Thursday, June 13, 2024

Rent too high in Roma and Condesa? Here are your other options

I’ve received some rather passionate comments from those who believe that talking about alternative neighborhoods in Mexico City for foreigners will simply export (more) gentrification to the rest of the capital. However, I write this with the knowledge that gentrification has been part of Mexico City’s history with or without foreign “help.”

The popular neighborhoods Roma and Condesa are only two of hundreds of officially designated neighborhoods called colonias, spread out across 16 city boroughs called alcaldías.

Panorama of Nuevo Polanco, the neighborhood next to “old” Polanco undergoing massive reconstruction, in large part because of its proximity to many of the city’s most elite residential areas. (Adam Wiseman)

“There are many, many nice neighborhoods in Mexico City where there are not so many foreigners, even though [foreign resident] numbers are growing,” says Edyta Norejka of ForHouse, a real estate company specializing in helping foreigners buy and rent properties in Mexico City.

The most pertinent type of gentrification here is that which has occurred west and southwest of the historic center, marking a sharp division from the poorer neighborhoods of north, east and southeast Mexico City. This division goes back at least to the Spanish conquest and simply worsened as the city grew. 

For many foreigners, the gold standard is Roma and Condesa — in no small part because it “has it all”: a safe reputation, shopping and dining options, overall beauty, accessibility to other parts of the city and — until recently — relative affordability for upper-class Mexicans and residents earning foreign currency.

But rising prices in all of Mexico City’s most popular neighborhoods have forced both foreigners and Mexicans to look for alternatives in neighboring colonias such as Juárez, Escandon, Roma Sur and, to some extent, Doctores and the historic center. A similar phenomenon in Polanco has spurred the construction of massive high-rise buildings alongside tenements in areas like Anzures.

House in Lomas de Chapultepec, Mexico City
Former villa along the avenue Prolongación de la Reforma in the Lomas de Chapultepec area. Many of these villas on busy main streets get abandoned by their original owners and are often redeveloped into commercial properties. (Leigh Thelmadatter)

Reurbano, a company specializing in the rehabilitation of old and historic buildings into residential/commercial sites, is heavily invested from the historic center westward as far as Tacubaya, offering unique residences for upper-class Mexicans. 

These neighborhoods offer more affordability yet similar proximity to the same attractions, important for resident Michael Swank of Art Gallery Studios. Located on Bucarelli street on the Juárez/historic center border, his home and business are close enough to Mexico City’s art world for his needs.

The two boroughs most affected by the influx of foreigners have been Cuauhtémoc and Miguel Hidalgo. Home to Roma and Condesa, Cuauhtémoc extends to other desirable neighborhoods such as Juárez and Colonia Cuauhtémoc, along with the gentrifying areas of San Rafael and Santa María la Ribera.  

The borough of Miguel Hidalgo is a mix of fashionable neighborhoods established in the 20th century with pockets of poverty in sections that were former villages. Its most famous neighborhood is Polanco, but it also has neighborhoods such as San Miguel de Chapultepec and various others that surround the famous Chapultepec Park.

Nowhere in the city has a greater concentration of hidden gems than the historic center, one reason why some foreigners choose to live there. The exterior of the Abelardo L. Rodríguez market, right, was Mexico’s last major Mexican muralism project. (Leigh Thelmadatter)

Many neighborhoods in the borough are too wealthy even for digital nomads and are jealously guarded by residents who do not want to lose its exclusivity. It is also home to “Little L.A.,” in Colonia Revolución, a community of deported “dreamers” from the U.S.

Norejko recommends that most Mexico City newbies start out their life in the city in the “overcrowded” neighborhoods of Roma, Condesa, Polanco and Coyoacán, at least until they get their footing. 

Recently, however, other neighborhoods are getting more attention online.  

