Strangled Cities


Last week, while I was staying in Mexico City, a friend who lives there offered to drive me to Teotihuaca’n, Mexico’s ancient pre-Columbian city. It’s an hour and a half drive north of the city. We left at 10:30am. Four hours later, we still hadn’t reached the outskirts of town.

It was hot. Some people were jogging down the side of the freeway looking for an exit. Cars were overheating and breaking down around us. One driver was attempting to reverse backwards down the entire highway. My right arm got badly sunburnt from being stuck out the window.

Thanks to David Emerson

We turned on the radio to hear the news that a bus carrying dozens of teenagers to a school field trip had toppled off a bridge, killing nine children and injuring many others. The road was going to be blocked for hours to come. We gave up and turned around, finally arriving at sight-seeing spot number two, Frida Kahlo’s Blue House, at around 4:00 pm.

Her house is ten kilometres south of the centre of the city, in the district of Coyoacan. When Kahlo was born in 1907 it was a country town. By the time of her death in 1954 the city had spread and absorbed the area. Both Mexico City and the other city I spent time in on this trip, Los Angeles, are like organic things; remarkable cities that have grown so large they will soon be unable to feed themselves.

In both cities I spent a lot of time in traffic, driving and being driven, and heard many stories of two- to three-hour commutes to work. The LA Times was full of articles about property prices forcing people to live hours away from where they worked ¾ Santa Barbara, once a separate town, is in particular trouble ¾ and the consequent pressures on the freeway system.

There used to be a trolley car system and extensive train lines in Los Angeles but the oil companies ripped them up in the 1940s and 1950s. There is debate as to whether the lines were deliberately put out of action to force people to buy cars, or whether, in the brave new post-World War II world, people willingly chose the car as their form of transport and consequently put the public transport systems out of business ¾ certainly the government had no intention of subsidising it.

Either way, petrol prices are going up and Los Angeles can’t afford to replicate the infrastructure it once had in place.

Mexico City , on the other hand, does have an efficient metro system, one that is subsidised by the government. You can get anywhere covered by the maze of lines for 2 pesos (about 2 cents). But it’s not efficient enough to counter the fact that there are 20 million people living across more than 2000 square kilometres.

Partly as a result of this constant traffic, the air in this volcanic basin is highly polluted. You cannot see the mountains that surround the urban sprawl and simply breathing in Mexico City is said to be the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. By the end of each evening my face was covered in grime. My host told me that when the rain comes, it is refreshing, but acid. Most of this acid rain runs unused into the sewers.

Mexico City was established on a lake. It suffers from floods and water shortages, rising sewage and sinking water tables. Pumps struggle to suck sewage-laced water out of the bowl in which the city lies. Some neighborhoods are sinking by as much as a foot a year.

The beautiful Basilica de Guadalupe, on the famous Plaza de la Republica, is set on such an angle I was reminded of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. While the city sinks into the mire, much of its population is forced to exist on one hour of running water a week and even when it runs, the tap water is undrinkable and needs to be boiled for at least 20 minutes. The friends I was staying with ¾ two students: one Australian, one Mexican ¾ buy their water from a boy who rides past on his bike each day. The day we tried to drive to the pyramids of Teotihuacán, we missed him so we had to sit in more traffic to get to the supermarket and buy some.

While I was visiting, Mexico City was hosting the 4th World Water Forum, although as an article in the Dallas Times put it, ‘The city would probably flunk in all the five topics to be discussed how water can be harnessed for growth, be provided more efficiently, better benefit the poor, be used environmentally and be prevented from causing natural disasters.’

The next morning, a Saturday, the front page of the newspaper had a picture of the bus that had crashed ahead of us on the highway on its side and stained with the blood of the children that had been inside when it plunged 25 feet. The bus driver was said to have been on drugs and speeding at the time of the crash. He’d survived, but fled from the scene of the accident.

There was also a report that police had detained 17 people at a rally at the Water Forum. The protests were being held because many people believed the forum was only serving the interests of big corporations. While the Mexican President Vicente Fox said, ‘water needed to be seen as a global heritage to which everyone had a right,’ protesters, ‘felt the discussion of community-level water projects that was supposed to be at the heart of the summit was being overshadowed by big companies’ interests in privatisation.’

I read these articles as my friends prepared Mexican eggs: scrambled with tomato and chili. Then we discussed whether or not to give the pyramids another shot. Apparently the weekend heralded the equinox, which meant millions were expected to go to the site, dressed in white, to ‘recharge’ themselves with various cosmic energies. The archaeological society was panicking and asking people not to visit because they were expecting years worth of damage to the pyramids to occur in this single weekend. We decided not to go.

All this talk of ruined cities left me wondering how long it would be before many of the earth’s great contemporary cities would be ruined: strangled by roads people can’t afford to use and distances they can’t negotiate; by lack of access to water to drink, or air to breathe.

Now that I’m back home, Melbourne feels very small. And very, very lucky. I wonder just how long that luck will hold out.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.