Architect Maria Moreno-Carranco explores how urban spaces have been renegotiated and reframed in Mexico City
According to Mike Davis (2000), the dystopian “‘cold’ frozen geometries” of US cities are being countered by Latino populations offering “a ‘hotter’, more exuberant urbanism” that is “tropicalizing” the city with colors, smells and new public spaces. Yet, in Mexico, debates about public space draw deeply pessimistic observations of a growing commodification and ‘globalization’. Maria Moreno-Carranco takes a different perspective. Drawing from the “Megaproject” of Santa Fe in Mexico City, the largest urban development projects in Latin America. Through examining everyday practices she shows how urban spaces have been renegotiated and reframed. Although partially privatized, appropriation through everyday practices opens spaces to the possibility of transformation and subversion of their intended use. Everyday contestation reveals “the local production of the global”.
High on the profile of city imagineering is the megaproject which has become increasingly prominent on the urban landscape as multinational corporations and local or regional counterparts convince politicians and planners of the fundamental need for competitiveness in the global economy.
What is more immediately apparent in the megaproject is their deliberate aim to be, and represent themselves. The more generic the city, the more vital it becomes for inhabitants to struggle to reinscribe meaning and identity in these projects through everyday life practices that might subvert the original intended uses of the spaces. Sometimes these attempts to reinscribe meaning takes the form of overt resistance, at others small everyday behaviors may emerge provoked, ironically, by the projects that seem intent on their repression.
Santa Fe, Mexico City
With the aim of making Mexico City more attractive for global capital, the city government initiated the Santa Fe urban megaproject at the beginning of the 1990s. The location of sand mines and the city’s western garbage dump, Santa Fe was described by the city government as underutilized and as such an ideal place to develop a megaproject. Although the government also described the area as “populated by a small group of people”, in reality approximately 2000 garbage pickers, had lived there for decades and were displaced in order to build the megaproject.
The Santa Fe megaproject was to convert the rubbish dump, sand mines and squatter areas, into the home of transnational companies, a U.S. style shopping mall, services such as cafes and restaurants, private schools and universities, hospitals, high end gated communities and apartment buildings. Data on the population of Santa Fe varies widely, but a reasonable estimate is that around 10,000 live there and approximately 100,000 workers, students and visitors commute to the area during weekdays. The ‘success’ of Santa Fe is predicated on spatial segregation, exclusion, and privatization of the city space. Urban developments in the area are advertised with strap lines such as “City Santa Fe: Welcome to Civilization. Exclusivity in the best location” or “Grand Santa Fe: Located in the heart of Santa Fe, the financial, commercial, business, cultural, educational and residential center of the 21st century.”
Global public space and every day practices
Global urban practices seem to overturn the modern ideal that conceptualizes public space as democratic. In Santa Fe, at first sight, the “local” appears to be erased by the “global”. But I witness that spaces are opened to wider ‘publics’ through informal practices. These practices respond to and break through the design of the megaprojects for social groups and cars. In Santa Fe, few concessions were made to the needs of lower or middle level employees: there are no places at walking distance to eat or to shop at convenience; pedestrian crossing points, benches or garbage cans are few.  Spaces, however, have been appropriated and contested (an inherent quality of public space), with street vending gaining a foothold due to the lack of services in a complex intermingling of formal and informal practices.
In Santa Fe, streets seem rarely used by pedestrians, except around lunchtime when office workers come out of the buildings and walk to cars with open trunks, that appear only around lunchtime and sell all kinds of hot food. In Santa Fe, the vendors in the cars inform customers on daily specials and take orders on their cellular phones while giving out food menus written in small pieces of paper and charging for lunch bags. This is the new modality of street food stands: using cars that are “less damaging” to the image of this supposedly pristine and well-organized global space and technology to interact with their customers.
One of the most interesting characters in Santa Fe’s public space is a woman, always dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, who goes by the name of “Jenny”. She claims to have been an administrative assistant in one of the top lawyers firms that moved its offices to the area. She saw a business opportunity and decided to quit her formal sector work and become a street vendor. Today, she owns a van from which she sells an incredible variety of goods such as candy, cigarettes, soft drinks, homemade sandwiches, and over the counter medicines. Jenny makes five times more money as a street vendor than what she used to make while working for the lawyers office (a secretary salary is about $600 USD a month) She is an established informal business, big enough for delivery vehicles of transnational food and beverage companies to serve her car as if it were a formal store.
