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Month after month, it seems, a swanky new café opens. Meanwhile, fancy, overpriced buildings designed by trendster architects are drawing in moneyed creatives looking for that sort of homogeneous “urban lifestyle” you can find in the “coolest” neighborhoods of the global cosmopolitan capitals. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rohn, one of the wealthiest, most corrupt politicians in all of Mexico, is planning to open a casino smack in the middle of the already congested district. Homeowner groups in the Condesa are fighting the proposal. But knowing the way the bureaucracy in Mexico works — money talks more than anything — it’s almost certain they’ll lose.
“There’s a bridge-and-tunnel effect going on here now,” says Okon, strolling the tree-lined sidewalks of the neighborhood he’s lived in for most of his life. “It’s the same phenomenon of gentrification that you have in the U.S. They come here to party, break beer bottles at 3 a.m. and leave.”
If the Condesa was once the epicenter of the cutting-edge creative energy in Mexico City, Okon and Calderón’s La Panadería was its brain, heart and reproductive organ. The place was the site of some of the most innovative and daring art happening anywhere in the Americas in the late ’90s and early part of the 2000s. Many of Mexico’s most celebrated young artists had their first or most significant showing there, including Eduardo Abaroa and Mariana Botey. There were bands, screenings and parties. Artists invited from around the world came to participate and make art there. It was sceney before the city knew it had a scene.
La Panadería reflected the times, and the art often trafficked on the dubious edges of legality and acceptable taste. In one piece Okon and Calderón jointly exhibited, they presented footage of themselves smashing a car window and attempting to steal a car stereo. The piece was meant as an “other side” reaction to the artists’ experience of being robbed, a common occurrence in the D.F.
The gallery, says Okon, was about the flow of information. “We didn’t only care how outsiders saw Mexico, but how can I, living in Mexico, have access to what is happening in Japan? How can I, living in Mexico, have access to living culture? It wasn’t about how others saw us, it was about participating.”
Okon’s flat is above what was once La Panadería. That space is just another trendy Condesa café now, with a valet, a bar, an arty magazine rack and an endless soundtrack of hotel-lobby electronica.
La Panadería’s closure is the stuff of art-scene lore. Okon says it was difficult to maintain the loose collective that operated the place. “It was organic, and like every organism, it had a life span.”
Cocaine also had a negative effect, he says. Back in the heyday of the experimental arts scene, I remember: Coke was everywhere. At parties, at bars, during large family events where my guides were invited guests, at concerts, even at art openings. The drug craze inspired the artist Teresa Margolles to make Cards for Cutting Cocaine, credit-card-sized art pieces that on one side reproduced gruesome photographs of victims of Mexico’s bloody narco wars. She handed them out at openings.
The last official “opening” at La Panadería was an action by the morbidly enigmatic Margolles, who is known for using body parts and paraphernalia from the Mexico City morgue to create jarring sculptures and installations, reflections of Mexico’s culture of violence and death. That night, the attendees stood in the wide, empty gallery space, waiting. Then a hulking cement truck backed up into the gallery loading dock and unleashed a river of chunky, sludgelike cement into the gallery, trapping people in the corners. The cement, we were told, was mixed with water used to wash bodies in the D.F. morgue. And that was the piece, a fitting end to La Panadería — and a prescient commentary on what would follow.
“It’s gone. That kind of creativity isn’t in this neighborhood anymore. That kind of creativity, I guess, is in the center,” Francisco Goldman had told me during our long afternoon coffee. “This was like Soho for a while, Soho when it was young. Didn’t last very long. It’s still a nice place to live, but I think if you’re looking for what really young artists are doing, it’s downtown.”
He was referring to the Centro Histórico, the old city of the D.F., where for centuries, time has nearly stood still. Baroque Colonial-era buildings made of volcanic stone settle into the soft earth at dizzying angles. The streets are thronging with street vendors. For decades, here is where many of Mexico City’s most reclusive and most innovative artists, such as Francis Alÿs, have lived and worked. Today, the Centro Histórico is itself facing the threat of gentrification, an operation funded by Mexico City billionaire Carlos Slim Helú, the third richest man in the world. Slim has been cleaning up the Centro, snagging old buildings and turning them into “lofts.”
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