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Mexico City’s Colonia Condesa, The War Between the Trendy and The Traditional
by David Lida
David Lida is the author of TRAVEL ADVISORY (Perennial), a collection of short stories set in Mexico. His fiction has been published in Open City, Zoetrope All-Story and The Literary Review, and his journalism in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler and Metropolitan Home.
Don Jesús Elizondo, affectionately known to his customers as “Chucho,” has been styling hair, primarily to women of a certain age, at the same location in Mexico City for more than 40 years. “It's not like the old days,” he clucks, referring to the neighborhood where his salon is situated, known as the Colonia Condesa. “When I opened the shop, there were benches on all the streets and people used to relax, sit and talk while having a beer or a cup of tea. On Sundays the kids from good families would sometimes go horseback riding. Now there's nothing like that.”
One of his clients, Gabriela de la Vega, agrees. “The people who come here now are yuppies, or nouveau riche,” she says, while having her nails manicured. “They have money in their pocket and they want to pretend they're in New York or Europe.”
Indeed, the Colonia Condesa has exploded remarkably in the last few years, home to over 100 new restaurants, bars and cafes, as well as bookstores, boutiques, internet clubs and houseware stores. Mostly youthful, much of the Condesa’s clientele comes from artistic, bohemian or glamorous milieus: actors, painters and writers, journalists, models and their agents, graphic designers, people in advertising. De la Vega may sniff about the boom, but she also admits, “All my friends from other neighborhoods want to come here. They ask me which restaurants to go to.” She confesses that she dines in several of them herself. “The Condesa is de moda, de ambiente (in fashion),” she says.
“Maybe so,” adds Chucho, “but that doesn’t mean I'm going to change the name of my shop to Les Chuchés.”
Around the corner from Chucho's shop is La Panadería, which in Spanish means The Bakery. But you can’t get any bread there. Mexico City's most conspicuous alternative art space is thusly named because for decades it housed a Jewish bake shop that sold European-style loaves and pastries. Today there are performance pieces, videos, and installations of a distinctly temporal nature – with ink blots, abstract designs or bleeding fingers drawn on walls that will be painted over as soon as the exhibition ends. A recent display, called !Qué guapo! (How gorgeous) featured a beat-up Volkswagen that two Viennese artists had bought and driven from Los Angeles to Mexico City. They painted it like a race car and decorated it with obsessive collages and photos of their trip, and blasted continuous music from the vehicle’s tape player.
“I’m just trying to expand the panorama of what gets shown in Mexico,” says Yoshua Okon, the baby-faced director of La Panadería. He is responding to a long-voiced complaint that most well-known Mexican museums and galleries only exhibit artists anointed by long-established cliques. Most of the work at La Panadería comes out of the blue, albeit from various countries in Latin America, Europe and North America. “But some of our artists also show in the ‘official’ Mexican museums, like the Chopo and the Carillo Gil.”
Chucho’s salon and La Panadería are emblematic of the Condesa in its current incarnation – a neighborhood of engaging contrasts, a brusque blend of the trendy and the traditional. Even the restaurants are sharply conflicting. For instance, at Ligaya, a chic outpost decorated entirely in crisp white by a faux Phillipe Starck, the city’s stylish youth dine elegantly – and at international prices – on nouvelle preparations of Mexican cuisine, such as seafood-stuffed peppers and snapper filets in chipotle-chile sauce. On the other hand, a few blocks away, at the resolutely old-fashioned Tío Luis, diners have been feasting on the same classic dishes since 1939, including their specialty – various preparations of pollo. (The 90-year-old owner, Pedro Yllana, is no chicken, though. In his youth, he was a torero, fighting bulls as many as five times a week.)
At the Condesa’s center are two of Mexico City’s loveliest parks (Parque México and Parque España), largely tranquil tree-lined streets and charming examples of Art Deco architecture. Old-time residents of the neighborhood worry that its boom of new businesses has brought with it a series of headaches – primarily an abundance of traffic and a scarcity of parking; incessant noise; even drug trade and street crime. Mexico City, of course, has not had a sterling reputation for safety in recent years.
Still, security is in the eye of the beholder. Writer Xhevdet Bajraj, a recent emigré to the Condesa – from Kosovo – says that living in the neighborhood has given him a sublime “feeling of liberation.” Between air strikes and political persecution, in Kosovo, “I couldn't even go out on the street.”
“I’m just happy to be here with my family,” he adds. “I'm happy that no one will kill me here. If I had to, I’d sleep in Parque México.” Bajraj lives in the Casa Refugio Citlaltepetl, one of many shelters for refugee authors that have been established worldwide by the International Parliament of Writers, an organization spearheaded by, among others, Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka and Jacques Derrida.