One important area is the Insurgentes Sur corridor, a long avenue that stretches from Roma/Condesa southwest to the main campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The avenue itself is lined with office buildings like the World Trade Center, as well as upscale shopping and dining options. On both sides, there are affluent neighborhoods with greenery and parks, such as San José Insurgentes and Florida and San Ángel.

The various interconnected “Narvarte” neighborhoods are undergoing gentrification, with reworked old buildings and rising rents. However, much of traditional Mexican residential life still exists here. (Adam Jones)

Just about anything along Insurgentes Sur is “safe,” says Norejko, but Colonia Del Valle has drawn the most foreign attention, likely because it is an easy area to to get to and from despite horrendous commuter traffic. 

Many of the 16 boroughs are completely dismissed as alternatives, either because of their reputations as dangerous (like Iztapalapa and Gustavo A. Madero), or because of their distance from amenities (such as Milpa Alta and Tlalpan). 

Pressure to gentrify is fierce in the borough of Benito Juárez. Located just south of Cuauhtémoc borough, it is centric and, perhaps most importantly, has the city’s lowest poverty index. It doesn’t have Mexico City’s swankiest neighborhoods, but it does lack pockets of grinding poverty. 

For foreigners, the most attractive option right now is in the Narvarte area, due to its proximity to Roma and Condesa.

Squares like this one in Coyoacán’s Santa Catarina neighborhood are a big reason why the borough is so prestigious. Other parts of Mexico City have similar “urbanized” villages but get little attention because they’re too far from the center or their boroughs have bad reputations. (Adam Jones)

The neighborhood of Coyoacán was made famous by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Its few drawbacks — its southerly location and poor public transport access — hasn’t stopped massive gentrification there in recent years. Foreigners flock to it for its gorgeous colonial architecture.

One “safe” area that is generally ignored by online blogs and resources is a corridor of uber-wealthy developments that stretches west from Polanco into Santa Fe, Cuajimalpa and México state. Most of the foreigners here are wealthy — executives of multinational corporations or foreign embassies, or those who have married into the crème de la crème of Mexican society. These places are too rich even for many digital nomads.

So what about those poorer areas of the city? Many will tell you that no foreigner should so much as consider them. At the same time, they’ll tell you that you should not be in Roma and Condesa, either. 

As Norejko noted earlier, living outside the “gringo bubble” is probably not ideal for most new arrivals, especially for those who don’t have any experience living in a barrio or “hood.” Living in a real barrio takes a certain kind of personality — of being able to take care of yourself and, more importantly, being able to integrate.

Redevelopment pressures are so strong in Benito Juárez and along Insurgentes Sur that even David Alfaro Siqueiros’ work, the Polyforum, was in danger of disappearing in 2014. (Keizer)

The historic center is a case in point: filled with colonial architecture and museums, gentrification is spotty. In addition to the flight of the wealthy, the 1985 earthquake made much of the area unlivable. Only in the past decade or so have the western and southern fringes really started returning to life thanks to proactive city planning.

Sadly, the southeast, east and north of the city were overrun by urban sprawl, giant housing complexes for the poor and even garbage dumps that nearly buried former colonial villages like Meyehualco. Skyrocketing land prices in these areas led to the development of middle-class apartment buildings for those looking to avoid the three-hour commute involved in living so far on the fringes. Few foreigners live here.

Those who do live in these areas (myself among them), are either looking to avoid other foreigners, trying to live like the locals do or not making the kind of money everyone assumes. This includes teachers in local schools (my category) and artists, who have been coming here in droves since the days of Rivera and Kahlo. 

Foreigners may keep coming, or they may not (a possibility given the ongoing strength of the peso). Regardless, gentrification will remain an issue for many of the same reasons it is an issue in other cities around the world. Not only do you have growing populations jostling for the best real estate but there are also usually geographical limitations to that growth. 

For Mexico City, that limitation is pretty insurmountable: it’s the mountain range surrounding the Valley of Mexico. 

Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico over 20 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture in particular its handcrafts and art. She is the author of Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019). Her culture column appears regularly on Mexico News Daily.

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