Like most cities around the world, the arrival of the automobile to Mexico City at the end of the 19th century transformed how the metropolis developed throughout the 20th century. As Diana Lind writes in her beautiful essay, Cities Without Highways, the arrival of the automobile “revolutionized mobility, expanded the economy and had an enormous impact on the development of American cities.”
But half a century after the explosive growth of highways, this particular type of infrastructure has long passed its point of diminishing returns. While the growth of the suburbs engendered by the highway system at one point fueled the housing industry and led to comfortable middle-class lifestyles for millions of people, it also led to sprawling cities that many argue have hurt the economy.
Like Philadelphia, where Lind is based, the residents of Mexico City are trying to take their metropoils back from the dictatorship of the automobile. Public space for pedestrians was a priority of former mayor Marcelo Ebrardo. Cyclists, especially women, are advocating for more bike lanes. And, increasingly, downtown streets are being reclaimed by pedestrians.
Héctor de Mauleón describes the irony and historical importance of the local government’s decision to close the street 16 de Septiembre to cars. His text was originally published in El Universal.
Héctor de Mauleón is a journalist and author who was born in Mexico City in 1963. He writes frequently in Nexos and El Universal, and is the author of several books including The Fall of Idols and Unseen Weather: Chronicles of Mexico City in the 19th Century. I highly recommend his account of the #YoSoy132 student movement, “From the Web to the Streets.”
On January 6, 1895 an automobile passed through the streets of Mexico for the first time. It was brought from Europe by a turn-of-the-century aristocrat, Fernando de Teresa. Two days later, under the headline “Mysterious Carriage,” the newspaper El Siglo Diez y Nueve published a text that announced “a revolution in the means of locomotion:”
Last Saturday, in the wee hours of the night, a mysterious car crossed the main avenues of the city, causing more than one timid old woman to cross herself in ignorance of the wonders of modern industry. It slid through the streets like an arrow, we are told, announcing its passage with a horn similar to that of a bicycle, and obeying with admirable precision the hand that guided it, responding easily to the rapid changes required in order to save the lives of those obstacles in its path. Its shape was that of an aerodynamic carriage, and it carried several passengers. We later learned that it was a test run of an electric car that was recently received by Mr. Fernando de Teresa who was the first to drive it with a skill that delighted his companions.
Urban travel was previously undertaken in carriages puled by mules. The novelty introduced by Fernando de Teresa soon awoke the envy of the elite of the day. During the following decade the newspapers reported the arrival of thousands of cars on the streets of Mexico City. Paved roads soon became a priority for its government.
This priority became a way of planning the metropolis. A century later, when the number of cars in Mexico City reached 3.26 million, its residents would spend up to five hours each day in their cars. The “speed fever” described by the turn-of-the-century newspapers ended up transforming the city from a grid of alleyways to an ever-insufficient number of urban thoroughfares, peripheral circuits, expressways, and second floor corridors.
The car encapsulated people, fragmented their urban experience, and made the journey through the city a grueling adventure. The eleven million journeys made every day in Mexico City inevitably bring about images of cars.
With the invention of a terrible new verb, “pedestrianize,” the government of Mexico City announced that the street 16 de Septiembre will be taken away from cars and returned to pedestrians, the original inhabitants of the city. 16 de Septiembre is an emblem of what the city has done to the valley in which it sits. During the first 250 years in the history of the modern metropolis that was founded by Hernán Cortés, this street was a deep, water-filled ditch. According to Artemio de Valle Arizpe, people called it “water street” or “canoe street” for the constant coming and going of chalupas and trajineras that brought flowers, fruits, and vegetables to shops in the cities.
In 1754, however, the canal was practically dry and the residents of nearby homes used it to discard their garbage, filth, and dead animals. Rather than attempting to clean the canal, Juan Vicente de Güemes, the viceroy of New Spain, ordered “that deposit of filth” to be filled. This act, wrote the 19th century statesman Lucas Alamán, prevented us from having a “Dutch-looking city.”
With the filling of the ditch, the canoe gave way to the horse drawn carriage. Instead of flowers, fruits and vegetables, its passage was filled with brimming, heavy wagons. But that’s not what’s important. What is important is that the preppy, turn-of-the-century playboy Fernando de Teresa lived exactly at the corner of Palma and 16 de Septiembre. He passed by this intersection the night of the “test-run” of his first car. It was 16 de Septiembre that first heard the roar of its motor. And it is this street that today will be “pedestrianized.”
Maybe it doesn’t mean that much. And, yet, as a reminder and as an emblem, it’s a meaningful victory.