Bajraj is not the first illustrious immigrant to live in the Condesa, which has a brief, if colorful, history.
Modernity Comes to Mexico City
Condesa means Countess, and the neighborhood gets its name because it was once part of an enormous swath of Mexico City that was the hacienda of the Countess of Miravaille, the wife of a Spanish grandee. But it remained a rancho until its development in the early 20th century. During the first decades it housed the Jockey Club, a race track and recreational facility for the city’s wealthiest residents. In the early 1920s, the Club closed and the land began to be developed for residences – with a decree that a large section would be maintained as green space (which makes it a lovely anomaly in the densely populated city today).
In the subsequent decades, the Condesa’s pioneer residents were middle-class and upper-class Mexicans and internationals, many with an artistic bent. Agustín Lara, the great composer of romantic boleros, lived here, as did flamenco dancer Pilar Rioja and painter Juan Soriano. Cantínflas, Mexico's greatest film comedian, set up his suite of offices in the Condesa. In 1924, President Plutarco Elías Calles opened Mexico to the largest wave of Jewish immigration in the country’s history. Within four years 15,000 Jews – primarily Ashkenazis from Eastern Europe – resettled in the capital. They began as merchants on the streets of the city’s centro histórico, but soon gained economic success and chose the Condesa as their principal neighborhood. In addition to synagogues and community centers, they opened kosher butcher shops and European-style bakeries.
“It's Mexico City’s first modern neighborhood,” notes architect Edgar Tavares López, who wrote a book about the district. “Before it was developed, you see only Spanish colonial architecture, or grand mansions based on French architecture of the 19th century.” Yet the Condesa residences were inspired by Art Deco: the blend of sharp angles, straight lines and sensuous curves. Other buildings were constructed in neo-colonial, or “California colonial,” as well as functional styles.
By the 1970s, many of the succeeding generations of Mexican Jews had left the Condesa and moved to other neighborhoods. In 1985, a tumultuous earthquake rocked Mexico City, and while the Condesa was not hard hit, nearby neighborhoods were, and more of the remaining Jews fled. There are still several synagogues in the Condesa, but Rabbi Rafael Spangenthal of Kehila Ashkenazi de México, the neighborhood’s largest, laments that Friday-night services are performed for only about 100 congregants.
It was not only the Jews, but many others in the Condesa who deserted the neighborhood after the earthquake. But one Mexican’s disaster is another’s opportunity. With high occupancy rates and low rents, the neighborhood became a magnet for the city’s young bohemians.
The Boom and Beyond
In the years after the earthquake, the Condesa’s new residents, like the older ones who remained, continued to live in the neighborhood’s time-honored fashion: strolling through the Parque México eating ices or cotton candy, roaming on bicycles rented from Don Hilario’s tiny shop abutting the park, crowding outside a nameless hole-in-the-wall to feast on delectable tacos de guisado prepared by a man known to his customers as El Güero (“Whitey”). They had their shoes buffed by another El Güero, whose shine stand has been located outside an appetizing store called La Naval since 1941.
However, dining choices were limited. There were a few of cantinas serving sandwiches and snacks, taco stands on the street, and only a smattering of restaurants, such as Sep's, principally serving mittel – European food. In 1993, on calle Michoacán, one of the Condesa's principal streets, Fonda Garufa opened, with a menu of Argentine-style steaks and empanadas, pastas and salads. Almost instantaneously, there were lines to get a table.
“Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would be this successful,” says La Garufa’s manager, Roberto Aguirre. “I think it worked because it was a new concept -high-quality food, but in a relaxed setting without stuffy waiters.”
In addition, there were tables set on the sidewalk – at the time a rarity in Mexico City (curious considering its climate, which is agreeably warm most of the year). Ernesto Zeivy, formerly employed at La Garufa, claims the al fresco concept was his idea; in any case he xeroxed it when he opened his own place, Café La Gloria, a couple of years later, just a few doors down. It, too, was an instant success.
“There was a demand,” says Zeivy. “There’s a new Mexican customer, young and informal, who has traveled, who drinks wine, who has eaten on sidewalks in Europe and the United States.” While previously, Mexico City had its share of pricey French restaurants, the clientele was always dressy and seemingly in a stiffness competition with the tuxedo-clad waiters. “No one was attending to this younger clientele,” says Zeivy.
Now they are being catered to at dozens of restaurants, mostly with the same formula of outdoor space, contemporary pop played a little (or a lot) too loudly, and colorful decor (usually adorned with paintings by local artists, who sometimes barter for food in exchange for their work).
