Sunday, May 25, 2008

Meet me on Ixtlememelixtle Street

When I lived in Portland, Oregon, I had a single map that fit in my purse and covered the just about the whole metropolitan area. Here in Mexico City, I couldn´t live without my Guia Rojí, which has more like 200 pages and is an artistic masterpiece. Adam had it easy - how many animals are there, really? Try naming every street in a metropolis that covers 570 square miles with endless little alleys and byways. Neighborhoods often have themes when it comes to the street names – here in Polanco, they´re all authors, so nearby streets include: Carlos Dickens, Jorge Shaw, Homero, Virgilio and, of course, Hans Christian Anderson.
This excellent essay, which I first read in the coffee table book/photo exhibit ABCDF, which is great collection of essays and photos having to do with Mexico City, says it better than I could.

Tim Wiener. “A city hears poetry in the naming of streets.” The New York Times. Aug. 7, 2000.

The map of one of the largest metropolises in the world is a form of literary masterpiece. The Guía Roji can be read as if a writer of magical realism had translated the encyclopedia, made it into confetti and sprinkled over the city.
This is not a place where people live on 88th and Third, as in Manhattan, or 35th and P, as in Washington. This is a place where people live at Heart and Soul. Here one lives on Light Forest, Water Mirror, Forest of Miracles, Garden of Dreams, Tree of Fire, Forest of Secrets, Sea of Dreams. The surreal names of the streets can reflect quite true realities. Work is long. Love and Happiness are short. Good Luck crosses Hope, which is a dead-end street. Las Bocacalles become imaginary works. The Volga River runs into the Nile, Beethoven meets Bach, Himalaya crosses the Alps.
And Understanding ends in Silence.
Fewer than a million people lived here at the start of the 20th century, nearly 20 million at the start of the 21st. With a city endlessly spilling over its borders, long ago, the city´s founders ran out of dead presidents, revolutionary heroes and battles for which to names streets, avenues and boulevards. As a consequence, the Guía Roji have a list of more than 100 places named for the national hero, Benito Juarez. There are more than 200 streets named after Venustiano Carranza, author of the Mexican Constitution and about 300 for Lázaro Cárdenas, considered by some Mexico´s greatest president. Upon being asked about any address, the residents of the city should react like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy asks how to arrive to the Emerald City – pointing two different ways at once.
It is not the sheer number of streets named the same that overwhelms the senses, but the sheer magic in so many of the names among the 70,000 odd streets. The city mapmakers have perservered with an endurance perhaps more poetic than practical. But they must be near their wits´end.
They have exhausted the names of the world´s great landmarks, drained the lexicon of oceans and seas, rivers and lakes, paid tribute to all the gods and goddesses, the birds and flowers, the colors of the palette, the signs of the zodiac, the names of the saints, the better-known stars and constellatioins.
The major arts, crafts and sciences are taken and the minor ones are going fast. Other capitals, conceivably, might also have a boulevard dedicated to Bacteriology or Beekeeping. Mexico City also has a Cardionalogy Street and Astronomy Street, Orthodontist Street and Hairdressers Street, Publicists Street and Biographers Street. Significantly, the street dedicated to authors is not a street, but Novelists Circle.
Let Paris have its sidewalk semioticians, Mexico City may be the only place in the world dedicated to a school of literary criticism – Structural Analysis Street.
Mexico´s calendar is full of holidays and dates of historical significance. So is its capital, there are streets named for the fifth day of January, February, March, May, June, July, September, October, November and December. The first of May, the anniversary of Mexico´s victory in 1862 over French forces, has a special place. Many actually.
More than 200 streets with the name Cinco de Mayo are listed. There are more than 100 streets named for days of the year, giving a newcomer a nearly one-in-three chance of choosing an address matching her birthday.
There is a Squid Street and a Shrimp Street and, for better or worse, a Tuna Fish Street. There is Avocado Street, Onion Street and Cilantro Street, Corn Street, Rice Street and Bean Street are here, but, surprisingly, Mexico City has no Chicken Street (although Kabul, Afghanistan does). There are streets named Fountain of Hope, Fountain of Light and Fountain of Happiness, of course, but there is also the somewhat hallucinatory Fountain of Mushrooms.
Mindful of its place as a world city, the capital has christened streets in the name of Greek Culture, Roman Culture, Mexican Culture, Aztec Culture, Mayan Culture, Physical Culture and just a plain Culture, along with World Cinema Street and a generic Cinema Street. Social Action Street and Public Assistance Street stand for civic virtures, although National Unity Street deadends.
Whole neighborhoods are dedicated to canonic writers and composers, scientists and philosophers. One can stand on the corner of Tolstoy and Dante, Dickens and Moliere, Verdi and Wagner, Socrates and Homer, Shakespeare and Darwin, imagining their conversations.
There are 21 streets named Peace, but 18 named High Tension (after public utilities, not private miseries). Democracy, Justice and Human Rights are in a tough neighborhood. Panama Canal is barely 100 meters long, but 100 Meters Avenue runs nearly a mile.
Mexico City´s respect for the past sometimes passes understanding. Russia has liquidated the memory of its worst dictators. But when Mexico City taxicab meters, which sometimes malfunction, usually in the driver´s favor, break down completely, thay are repaired on Stalin Street. Stalin lies a block away from Trotsky in Mexico City some 60 years ago. By no coincidence, Siberia Street is four blocks away.
Some names have been clearly conceived. There is a Nafta Street, in a neighborhood called Plenitude. Obscurity Street runs hopefully into Tomorrow Avenue. Others seem intended to drive mailmen mad. In one suburban neighborhood, there are two difference streets named for the same Islamic republic. One is Pakistan. The other is Paquistán. Then there are the names in Náhuatl, the language of the people who were here before the conquistadores, which sound like music from another planet: Panquetzaliztli, Cetlaltepetl, Ixtlememelixtle. But in cities as in science, mindbending complexity can contain beautiful simplicity. A great green park stands near the heart of this urban beast. An avenue graced by Art Deco buildings circle this park. And the people who live there have an unforgettable address: Mexico Avenue, Mexico City, Mexico.

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