A Day Out in Iztapalapa

“Are you stupid, why would you go there??”

That was the first response I received a few months back when I asked residents of Mexico City on Reddit if I would be safe wandering alone in Iztapalapa. Residents of Mexico City are known as Chilangos, my question brought a lot Chilango opinions out.

Iztapalapa is the neighborhood on the east side of Mexico City, I don’t know what the correct terminology is, what one Latin American country finds offensive another finds totally normal, so I don’t know if Iztapalapa is called a favela, or a slum or a bario or what but it’s one of two areas of Mexico City that are considered no-go.

Of those who responded to my question about personal safety in Iztapalapa the answers seemed to fall into two camps, respondents from wealthier areas of Mexico City had mostly never been to Iztapalapa themselves and assured me that going was stupid and dangerous. While Chilangos who actually live in Iztapalapa responded with what sounded like much more reasonable responses, namely “come early in the day, leave all your possessions at home that you can, don’t stay in one spot too long, use your brain”.

To me those responses sounded more measured than “if you go you will die!”. So I decided to head out to Izta early this morning and see what I could see, if I felt unsafe I could always hop back on the subway to safety.

I also wasn’t just going to Izta to see the scary part of Mexico City, that would be gross. There are four different sites within the area that I want to see as many of in a day as I can: the CableBus, the Elevated MetroBus, the Fire Pyramid ruins and the Central de Abasto Market.

Another reason I wanted to see the area was because of how much I kept hearing about the residents fighting, and recently succeeding, in making their home a safer place.

In the past decade residents of Izta have embarked on about half a dozen programs to try to improve things.

Initially a taskforce of women residents of Iztapalapa was convened and given powers by the mayor’s office, they were instructed to produce a list of recommendations after 90 days study.

After 90 days their list of recommendations included just one item: lighting.

The new lighting of Ermita Iztapalapa street

The entire initial budget was spent on installing new lighting to make main avenue’s through Izta into safe corridors. The newly lit streets are the easiest in Mexico City to spot from a plane and residents call them “the best lit streets in the world”.

The lighting project worked, crime along these newly bright corridors dropped to a fraction of what it was before and the project was such a success that the city and federal governments, with help from the United Nations agreed to launch at least half a dozen similar new projects.

The police had mostly abandoned the area and were invited back in with the Mexico City government agreeing to over doubling the police presence, half a dozen safe injection sites were opened, a dozen gigantic community centres (known locally as UTOPIAS) were opened, residents began projects to painting their houses in intense purples and greens and pinks as well as over 7,000 new murals.

As a direct result of these efforts Iztapalapa has gone from consistently being one of the most dangerous areas in all of Mexico to no longer being listed in the top 15.

I spent one day, walking just over 20kms, in Izta, so I realize my impressions are microscopic. Having said that my time there was absolutely wonderful, at no point whatsoever did I ever feel I was in any danger or any less safe than in any other part of Mexico City. I’m not saying the area is perfectly safe, it clearly isn’t. Just that I feel common sense can counter a significant portion of the danger present in a neighborhood like this.

When compared to other parts of the city, the people I saw were absolutely more engaging with me, more interested in me, and absolutely refused to believe I did not speak Spanish. Perhaps because they don’t see as many people wandering around that look like me as the rest of the city sees but I was greeted over and over again incredibly warmly, I was offered the best seating, in the shade, at taco stands and licuado stands. People in the markets insisted I take samples and talk to them and I rarely felt any pressure to buy anything, more than once I looked to buy after sampling and was waved away.

I was called “American” probably half a dozen times, when I would shake my head the next comment would invariably be “ahhh, Britain!”.

The two gentlemen in the pics below were my favourite, in a small alley market they showed me every step of the chicharron making process, posing for pictures, being very silly, tearing up one of their whole roasted chickens so I could try some (it was staggeringly good chicken).

I didn’t actually get many pictures, the most common advice I got was about being careful with a camera, both because it marks you as an outsider and because the residents are not keep on a camera in their face.

Of the four sights I wanted to see I only made it to the CableBus and to the Central de Abasto Market, I will make individual posts about those. I didn’t make it to the new elevated bus line or the Fire Pyramid, I likely will not have time to go back this trip either and I am totally bummed about it.

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