Nevertheless, they’re multiplying at what some residents feel is an alarming rate. Principally on two streets – Michoacán and Tamulipas – the neighbors gripe that all is lost. And indeed, if you live above the noisiest ones, your life has indeed irrevocably changed.
Yet most of the neighborhood remains quiet, tranquil – for some, even pastoral. One such resident is Guatemalan-American novelist Francisco Goldman, who divides his time between apartments in the Condesa and New York. “I think of my place in the Condesa as my country house,” he says. “It's like living in some village in Provence. There are trees on all the streets, it’s quiet – sometimes the only sounds I hear are the steam whistle of the guy who sells sweet potatoes on the street, or the pan-flute of the itinerant knife sharpener. It’s great for my concentration. I get a lot more work done here than in Brooklyn. I know there’s this problem with the neighborhood being too trendy – those bars and pool halls that are hangouts for the druggy fresas (rich kids) and junior fashion-victims. But all that’s totally easy to ignore.”
Not, however, if your mom-and-pop business is one of the casualties of the Condesa gentrification. There have been a few: until recently, a hardware store on calle Michoacán was replaced by a bar, and a tire shop across the street was subsumed by a seafood restaurant. Still, a walk around the neighborhood reveals that, at least for the moment, it's still a neighborhood, with myriad long-standing businesses: shoe-repairmen, drycleaners, hardware, stationery, locksmiths, barber shops. The septugenarian Don Chucho and his grande-dame clientele are staying put.
For those who lament the recent changes, it might help to put the Condesa in the context of a worldwide gentrifying trend. In many of the globe’s most cosmopolitan capitals “Condesas” have emerged in the last few years. Among the formerly sedate neighborhoods that have become fashionable are the Marais in Paris, Islington in London, Lavapies in Madrid, and virtually anywhere below 14th Street in Manhattan.
This argument doesn't convince the traditionalists. “Why do people want to eat outside?” asks architect Tavares López. “They say it makes them feel as if they were in Paris. But this isn’t Paris. It’s a residential neighborhood.”
Not precisely, maintains another architect – who lives on Avenida Amsterdam, one of the neighborhood’s principal streets. Of the district’s dissenters, Juan José Díaz-Infante Nuñez literally hollers, “If they don’t like the restaurants, let them go away!” His argument is contemporary: “The restaurants are the new dynamic of the city. You go with your cell phone and your laptop and you’re in your office.” Yet he also has a historic perspective. “Restaurants are places of thought. Breton, Dali and Buñuel came up with Surrealism in cafes and restaurants. Without that table in front of us, we're screwed.”
A Consumer’s Guide to the Condesa
Whether your taste is for folkloric, traditional Mexico City or the trendiest international sensations, you can be amply entertained in the Colonia Condesa. Herewith, a sampling of neighborhood favorites.
The Chic – And Sons of the Chic
Fonda Garufa (Michoacán, 93; local phone 5286-8295) Argentine steaks and empanadas, as well as pastas and salads.
Café La Gloria (Vicente Suárez, 41; 5211-4180). A youthful crowd enjoys French-Mex grazing fare, from baked brie to wild mushrooms in garlic sauce.
Ligaya (Nuevo León, 68; 5286-6268). The design may be a bit pretentious, but the service is friendly and the haute Mexican preparations are excellent.
Specia (Amsterdam, 241, 5564-1367). Elegant preparations of traditional Polish food, from borscht and blinis to roast duck and goulash. Try the perfect accompaniment: chilled zubrowka vodka.
In Mexico, Italian food is usually atrocious, but tucked in a quiet corner of the Condesa is the lively La Casa de Italia (Agustín Melgar, 6; 5286-2021), where the carbonara and puttanesca are delightfully authentic.
With nearly ten years serving Greek specialties in a lovely whitewashed ambience, Agapi Mu (Alfonso Reyes, 96; 5286-1384) is an elder statesman among the new Condesa restaurants.
Tío Luis (Cuautla, 43; 5553-2923). In addition to a wide array of special chicken dishes, try the veal cutlet milanesa or the meatballs in chipotle chile sauce.
Sep's (Corner of Michoacán and Tamulipas, 5286-6591). Steak tartare and stuffed breast of veal are among the preferred dishes at this long-standing Condesa favorite.
Snacks and Quickies
You’ll have to fight the crowds to get space at El Guero's hole-in-the-wall taco stand (Amsterdam, 135; no phone), where the unusual fillings – Swiss chard stewed with sausage, cauliflower in tomato sauce, various organ meats – are filling indeed, and an incredible bargain at less than 50 cents apiece.
