Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Urban housing and baby Jesus

Yesterday I went on a field trip to the historical centre of Mexico City: once inhabited by over 200,000 people, this sank to only 20,000 ten years ago. Rents had been frozen in the 1950s such that slowly no one could afford to repair their buildings (unless their own and they lived there, and then only if rich) and the area deteriorated - though a place of commerce by day, it became empty and crime ridden by night. The earthquake of 1986 was the coup de grace.

Slowly, however, it is being restored, street by street, and the population has risen to 32,000 by 2010. It is a difficult balancing act - private wealth (including the omnipresent Carlos Slim) is gentrifying creating a tension in (and threat to) social diversity. The municipality is creating social housing but can the pace of its investment match waves of private money. The streets are vibrant (or littered, depending on your viewpoint) with informal vendors: how do they move to more secure forms of trade (if they want and can afford to)? Question piled upon question but the signs of recovery we saw were encouraging - both physically - social housing, private renovation in the same street - and in people - a group of very articulate residents full of plans for change, some being realized, all being hoped for.

It was, as ever, a fascinating way of seeing a new place - not as a tourist exactly nor with an inside view but a shared glance with hospitable residents at the complexities of their lives.

One street was absolutely fascinating: it was given over to shops that sell baby Jesus (in profusion) and related artifacts, that are for the Feast of Christ's Presentation in the Temple that falls in February and which Mexicans clearly approach with great enthusiasm, seriousness and celebration, necessary to sustain a long street of shops whose sole function appears fixated on this particular Feast (all year round)!


Though a major feast in the Church calender - both in Catholic and Orthodox rites - it is one that has faded into the background in many places - but obviously not here. The first public outing of the Savior with its imprimatur of his status from the hands of a virtuous, long waiting priest.

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