Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.
This week Diane and I are in Mexico with friends doing some sightseeing. As is my habit, I can’t just enjoy the sights I have to ask a lot of questions while trying to get an impression of the place, its culture, its environment, its atmosphere, and its politics. Not surprisingly, the answers to some of those questions pointed me upward beyond the surface of the Earth. To understand why, read on.
Today we toured the inner parts of Mexico City, both on foot and by bus and subway (or the Metro as they call it here). I have spent considerable time in many of the world’s major cities, growing up in New York and visiting at length Moscow, Kiev, Prague, London, Chicago, Los Angeles and others. Mexico City has many of the same features you’d expect for this kind of big city, lots of people, lots of traffic, lots of buildings packed tight together, and lots of wealth and poverty sitting side-by-side.
Mexico City however to me seemed to be most crowded and the most packed of any city I have ever visited or lived in. Its size and population probably rivals that of the entire New York metropolitan area, but somehow the traffic and crowds and architecture seemed more piled on top of each other with far less breathing room.
First was the traffic. Everywhere we went it was wall to wall vehicles. The major highways were never quiet, even at night. Nor could I see much difference between midday and rush hours. The picture on the right shows us heading from in from an outer neighborhood where we were staying to take the subway into the center of the city. Not only was it bumper-to-bumper, but if you look out in the distance the road is bumper-to-bumper as far as the eye can see. My host Alfonso added at one point that in order to avoid this traffic many people routinely leave for work before 5 am and come home after 8 pm. Schools have multiple shifts, including ones at night.
A side note: The tall rectangular structures in the foreground are not buildings. This is a work of art, five several hundred foot tall cinderblock structures supposedly forming a hand pointing up, with the thicker yellow tower in the front representing the thumb.
At the subway there was no let up. The sidewalks were packed with people and vendors, as shown on the left. So were the tunnels leading to the subway itself. Every wall and sidewalk was lined with small street shops each about ten feet across, selling anything from fruits to candy to books to trinkets to whatever you can imagine. In the subway itself vendors walked through the train continually, hawking anything from pens to chewing gum to music CDs.
Even the line to enter the station’s turnstiles was like a long snaking bank line, except that there were two lines, the longer line for men and the shorter for women and children, as can be seen by the signs in the image to the right.
We visited two main sites in our tour of the inner city. First was the Metropolitan Cathedral, pictured on the far right, at the town’s central municipal square. The men lined up in front of the fence are a variety of home repairmen, plumbers and carpenters, advertising their services to the general public. If you need a plumber, this is one way you can find one.
Next we went to what they call Revolution Monument, shown on the immediate right. This building, which commemorates Mexico’s independence and is the burial site for many of their most important historical figures, was almost a century in the making, with its construction beginning in late 1880s and paused either because of lack of cash or because another revolution had occurred and the new leaders were uninterested in finishing it. In fact, the tour we took inside its structure was only finished in the last year or so, with the whole building only recently undergoing a complete reconstruction to create the Monument you see in these pictures.
The tour first took us down into the bowels of the structure to show the complex steel foundation. Then we took an elevator up into the top of the monument (shown above) and then stairs into its inner structure. I took the picture to the right from inside that structure, looking out at the top of the elevator tower in the center of the monument’s inner dome of copper. The outer dome, visible from the street, is a metal framework that holds up the inner dome and is covered with a stone facade.
At the very top of the Monument we could look out at all of Mexico City. In every direction were buildings upon buildings, packed together and fading into the distant haze of the city’s ever-present smog.
While I have great faith in the ability of humans to adapt to any condition, and could see a clear demonstration of this in the manner in which Mexico City’s citizens were doing exactly that, I was still struck with a sense that maybe the city’s capacity to function was getting close to its limits. I suspect that I am wrong, but nonetheless, I did get that feeling. It will be a great challenge for future generations to deal with these issues and find a solution to them.
One solution I can suggest, which should not surprise anyone who reads anything I write, would be to learn how to get off this Earth and live on other worlds. Eventually, that would give us all breathing room and make it possible to send back to Earth the almost unlimited energy and resources that can be found in space to make living on Earth easier and more worthwhile, no matter how crowded it becomes.
I think future generations will embrace this solution. In fact, I think the present generation is doing so now. Whether we can make it happen fast enough to make a positive difference is probably the biggest challenge of all.