For grilled tacos – beef, spicy chorizo sausage or al pastor (barbecued pork) - try El Tizoncito (Tamaulipas, 122; 5286-7371).
Restaurante Belmont (Teotihuacán, 10; 5564-2221) serves exquisite turkey sandwiches for about $1.50, and at lunchtime, a comida corrida (a four-course prix fixe meal) for only about twice that much.
The Roxy (Montes de Oca, 89; no phone) serves home-made ice cream. Chocolate and vanilla are available but the more adventurous will want to try mango, mamey or guanabana. At Tepoznieves (Michoacán, 30; no phone) similar exotic-fruit flavors are available as ices.
Cocktails and More
Still hungry? Or merely thirsty? An alternative to the Condesa restaurants are its venerable cantinas, where excellent food is served – in some cases, at no charge, along with the price of your drink.
Bar Montejo (Benjamín Franklin, 261; 5516-2637), in the neighborhood’s outer edge, is packed every afternoon for its free lunch. But you might prefer to order from its excellent and reasonably priced menu of Yucatecan specialties, such as lime soup and cochinita pibil (shredded pork in achiote sauce).
Centenario (Vicente Suárez, 42; 5553-5451), one of the city’s oldest cantinas, also gives out complimentary snacks to its afternoon crowd.
Bar Nuevo León (Nuevo León, 95 ) charges for its superb cabrito (roast kid), but it’s nonetheless a favorite among foreign correspondents with Mexico City postings. Xel-Ha (Parral, 78; 5553-5968) also specializes in Yucatecan treats.
Sleeping Around the Neighborhood
There are no hotels in the Condesa, but in the nearby Colonia Roma – walking distance – there are options for every budget. A word of caution: Many are on noisy intersections, so BYOEP (bring your own ear plugs).
My favorite is the Parque Ensenada (Alvaro Obregón, 13; 5208-0052), with clean tasteful rooms in the $40 range.
The deluxe option is La Casona (Durango, 286; 5286-3001), with elegant colonial-Mexican furnishings at about $200 per double.
Rooms are small, and the decor hasn't changed much since the 1950s at the Hotel Milan (Alvaro Obregon, 94; 5584-0222), but it’s hard to beat the $40 price range.
Pleasures and Pastimes
The Panadería (the corner of Avenida Amsterdam and Calle Ozuluama) changes its exhibitions every two weeks. Try to catch an opening, for loud noise, flowing Coronas and a gaggle of Mexican youth with varied piercings and unnaturally colored hair.
Although Don Hilario passed away years ago, his son still dispenses bicycles at Rentabike (Avenida México, 13) – at less than $2 an hour – from a little store across from Parque México.
If you want to check your email, cyberspaces abound in the Condesa. The fastest servers are at the no-frills Club Internet (Vicente Suárez, 25; 5256-5048), while the best views and free coffee are available from the third-floor Rentanet (Sonora, 123; 5286-9871).
Bad boys of all ages can go to El Closet (Saltillo, 67; no phone that they care to give out) where a bevy of stunning enchantresses writhes on stage and performs expensive lap-dances. The beauties are Mexican through and through, but tend to have mastered the appropriate English vocabulary.
Some youth congregate here to smoke, have a beer, and show off their nose rings, but the best place to perfect those side-pocket combinations is Billares Américo (Michoacán, 78; 5553-5138).
And don’t forget to take your muddiest, most beat-up shoes to El Guero at the corner of Michoacán and Insurgentes Sur. For about 75 cents he will make them look like they just waltzed out of Johnston & Murphy.
Café La Selva (Vicente Suárez, 38; 5211-1170). Hands down the best cup of coffee in the Condesa, direct from the highlands of the beleaguered state of Chiapas.
La Cueva de Cristal. (Avenida México, 13; 5511-4257). “Coffee and” – astrology, tarot, aromatherapy. If you order tea, they can read the leaves when you’re done.
Babel Books (Ometusco, 18-B; 5286-6058). One of Mexico City’s best second-hand bookstores with stacks of English-language paperbacks for about a dollar each. You might find a Graham Greene or a Colette among myriad titles such as Not I Said the Vixen.
El Péndulo (Nuevo León, 115; 5286-9493). An excellent selection of contemporary and classic Latin American literature (in Spanish), as well as international CDs and videos, and a café.
El Armorio Abierto (Agustín Melgar, 25; 5280-0895). The owners say it is the only bookstore in Latin America exclusively devoted to sex and sexuality, with titles in both Spanish and English. You’ll find everything from Foucault’s History of Sexuality, to a video called Techniques of Pleasure, to beefcake photos by Bruce of Los Angeles.