Distinctions of Space in Urban Landscape

In A Sense of Place, 3. City Form and Orientation by Michelle Johnson1 Comment

The following post is after a conversation I had with my roommate and best friend, Camila Gazcon, who lived in Mexico City until she moved to Los Angeles when she was 9 years old. This weekend, she travelled back to her home in Mexico city for an emergency visit. I asked her to compare the two cities.

“Wilshire Boulevard is like Avenida de los Insurgentes. And El Norte is kinda similar to the valley- basically difficult to get to because it is out of the way and you have to cross over canyons. I lived in El Sur, specifically El Pedregal, which I guess is pretty close to the Westside, kinda Beverly Hills-ish. It’s funny that you ask since my mom and I were just talking about how similar the two cities are. I never noticed it until I moved here.”

You can always see the history of a city embedded in its walls, how time carved out the paths and shaped the space for the people who reside there now. Mexico City retains much more time in its construction then Los Angeles, a brand new city if compared to the other. El Centro, the center of the city, and the Spanish style architecture of Mexico City reflect a distant past of colonization in a once much smaller urban city. However, like Los Angeles, the city expanded through the building of distinct suburbs that each evoke a certain quality of feeling.

Both Mexico City and Los Angeles are cities that should not exist, especially in considering their size and population. Mexico City, built directly on top of a lake after an Aztec king dreamt of moving his kingdom, sinks an inch every year while Los Angeles is located hours away from its water source in Mammoth. Yet both are thriving cities packed with people. So what draws individuals and families to these cities? The largest similarity is the polarization of class; each suburbs exists in relation to the class that can afford it.

Despite their sprawling landscape and the inability for travel without an automobile, these cities have underfunded and poor public transportation systems. You do not witness diversity on the bus system in LA or Mexico City. The 1% are the overwhelming inhabitants of the centrally located residential areas and are those who can afford personal vehicles. The lower income residents are pushed to inhabit the outskirts of the city, in areas such as Tepito and Compton where the privileged few would fear for their lives if they even had to pass through. They only diverge when viewing the development of a class system. Where, in LA, class is more based on race and in Mexico City it is in the ethnicity of your family name that determines your place. The rich and the poor only meet in the spaces of busy boulevards and crowded tourists areas where there is a chance for anyone to make money performing or begging. In America, there is the “promise” of success. In Mexico city, there is no class mobility.

These cities were not built for the lower classes.


  1. Hi Michelle,
    I am happy you talk about Mexico City in your post on Orientation, because in very few other places have I felt as disoriented! I also noticed that each neighborhood was completely distinct from the other, which is probably why I felt so lost, since I did not seem to notice a flowing thread between these different areas. I have lived in and visited various cities in Latin America, and public transportation is definitely always an issue. I agree that it shares several aspects with Los Angeles, and I would like to talk to you about the issue of people-oriented design a little bit further.
    You say Mexico was not built for the lower classes, and I would argue that, just like LA, maybe the question is not only what class was the city built for, but what object – because many Latin American cities, and I feel the same way about Los Angeles, were not built for people, but for cars. How can we have a sense of orientation as a flaneur around the center of our cities if they don’t encourage us to be on the street but rather pass by with our cars?

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