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Zona Rosa: straight ahead?

15 October 2009

Photo: El Economista

Mexico very nicely encapsulates the history of one of the Federal Districts more eclectic neighborhoods:

… Zona Rosa … originated at the end of the 19th Century, and started out as a residential area characterized by large houses and small eclectic mansions that belonged to distinguished personalities of Porfirian society… isolation within the city led Zona Rosa to be declared a neutral area during the coup d’état of 1913, also known as Decena Trágica, and to shelter the ambassadors and diplomatic representatives of Mexico within the walls of its Geneve Hotel.

…[I]n the late 1940’s, a lot of big hotels were built around Paseo de la Reforma…As a result, the avenue and surrounding area became attractive to foreign tourists, a situation that motivated changes in the area’s land use regulations…houses …were rapidly turned into luxurious restaurants and exclusive night clubs. This phenomenon was documented in Carlos Fuentes’ novel “La Región más transparente”.

… The streets of Zona Rosa became a fashionable place and its coffee houses a place to see and be seen, the city’s meeting place.


Calle Genova. Photo: Alex Dantart,

Or not to be seen. I had a three day a week noon class at a business just at the corner of Florencia and Reforma, and discovered a reasonable, full and excellent “comida corrida” on a side street around the corner… a place with tablecloths and china and uniformed waitrons. Of course, I’m not going to give the address… it doubled as the cafeteria slash waiting room for the high-class whorehouse upstairs and tourists would ruin the joint.  The Hotel Geneve, where I’m happy to direct those tourists who know enough to be impressed that Augustín Lara‘s piano is in the lobby, is still THE place to go,  though the cafe is now a Sandborns.  The back restaurant — in a roofed over patio — maintains some of the old elegance, though when those Porfirian era giant chandeliers are swinging over one’s table during a 5.0 Richter scale earthquake, one may be tempted to discretely change one’s seat… or opt for the street scene.

Although Starbucks (along with McDonalds and 7-11) have taken over in recent years, it’s still a place to “see and be seen”… although what and whom one sees or is seen by has changed:

In the 1980’s Zona Rosa began a period of decay… With a low demand in the area, other social groups saw an opportunity to settle themselves there, such as the Korean community and specially the gay community, which has since established a great number of businesses ranging from sex shops and boutiques, to famous night clubs…

Not to mention the high-class discrete “casas de citas”, the chain stores like McDonalds and KFC and 7-11, the students, the European tourists (there’s a couple of youth hostels in the ´hood) all across Reforma from the stock exchange and the United States Embassy.

I don’t see that kind of eclecticism as decline. There is a place in this world for Korean shopkeepers, painted ladies, out of the closet (at least for a few hours) suburban kids, jaded old expat queens, stockbrokers, and C.I.A. agents to co-exist in this world. It’s not the thing that happens by design, but by happy chance. And, with funding to “design” the area, there are concerns that something important will be lost.

Photo:  © Viajes Beda S.A. de C.V.

Photo: © Viajes Beda S.A. de C.V.

According to El Universal (my translation), the Mexico City Secretariat of Tourism is considering a 400,000 peso investment in “resources for intervention” in the area .

[Alejandro Rojas, Federal District Secretary of Tourism] claims radical and profound decisions need to be made about changes in the Zona Rosa beyond new pavement for its streets. He said the proposal calls for turning more streets into pedestrian walkways, water-canals and bridges. “The Zone as it is now doesn’t work as a tourist destination, nor as an attraction within the city, and we have allowed it to deteriorate.”

“Niniz” at El Defe (also my translation) asks:

“What exactly that means isn’t clear.  “Niniz” wants to know if the result will be ” a zillion “giros negros” [“dark rooms,” not in the sense of a photographer’s workshop] or an elegant way to end close the unofficial zone of tolerance that exists on the streets”…   We have to wait three months, to know if the budget calls for the project to return the Zona Rosa to return it to the mode in which it was born, or to that in which it has lived for many years.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 October 2009 10:11 am

    I’m not really a Zona Rosa kind of dude, but the oval surrounding the nearby Insugentes Sur metro station is lined with tons of restaurants offering incredible comida corrida lunchtime meals. Yum, yum, yum.
    I did once take pictures of the U.S. embassy on the Paseo de la Reforma, and the Mexican police ran over and made me erase my memory card, something I wouldn’t do if I were in the States, but, not knowing Mexican law, I reluctantly complied (as far as they knew; I only erased on picture).
    Thanks for the barrio update; it really makes me miss the city!

  2. 15 October 2009 11:13 am

    The KGB, back during the cold war, used to pay students to sit across from the U.S. Embassy to take photos of who was going in and out… One ex-KGB operative said it was the best student job around: look at girls, catch up on your reading and get paid for taking a few surrupticious photos.

    There’s a few older guys who take the afternoon sun across from the place every day. The KGB is out of business, and the Cubans don’t have the money for much spying these days, so may be flunkies for the CIA (or, the way the U.S. does things now, some “contract agency”) or Mexican intelligence (CISEN).

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