Was it me, or was there more scaffolding everywhere this month? It seemed I was climbing through and walking around scaffolds more than usual during our last jaunt to Mérida. I say “climbing through” because that was the only way to get into a very chichi shop I was browsing on 55. (They sell perfume and serve cappuccino and both are good; I’ll write about that later.)
Some of the reconstruction can be attributed to the city’s “Rescate de Fachadas” plan, which has been going on since the mid-1990s. Other projects are initiated by regular folks, like us, who see growth opportunities in Mérida.
I’m thrilled to see investment in the White City, but sometimes I pause to consider what’s happened in the U.S. when a neighborhood starts to get fixed up. Rents escalate, and middle-class people and mom-and-pop merchants are driven out. New York City is barely worth visiting anymore as chain boutiques and megastores replace the old independent shops that gave the city its character. High culture is doing just fine, but the vastly more interesting, grass-roots kind of venues which kept the city young and vital are being replaced with yogurt shops and Marc Jacobs.
That said, I can still remember how scary the streets of New York City used to be. Getting mugged was a very real fear. In the early 90s, I walked from Chelsea to the Port Authority after dark and encountered a man with a baseball bat, carried for his own protection. A few years later, that same neighborhood was a hip hot spot, with everyone clamoring (especially young gays) to be there. Within 10 years, the first wave of residents were priced out. Even the coffee shop and unofficial community meeting place, the Big Cup, was priced out. The sweet spot that lingered between low-life and upscale lasted only a few years. The young and middle class moved to Queens. Today, the rich have reclaimed Manhattan, and it’s never been less interesting to visit.
My knowledge of Mexico and Mérida is still limited, and I don’t know how far I can take the comparison.
Maybe a more natural comparison is Bridgeport, an old factory town that made lots of money selling munitions but started its decline even before World War II ended. In this Connecticut city, where I live now, there’s a ton of beautiful historic buildings, laying waste over a neglected downtown. Old banks, department stores, theaters. They would have been torn down years ago if there were a budget for it, and really, the focus of most of the community’s attention was on the more affluent suburbs west and north of the city. Now, the buildings are slowly being renovated and housing will be coming available downtown. Shops and galleries are opening. But the whole city was so far gone for so long, and we’ll never really shake our reputation for crime, corruption and political dysfunction. Not in our lifetime.
The upside is that if you’re young and starting out, Bridgeport is there for you. Like Mérida, it’s affordable (even undervalued in places) and has a cool vibe that’s attractive to young people with ingenuity and ambition. Maybe that’s a better comparison.