Ciudad Satelite is an anachronism in an of itself; it’s neither a city nor is it really a part of another city. Satelite is a place that defies it’s mexicaness through its design, its ideals; it’s citizens.
Born a project of the great Mexican architect Mario Pani, this american style neighborhood began life stabbed by a highway that divides it completely in half like many American neighborhoods. For Pani, Satelite was just another project that he could pitch to the tepid politicians of the time; politicians that were too old to be revolutionary, and to foolish to be institutional… This despite of what “PRI” is meant to signify.
To be in Satelite is to ignore the realities of the city, and yet be trapped by them; congestion, filth, concrete, and sickness. The towers guarding the very entrance to the neighborhood a sort of Mezuzah for those who live there.
They live completely clueless of it, and I understand them. Ciudad Satelite was meant to be an escapade for the growing upper middle class in Mexico City, back when we thought leaded gasoline was a good idea and large cities were terrible acts of man kind. Those lucky to have savings and a car could move out of the growing metropolis and feel “calm” in the countryside.
Even though Pani had more visionary projects like Tlatelolco, the bloodbath associated with it and the collapsed building after 1985 kept mexican urbanism conservative: single family homes, no highrises. This continued for decades as the urban sprawl of the largest city in North America began to take shape; further north and further to the east of it’s original design.
The politics of the Mexican valley do not help either; Mexico City, as the seat of the federal power was governed with a golden fist; always given priority but without the consent of it’s inhabitants. Mexico State, formally the Free and Sovereign State of Mexico, however, was governed differently, people could vote for their mayors and governors.
These mayors and governors knew that their only way out of poverty was to prostitute their lands to developers from Mexico City who did not want to follow the stricter, more conservative guidelines of the city’s regents. As a consequence more projects like satelite began to flourish in the municipalities neighboring Mexico City. Naucalpan, Huixquilucan, Tlalnepantla, Ecatepec, and Nezalhualcoyotl. Evidently planners wanted the gracefulness of Satelite, but the mayors wanted the property taxes of more expensive properties or a more densely packed population.
Mexico City began a swift decline during the 1980s, crime, congestion, pollution, poverty drove people out of the Mexican capital. Entire states grew their population out of chilangos moving in as the city itself saw it’s population decline. This wasn’t reversed until Mayor Lopez Obrador created the most ambitious urban planning legislation ever seen in the early 2000s. So ridiculous in fact that he was almost sent to jail for it.
In a way, what the people who fled Mexico City feared came back to bite them; as a country we have moved into an ever more violent, more polarized way of living. One of the greatest divides between Mexicans in the modern era is that of housing. While Naucalpan and Huixquilucan developed massive skyscrapers, and private communities lined with exclusive homes for the elites, Ecatepec and Neza began developing endless rivers of concrete trying to house the people who couldn’t find a home in Mexico City because of their budget. Although the phenomenon of private communities is not very common in Mexico City, it remains a part of regular life like it is in just any city in this country. Privadas as we call them, or cotos as the people in Guadalajara do.
Bosque Real, an elite private residential area with a golf club is capable of housing 40,000 residents; the entire municipality of Huixquilucan has a population of 240,000.
Satelite in a way is unique because despite it’s roots as an escape from crime it might be one of the few communities which didn’t close it’s streets and became private.
Nestled between the interstate and circuito medicos is Plaza Satelite; one of the first large malls in Mexico. Nowadays, with over 46,000 square meters, it remains a testament to Mexican capitalism. One of the great architects and entrepreneurs of Mexican real estate, the late Juan Sordo Magdaleno, designed the mall, now the REIT carrying his very name owns it. Over time Plaza satelite changed: it grew, and became a community hub.
A satellite image of satelite, with further developments to the west and to the north creating dust from construction, and busy factories to the east emitting pollution, air quality decreased significantly.
As Mexico City grew and the areas around satelite became busy industrial hubs, the violence and filth of the city reached the community, for them the private plaza was a safe space, a quiet place. In a sense the American-style neighborhood had finally completed it’s purpose and found itself where modern american neighborhoods do: without a neutral space for its people.
As such, slowly, people from satelite were driven into the mall; the mall which rules their lives; filled with consumption. Neither Pani nor Magdaleno could’ve imagined what their creations would become: places where people exist in the middle of anxiousness.
As Mexico entered the present era; marked with violent crime and finally a transition to democracy, so began the era of neoliberal economics; private business over the public sector, fewer taxes and regulations, more capital coming in from outside. As a consequence, Mexico now has the most complex economy of any Spanish speaking nation. Under Felipe Calderon’s presidency, REITs became legal. Known as FIBRAs (the acronym in spanish), these trusts brought in billions of dollars to develop land in Mexico, and so they have.
The more noticeable ones: malls.
As cities become grimmer, with a diminished sense of security, Mexicans are heading to the mall. Fibra Shop (FSHOP13) recently said in a press release that more people are going to their malls today (during a global pandemic) than in 2019. The anxiety over the importance of brick and mortar stores that is felt in the US seems absent here; people like going to the mall.
Mostly, I suppose, because it’s the only thing left to do. People don’t feel comfortable in public anymore. Malls are mostly absent of violence, and whenever a crime occurs inside one the backlash is intense.
Satelite’s mall, in a regular neighborhood if any, in a regular state if any, is protected by armed guards with shotguns and submachine guns. To people the presence of private guards and guns in a private place makes them feel free, somehow, from the dangers of the public roads.
I have spent a lot of time with my parents and my friends in malls all over the country; Monterrey, Guadalajara, Leon, Ecatepec, Neza, and even Cancun.
The one thing in common is always fear of violence, and a sense of security inside the halls of the mall. A sense that we can only feel free inside a mall, protected by guns and walls built up by an investment frenzy. Money, hard earned in the country with the longest working hours, is being spent in these places. Sometimes in local shops, sometimes in places that will take their money and shoot it outside to feed a pension plan in a far flung country.
Some mayors are starting to recognize this, they’re trying to find ways to create trust in police, to open up streets, to refurbish parks. But malls strike back.
Nowadays Plaza Satelite has a park inside it, with green areas and a jogging course. But the presence of commerce never goes away; music in the background, advertisements on the sides of the buildings, shoppers with bags. It’s almost impossible to enter a mall without spending any money inside it.
A sense of anxiety can be felt, no matter how many lavender plants line the jogging path, when you look up and see trucks zooming in the distance and huge billboards lining the same old freeway, named after Manuel Avila Camacho.
The safe space is finite.
A version of this post was also published in medium