Architecture for the mind when a city transforms

‘The print shows the emerging urban landscape of Mexico City in the late 1940s. A cluster of high-rise blocks – some of which are under construction – is interspersed with blocks of low-rise colonial buildings. The human figures represent how urban development, and particularly the onset of capitalism, had a devastating effect on the population: the skeletal child standing at the left, for example, is dying from starvation, while the woman in a shawl at the top right holds out an empty begging cup.
At the right in the distance, small figures queue outside the entrance to a building. Dressed in shawls, they represent Indians who have come to the city either waiting payment for work they have done or for land which they are owed through the land redistribution policy. Two men stuff litter into large sacks, showing the amount of waste generated in the city, while in the centre, a starving dog scavenges in a bin. The figures overpowered by buildings reflect the problems of urban expansion.’

Text from ‘Revolution on Paper: Mexican Prints 1910-1960’, Dawn Adès and Alison McClean, with the assistance of Laura Campbell, edited by Mark McDonald, BMP, 2009.

One week before the recent earthquake rocked Mexico City and Puebla, I saw this engraving by the late, renowned Mexican artist Alfredo Zalce, entitled México se transforma en una gran ciudad at the MUTEC in Puebla. It was more than its mastery and discomforting message that halted me in the line up of engravings along the wall; it transported me to a moment just one week prior, when I had been walking down my street in Rio de Janeiro, early in the morning, only to be struck by the pungent smell of a homeless man even before I had seen him.

Stopping well before he reached me, the homeless man snapped to the side, spying a doorman who looked like a bird in a cage, fenced inside the portal of a typical residential building. The doorman was taking advantage of the early morning quiet to splash water around, washing the steps and watering the potted plants within his cage, an enclave of exactly the kind of metal gates that have been erected in front of every building in the city, eating away part of the sidewalk and creating the jails that are not meant to keep anyone in; they are meant to keep undesired people out — much like the homeless man.

Darting quickly to catch the doorman before he turned off the water, the homeless man mimicked from the gate that he wished to be hosed down. The expression on the doorman’s face was that of quizzical irritation at being interrupted by such an unbecoming man during what should have been his moment of quiet, standing on the stoop in wet flip-flops, water gushing from the garden hose in his hand. The doorman sent his ear but not his eyes in the direction of the street dweller to confirm the unusual request with surprising detachment, to which the homeless man responded mumbling from the gate that he indeed wished to be hosed down.

The sight of the homeless man taking a shower on the sidewalk — while completely dressed — from a garden hose held above his head by a doorman through a fence was so pitiful that it was impossible not to exchange embarrassed glances with the early morning dog walkers and even the doorman, who replied individually to every onlooker without speaking, what else can I do?

I had seen many things wrong in the portrait before my eyes: from the daily waste of water during a drought to wash an entryway as part of an almost obsolete job, to the rejection from family and society of an individual left to improvise health and hygiene on streets that are being chewed off from the sides into cages by people who have crammed into buildings for fear of living in easily accessible houses without security.

Tá tudo errado! I thought out loud in disgust, everything is wrong! I kicked a stone.

Just as the other onlookers, while I am quick to see errors in others, finding my own is not so easy. In this case, it is not so easy to examine how much space and resources I require to be comfortable in this world, and at what cost they come — and how that cost is related to the picture of consternation before my eyes.

I quickly found a small amount of guilt money to give to the first homeless person I would inevitably encounter, most probably the man who sits with his little son on one of the last corners before my workplace. I usually accept a piece of bubble gum from his assortment tray on the pavement in exchange for the money I give him. Maybe it is a way to maintain dignity in front of his noisily happy son, who is watching him, despite joyful enthrallment with the broken plastic cars he races around on the dirty sidewalk.

Children see everything.

I was reminded of this on my recent trip when encountering the childhood drawing from my nephew, who I remember in diapers but who is now old enough to solve the world’s problems with me over a tall mug of pulque.

His rendition of his city of Puebla at a very precocious age showed such a profound sense of the world around him that it is no surprise that he is about to graduate in history. Today, as a young man, we often sit at the rustic tables in bars of the historic city center where he explains how the city is being transformed by the private interests that have taken over the collective interests and do not benefit the public.

“That is not unique to Mexico, Fabián!” I thumped down my pulque, remembering the disturbing engraving we had just seen and the even more disturbing World Cup and Olympics that were to have “transformed” the city. I looked outside across a city center, contemplating whether the lack of public urban space is the chicken or the egg of the problems that have been replicated in every city around the world. It is a paradigm that has forced people to work more and more in order to have enough money to afford less and less private space in an urban world that has no more public space where one can go without spending money during free time that is almost negligible.

If you followed that, think about it: it is crazy!

I guess that makes me among the few in this world who manages time off, something that has become a great privilege in this world. And it was two weeks later that my vacation ended and I had just walked into my apartment after my trip when my phone turned into a jumping bean: my family’s chat group was frantically messaging, locating everyone after the ground became fluid but the walls did not.

Fortunately, all my family is well, but that is more than I can say for many others who lost loved ones in the earthquake.

In a reversal of selfishness that has transformed our cities into hell, it is with great pride I say that Mexico has given the entire world a lesson in solidarity, its citizens running towards falling buildings and not away from them, almost instantly forming lines like our Aztec ancestors to hand over rubble or supplies from one to another with startling speed.

The irony of great tragedy is how beautifully it washes away selfishness. But, ideally, we should not wait for disaster to practice compassion. There are little ways of training the mind to see problems and begin to contemplate solutions. There was a time when I did not even see stray animals; it was not until I met a great friend who does not permit dogs lost in the street in his presence. Today, although I most often do nothing about it, I see them. Not one misses my eye. With time, that attention expanded when I noticed that those dogs often accompanied stray people, who rediscover friendship with those that will never abandon them, even when all others have.

I see them now. And I see that their numbers have only grown after the city received both after the city hosted the world’s biggest mega-events. And I also see how true Mahatma Gandhi’s words were: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” The weakest is much more than the poor. It is the elderly, the sick, the prisoners— and the animals.

Our scorecard is not good. I hit me that morning on my street.

There are times when seeing the weak hurts enough that I need to do something—something selfish— because the first beneficiary of charity is always the giver, offering something in order to calm one’s own mind. So I give small amounts of money to a father and son who can be very comical together with their sweet voices, sitting on the ground opposite a cathedral I pass on the way to work. And it was then I remembered when I saw Zalce’s engraving on another hemisphere with the same problems. How I would love to give that little boy a sheet of paper and a pen from him to draw me his city. What would his map of Rio de Janeiro look like?

I haven’t taken any bubble gum from him recently. His stock is dwindling and I can see he hasn’t been able to replace it. Besides there is a small pile of his gum accumulating in my backpack. I don’t even chew gum: should I give it back to him?

What else can I do?

Model of orginal city plan on display at the Zócalo of Puebla

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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