise under pressure, earning applause from the Mexicans as she maintained her balance after our trajinera got rammed just as she was leaning out to take a picture.

The south side of Mexico City has more wealth than the north, and it is here that one finds the sprawling campus of the national university (UNAM), home to over 250,000 students; the giant Estadio Azteca is here as well. A little ways further north are two charmingly gentrified neighborhoods with cobbled houses and colorful streets and histories as well. San Ángel features a flower market, a Diego Rivera studio, and a monument to some Irish-American U.S. soldiers who turned on their new county and joined the Mexicans during the U.S. invasion. They all got slaughtered, but they still remember them in San Ángel, and I happened to visit on the day of a remembrance parade that included the Irish ambassador. Better known is Coyoacán, Mexico City’s Greenwich Village of yore, home to the famous blue Frida Kahlo house, where one can learn of all her eccentricities. Just up the street sits the Trotsky museum, where budding little Marxists shepherd the tourists about the bullet-riddled rooms of the exiled revolutionary’s final home. The bullets from Stalin’s henchmen all missed their marks, but later, an ice axe did not.

Not wanting to cause my host family or the university and undue ulcers, however small the real worry, I never ventured on foot into the far eastern reaches of Mexico City. As the city climbs up out of the valley, there in the shadow of the twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, the city degenerates into row upon row of concrete housing. The largest slum in the world is here, beyond the D.F.’s border with the State of Mexico, and there’s a ring of badly built homes creeping its way up the mountains on all sides of the city. They’ve come here in search of something more than subsistence farming, the countryside drained of peasants by a growing economy. It is a zone of misery, though Mexico has nothing on the poorest of the poor; in fact, thanks to a growing economy, there are now more Mexicans heading back south across the border with the U.S. The American immigration crisis these days comes from Central Americans, who endure a hellish journey across Mexico to the border. This journey usually avoids the insanity of the capital and instead works its way up the Atlantic coast.

Mexico City faces many issues, perhaps the most worrying being its need to suck up water from all across the country, but otherwise, its problems have solutions. Yes, the mountains that ring the city hold in the smog, though it’s not as bad as it used to be; methods to clean up the sky lurch along. My lungs had no trouble adjusting to the Mexico City air during my workouts, as many past travelers had suffered. The soft former bed of Lake Texcoco, filled in by the Spaniards, causes some structural problems, and leaves the city vulnerable to earthquakes. But the government can and does take steps to stabilize these things, and it’s hard to foresee a catastrophe. The once-worrying taxi system has been cleaned up some. And the drug violence that plagues some parts of Mexico doesn’t really appear in the Federal District: it is just too large and sprawling, and the state has too big of a presence, for any of the cartels to move beyond the run-of-the-mill crime operations found in any big city. At the time I traveled, Washington D.C.’s murder rate was over three times the D.F.’s. I can’t recall a single crime, even minor theft, befalling one of my fellow foreign students—and we weren’t always the most self-aware or cautious bunch.

In a way, my complaints about the traffic how easily it is to lead a comfortable life: the most serious inconvenience of D.F. life is a mundane problem that’s not much better in, say, Los Angeles. Large parts of Mexico City are placid if not downright lovely, which both makes life easier and makes one understand why the Mexican upper classes aren’t terribly bothered with the slums to the east. Their productive, comfortable lives can coexist with the extreme poverty around the city. Seen from the ground, the contradictions that form this city are easier to understand, its vast scale easily gathering it all in. No city did more to drive my fascination with the systems of urban life, and its allure will long endure, no doubt pulling me back before long. For good or ill, Mexico City is without equal.

Next time: Provincial towns and cities of Mexico.