Mexico City’s Downtown: Historical or Hysterical?

Mexico City’s Downtown: Historical or Hysterical?

In the taxi from the airport to my hotel a few weeks ago, I took advantage of the situation and asked my driver about the city. Taxi drivers can be great introductions to a new place, and I always try to get insider info when I arrive somewhere.

One of my most pressing questions was about the neighborhoods of Mexico City – which were the best to live in? He spouted out the predictable ones: Condesa, Polanco, Santa Fe. Then I asked him about the downtown area, or centro. He replied by saying, “Se dicen centro histórico, pero realmente es el centro histérico.” (They call it the historical center, but really it’s the hysterical center.)

Metropolitan Cathedral Mexico City zocalo
the Metropolitan Cathedral, said to be the oldest in the Americas

I reflected back to his statement as I first set foot on the zócalo, or principal plaza, yesterday. Unfortunately, half of the plaza was dominated by a huge crane and construction sectioned off as workers set up for an event, so I quickly exited onto Francisco Madero, a pedestrian-only street.

It was punctuated by massive jewelry stores and other commercial enterprises. I was impressed by the grand buildings on both sides, tinted with various shades of crimson and dark gray and cream, reflecting a restoration that had been accomplished expertly, neither overdone nor underdone.

Several other pedestrian walkways branched off this one, holding government buildings and cafes and restaurants. Office workers dressed in black scurried from one place to the next or lingered on the sidewalks, smoking cigarettes and chatting with coworkers. A man sold gum out of a thin cardboard tray, his glazed eyes and chapped lips suggesting the destination of his wages.

A university student wearing a red clown nose handed me a white flyer with red print titled Ocupemos la Bolsa Mexicana de Valores. “Ah, como Occupy Wall Street?” I said. “Andale,” he replied,  moving on to his next target.

This part of downtown is truly majestic. It’s not impersonal like other cities I’ve seen. It’s where the city’s residents come together, where they are welcome and where they belong no matter what shape or form.

Palacio de Bellas Artes
Palacio de Bellas Artes

After being wowed by the historical part, I had to get to the hysterical part. I crossed the zócalo and headed to the other side where I noticed a lot of foot traffic. I rounded the corner on one of the side streets and was faced with an explosion of commerce. Here, the streets were packed like an American mall on Black Friday. I passed rows and rows of Halloween costumes, backpacks, luggage, toys, slimy eyeballs, kitchen supplies… basically 10 of everything you could ever want and 100 of everything you don’t.

The cacophony of the vendors reached a fever pitch, with men using microphones and megaphones to advertise their wares and clothing stores blaring techno music out of human-sized speakers. It’s a sound that could easily have been mistaken for the start of a people’s revolution.

After several blocks of chaos, I managed to escape down a side street. I passed a pitiful looking thing sitting in the midst of garbage, chewing on someone’s leftovers while a security guard watched. The street led to a small plaza, where I saw my first public protest. Mexico City is famous for its protests, and I was excited to see one in person. A man’s voice, amplified by a megaphone, shouted out the issue and his demands to his group of followers, about 15 in total. Quite a lame turnout, and I felt a pang of pity for the small group.

Further along, a red-headed woman hissed in my direction, “Que buscas chica?” I wasn’t looking for anything so I said thanks and kept on. I thought this was strange because there were no products to buy within sight, just a tiny plaza. I was approached by four other men in succession, each shadier than the last, all hissing the same question. While I have traveled with men who have been approached by local peddlers with the promise of debauchery, as a woman I have been spared – until now.

I reminded myself not to return to this particular spot and tried to make my way back to the zócalo. I weaved through cars and men and teenagers and buses, trying to take in my surroundings while at the same time looking like I wasn’t navigating the middle of one of the world’s largest metropolises in one of the world’s most populated countries for the first time.

As much as I love cities, especially downtown, they suck my energy, and Mexico City’s centro is no different. I will have to take my time getting to know this area, exploring small sections in short spurts, discovering both her historical and hysterical sides.

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