Street food stands, like Jenny’s, keep being removed by the police managed by the neighbors association, the only authority in the area whose primary concern with street vendors is their “dirty” and “bad” image. But stands keep reappearing in different spots. It is a continuous fight between the sellers and the neighbors association. The association has tried to remove Jenny several times, but she has found strategies to remain in business. She refuses to move claiming a right to earn an income good enough to send her two kids to school, and the right to use the city space in order to do so, even if, as she believes, it belongs to the buildings’ owners.
In the city, other jobs linked to informality have appeared around the megaprojects in numerous guises. By design, the roads and green areas of Santa Fe are for circulation and image, but to the construction workers, cleaners, porters, office workers and others they become places for catching a nap, eating something, talking or having a soccer game. For a few moments these superfluous spaces appear to be alive, full of people and activity.
The malls and other areas of the megaproject are not accessible to all. The extremely high prices make it impossible for most Mexicans to buy anything there. Nonetheless, different forms of appropriation are present. Let us consider 19 year old Alan whom I interviewed while he worked handing out pieces of paper advertising the women’s gym Curves at a traffic light in Santa Fe. He earns less than 150 USD a month but Alan claims that simply visiting the mall makes him feel like “having money”. He and his friends go to the shopping center to see güeritas (blonde girls). He says that a few of the niñas fresa (rich girls) will talk to them and even invite them to raves, but they have no money to go. They also look at the clothing and music stores to see what is fashionable. After getting some ideas Alan and his friends go to Tepito – the largest market of pirate products in the city- and they buy almost identical items at prices they can afford. To Alan many girls from his neighborhood go often to the mall and even if they cannot buy anything just by being there they feel fresa.
Rather than represent a separation of public and private, rich (inside) and poor (outside), and global and local, the malls offer a tangling of these categories, indicating once more that these distinctions are not separate and dualistic. On the contrary, I see them as mutually constituted: the private becomes public as the private space of the mall allows more social interaction than public areas. Mimicry surfaces. As the rich seek to copy the lifestyles of Miami, Milan, Paris or London through the acquisition of ‘originals’ so people like Alan acquire the pirate versions. The slippage between the “original” and the “copy”, the possibility of resistance through appropriation is opened and the impossibility to be part of a certain consumer culture is challenged through the informal markets. The shopping mall has become a place for encounters where a desire for inclusion and a desire to be alike through consumption of similar brands, some original some not, can be played out.
Architects and planners may be failing to fulfill humanity’s need to have obviously meaningful cities in preference for taking the transnational coin, but people are investing these landscapes with their own meanings. While we are familiar to looking past places that seem superfluous to the megaproject, megaprojects themselves are cut across with small interjections of everyday life beyond the intention of administrators or architects. Before we decry spaces as bland, generic, or shallow, we must consider the possibilities for heterogeneity and the recreation of public spaces. In Santa Fe, space is being actively produced, which induces us to think about the dynamic and complex interplay of all space.
Various unintended uses and meanings have been transposed onto the claimed ‘global’, managed and controlled space of Santa Fe. These meanings have been made possible largely through informal practices, producing a particularly local version of the global, not as an effect of global forces but as an imaginative involvement with and thus constitutive of globalization (see Hart 2002). Of course, this process benefits some more than others, but just as importantly different people appropriate the space in very diverse ways. The right to the city manifested through use value, in these spaces created exclusively for exchange value, open up the possibility to conceptualize Megaprojects as more than merely self-referential imitations of a “global” everywhere.
Santa Fe simultaneously produces a new arena of negotiation and conflict, creating new forms of exclusion particularly for the poor. Although this site is in some senses private, it is briefly and without strategy, public in ways that are not exuberant, colorful or rhythmic, as Mike Davis might imagine, but quiet, respectful, hard-working and effective.
A revised version of this article appeared in City Journal (Vol.11 No.2 July 2007).
1. Indeed, while there are pavements in the business areas, between these and the drop-off points for transport there is much less if any provision. Open areas are criss-crossed with spontaneous paths, crossing points have been informally set up. Passengers of mini buses have to endure rapid drop-off and pick-ups from unscheduled locations, often on the side of the freeways, while some companies have responded to the lack of transport for non-car owning workers by providing coaches.
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Maria Moreno-Carranco is a Visiting Professor at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana – Cuajimalpa in Mexico City. Maria has worked as a practicing architect in Mexico and the US and has taught at three major universities in Mexico City and as lecturer at UC Berkeley. Her research interests include how urban processes, spatial practices and systems of representation are been transformed and redefined in the current era of neo-liberal globalization, particularly in the Latin American context.