Saturday, August 15, 2015

Colonia Roma Norte - Part II: Dreams in Stone, Glass...and Paint

“I Speak of the City”
A novelty today, tomorrow a ruin from the past, buried and resurrected every day,
lived together in streets, plazas, taxis, movie houses, theaters, bars, hotels, pigeon coops and catacombs, . . . 
the city that dreams us all, that all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream,  . . . 
I speak of the buildings of stone and marble, of cement, glass and steel, of the people in the lobbies and doorways, 
I speak of our public history, and of our secret history, yours and mine.

(Octavio Paz, “I Speak of the City” in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987,
ed. and trans. Eliot Weinberger, New York: New Directions Books, 1987, 511-517)

Octavio Paz's prose poem portrays with words how the buildings and streets of any city reflect the urban human condition. But each does so embodying the historical and cultural character that makes it unique. Octavio Paz's city was Mexico City. This blog of perambulations through the streets and neighborhoods of his city is our effort to make it ours.  

"A novelty today, 
tomorrow a ruin from the past, buried and resurrected every day,. . . 
the city that dreams us all, 
that all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream" 

Aztec Templo Mayor
CLICK on any photo to enlarge it and open a gallery of all photos.

Mexico-Tenochtitlán, the city dreamt by the Mixeca/Aztecs, was literally buried by the Spanish conquistadores to create the city they dreamed, colonial Ciudad de México, now the Centro Histórico. We have wandered those ancient streets and observed how they have been redreamt by subsequent sojourners up to the present moment.

Palace of the Blue Tiles
Now a Sanborns Store and Restaurant

Then we saw how Porfirio Díaz and his late 19th century companions dreamt a European city of boulevards, Neo-Renaissance and Neoclassic palaces and French Second Empire homes for the bourgeoisie of modern industrialism.

Reception Hall, Palace of Communications,
now National Museum of Art

French-style Mansion
in Colonia Benito Juárez

Our walks through the colonias [neighborhoods] created under the Díaz regime have led us to discover how that Continental vision was continued and modified in the first half of the 20th century, after the Mexican Revolution, adding a re-imagined Mexican past embodied in neocolonial and California colonial imagery, among others.

California Colonial in Colonia Cuauhtémoc

Into those earlier Romantic dreamscapes we have witnessed the intrusion of late 20th century functionalism, with its puritanical vision that presents itself as a modern "realism" free of all dreams—and memories—of the past.

Functionalist Apartments in Colonia San Rafael

That ideal is now carried even further by postmodernity's steel and glass castles rising into the air.

Torre Mayor, on Paseo de la Reforma
a play on Templo Mayor

The city that dreams us all, that all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream" 

In the first part of our perambulation through Colonia Roma Norte, in the Casa del Libro and Casa Lamm, and other homes on and near Calle Orizaba, we encountered other examples of the Porfiriato and post-Revolutionary dream of recreating a neoclassic European city, or, at least, its wealthy neighborhoods.

Leaving Casa Lamm, walking along Avenida Álvaro Obregón and down Orizaba as it continues south, we encounter additional embodiments of this nostalgic wish.

Neocolonial Hotel Colonia Roma
on Avenida Álvaro Obregón

Neocolonial House

Neoclassic Mansion

French Second Empire Mansion,
now Universidad Londres

on Plaza Luis Cabrera

More Dreams,  From an Increasingly Muddled Past

However, just west of Casa Lamm, on Avenida Álvaro Obregón, we meet a rather more fanstastic vision than those more classic dreams: El Parián. It is a market named after one that stood in the Zócalo, in the Centro Histórico from the beginning of the 18th until the middle of the 19th century.

El Parián Market

It is a kind of wedding cake confection of Moorish arches, Baroque spiral columns, crenellated Gothic towers and crests, and Spanish colonial elements—a quintessential dream castle. 


It reminds us of the even more fantastic architecture of Porfirio Díaz´s Palacio del Correos, with its medley of Spanish Plateresque, Elizabethan Gothic, Italian Renaissance Revival, Moorish Revival, Neoclassical, Baroque and Art Nouveau styles. 

Here and there, on other streets, we run into less ostentacious but similarly fanciful daydreams.

Art Nouveau Fountain and Rainbow

A man's home is ....

Baroque Columns with Art Nouveau Stained Glass ...
and Asian Bamboo.

All these are, of course, the dreams of the wealthy, or of those who aspired to be so—dreams they could afford to turn into the relative permanence of stone and glass.

With their increasingly ornate elaborations and mingling of historically disparate styles, you feel that they were reaching for some lost or, perhaps, new cultural and personal identity, but were always seeking to find it in a romanticized past—one that would slip completely away over the next few decades.

Another Type of Dream

But there is another part of La Roma, without the wealth, but with a different kind of permanence and with other dreams, expressed in a far different manner. La Romita, Little Rome.

Semi-secluded in the colonia's northeast corner, La Romita was originally the indigenous Nahua pueblo of Aztacalco on an island in Lake Texcoco. With the arrival of the Spanish, came conversion to Catholicism, and, of course, the building of a parish church.

Santa Maria de la Natividad de Aztacalco,

In front of the church is a traditional Mexican plaza that could be in any traditional provincial pueblo anywhere in Mexico—nowhere near upscale, cosmopolitan Roma.

Aztacalco kept its name and retained relative social and cultural autonomy until the beginning of the 20th century, when it was incorporated into the expanding Mexico City and subsumed as part of the new subdivision, La Roma. It became known as La Romita.

As a "popular", i.e., working class, indigenously-based barrio, it kept itself apart from the new La Roma of los de arriba (those from above)—as those from above stayed away from La Romita. The delightfully independent and keenly observant boy hero of José Emilio Pacheco's “Las batallas en el desierto” (The Battles in the Desert), who lives with his upper middle class family in La Roma, speaks of the danger of entering La Romita. 

Lacking the means to express their dreams in stone or glass, residents have turned to another medium to express theirs, by drawing on a long-standing tradition in Mexico.


Using the featureless walls of their houses, they express themselves with paint. Wall painting is one of the ancient Mexican arts, going back to the indigeous civilizations of such cities as Teotihuacán, Cacaxtla, Bonampak and Tenochtitlán.

Even Telephone Poles Become Visions

But there is also a more individual and modern note written on these walls:

"A Mexican never devastates me"

And with them, the universal, anonymous dream of the modern urban streets: the dream of an individual identity. 

We will come back to wall art and graffiti in our perambulations, but first we have to explore one last Porfiriato colonia, La Condesa. Then we'll move on to the next epoch in Mexico's history, the Revolution and the artifacts it has bequeathed to the City.

Colonia Roma Norte is bounded on the
North by Ave. Chapúltepec
East by Ave. Cuauhtémoc
West by Ave. Insurgentes.
South by Calle Coahuila (not shown)

Delegación Cuauhtémoc
The "Porfirian" colonias line the west side of Delegación Cuauhtémoc
From north to south they are:
Santa Maria la Ribera (violet)
San Rafael (medium pink)
Cuauhtémoc, (medium blue triangle)

South of Paseo de la Reforma
Benito Juárez (horizontal triangle of three adjacent pink sections)
Roma Norte (light blue) (Doctores, to the east, is a separate colonia)
Roma Sur (darker blue)

And to the southwest (lower left):
Condesa (medium pink)
Condesa Hípódromo (dark pink)
Hípódromo (pale pink)

Centro, and its five sub-divisions (Historico, north, east, south, west)
 is to the right center (almost white)

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