I was asked by my friend Chris to compare differences between Los Angeles – my old home – and Mexico City – my new home. A worthy challenge, and an honor – my first blog request! (Alas, it took me so long to write this up that Chris – a longtime LA resident – finally just came down here to see for himself. Better late than never?)
Before I comment on the differences – of which there are several – I want to point out a few similarities as well. You probably already know that of LA’s roughly 40% Hispanic population, the majority is of Mexican descent. Most of those Mexican-Americans will, if asked, claim to have at least one living relative in Mexico City. As such, “Mexican” food in LA is often similar to what you’ll find on offer in your typical Mexico City restaurant. Sure, no one eats chapulines in LA – and nor do people eat burritos in Mexico City – but tacos al pastor at a low-budget Van Nuys taquería, for instance, are identical to the same-named dish at half-a-dozen quick-service restaurants in my own Mexico City neighborhood. Mole, a delectable spicy chocolate sauce that can adorn baked chicken or turkey, is a regional specialty that comes from Puebla, just two hours from Mexico City by road. I have enjoyed it in both LA and Mexico City (not to mention Puebla), and I couldn’t tell the difference.
The biggest similarity between Mexico City and LA, however, is architectural. That is to say, in the character of certain neighborhoods and communities. Can you guess where the following photos were taken? Mexico DF (Distrito Federal) or LA?
If you guessed Mexico DF for all of them, you’re right!
Santa Fe (top pic) is Mexico City’s modern business district, built on earthquake-proof land in the far western reaches of el DF. From up high, you might think you’re in Dubai, with freshly-paved highways passing office towers on one side and mega-malls on the other side. But from street level, it seems more like LA’s Century City, with the city’s nicest hotels and tallest buildings. Its aforementioned mall – Centro Comercial Santa Fe – trumps both Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates and LA’s Westfield Century City Mall with seven (!) department stores and up to four levels of high-end retail.
A drive down Paseo de la Herradura into Interlomas (second pic) is like cruising down Sunset Boulevard, or perhaps along any of the canyon roads (Coldwater, Beverly Glen, etc.) that separate West LA from the San Fernando Valley. Many of the city’s richest residents live here, in gated communities with armed guards. Said residents drive BMWs, send their kids to private schools and have their own Mexican maids – much the same as in LA’s hills. Wanna get to Interlomas by public transit? Good luck – the closest metro station is 30 minutes away! Incidentally, while Interlomas is technically part of Mexico City, it is so far from the center that it actually resides in Estado de Mexico and not in Distrito Federal.
Closer to downtown, Paseo de la Reforma (third pic) is a grand thoroughfare built by Maximilian I to connect his castle in Chapultepec with the Centro Histórico. Before Santa Fe rose up to the west, most international companies had their headquarters somewhere along this wide, wide, wide street. A few still do, as do most embassies. (The U.S. embassy occupies an entire city block just east of the Independence Monument, and gaudy anti-tank barricades let any passersby know just which country they are walking by.) The blocks around here look not unlike LA’s Wilshire Boulevard as it passes through Westwood. Both Reforma and Wilshire are noteworthy for having some of the worst traffic in their respective cities – especially Reforma as it heads west towards…wait for it…Santa Fe and Interlomas!
Mexico City resides at about 7,350 feet (2,240 meters) above sea level, in a large valley surrounded by volcanoes. At this altitude, days are usually warm and sunny while winter nights can be downright chilly (though it never snows). Temperate, sea level Los Angeles has similar temps and humidity, although the rainy seasons are reversed. The city’s highlands – namely the San Gabriel Mountains – boast flora and fauna similar to those of Mexico City – a pine tree for every cactus, let’s say. If this sounds like a similarity, the point I’m taking too many words to make is that for as much potential as Mexico City has as a hiker’s paradise, it simply pales (in this regard) when compared to what Greater LA has to offer.
For starters, DF’s most hike-able hills are on the periphery of the city…and it is on the periphery of the city where the most dangerous neighborhoods seem to be. While in LA, the “rich” live in the hills and the “poor” live in the valleys, in Mexico City (and in most of Latin America, in fact), it’s the opposite. Additionally, LA’s trail system is well-marked, and litter is collected regularly. Not so here. It is a good bet that after a Mexico City family leaves a woodland recreation area following an afternoon hike or picnic, they’ll leave several garbage bags worth of trash behind. If there’s an upside to this, it’s that the area’s requisite stray dogs will be in their scavenging glory.
Mexico City and LA have similar sprawl, with both cities surrounded by mountains on at least three sides and with both cities threatening to expand on the other side – if they haven’t done so already. Both cities have all-hours traffic congestion so severe it can make grown men cry…but Mexico City is making greater strides than LA in combating its traffic. The 20 year MTA expansion plan that LA is rolling out includes the controversial “Subway to the Sea” and, perhaps, better access by public transport to LAX. Mexico DF doesn’t have an ocean nearby but last fall opened a 25-km (15.6-mile) subway line (the city’s twelfth!) and has both metro and Metrobús access to MEX (Benito Juarez International Airport). Take that, LA! Additionally, Mexico City has four long distance bus terminals, one at each directional point of the compass, and each long distance terminal is well served by neighborhood buses of all sizes.
While we’re talking about sprawl, I thought it worth mentioning that whichever long distance bus terminal you leave from – North, South, East, or West – you can expect another 30-45 minutes of driving through endless (read: ugly) sprawl before even reaching the outer city limits. ¡Chingado!
GringoPotpourri note: I originally included a third point of difference between LA and DF that had to do with the socio-ethnic profiles of the two cities’ Mexican-blooded populations. I decided not to include it as my observations had gotten rather lengthy, and as I felt this insight deserved a blog entry of its own, complete with citations. Some other time, perhaps.