The Zocalo, and other matters of Urban Removal:

Except for the masthead picture, which is of the papaya tree Diana grew from seed in our garden (and which produces pure sweetness with a very thin skin), all photos in this issue are of the Zócalo, taken a few days ago. We hope they illustrate both the horror and the promise of the unnecessary and disheartening project.

Let me start out with a disclaimer: this may be a case of “all’s well that ends well”. From what we have been able to see, the Zócalo will both retain and lose its character. That is to say, while it will be in some respects radically different, it will in other respects be easily recognizable to anyone who has visited here before. The bottom line is, it’s not as bad as we had feared it might be; although, at least for us old timers, it’s plenty bad enough..

[Most of the streets leading into the Zócalo are also being renovated. This is Hidalgo street looking west from the Primavera corner]

The Zócalo project is widely believed to be a giant boondoggle; a way to fatten some cats to whom the governor owes favors, or from whom he would like to be owed favors. The largest unresolved question is whether it was necessary in the first place; the next largest question is exactly who benefits from the work, and why it was sprung on the city with little advance warning and less public accountability, a scenario that remains true to this day. This one project is going to consume a larger share of the year’s budget for the state of Oaxaca, than any other line item with the exception of education: more than will be spent on water, or waste, or road maintenance, or police, or…

[This photo was taken from the east side of the park. As you can see, there are still lots of trees around, although it does look thinner at the center.]

At the very least it was a bad choice politically, making the governor appear to be a person who has no care for the needs of the citizens of Oaxaca. He has been touting this as a way to boost tourism. The irony is that the project itself is in the short run discouraging tourism, as potential visitors read in their local newspapers that the heart and soul is being ripped out of the city. Not the sort of publicity that any “destination” needs.

According to some analysts, the corruption is both deeper and wider than a mere quid pro quo between the current governor and some cronies. It is said that the ultimate goal of this raiding of the state treasury is to fatten the coffers of the ex-governor, José Murát, who is planning to support Roberto Madrazo, the head of his PRI party in his run for the presidency of Mexico (and thereby putting Murát in the way of some favors); that money is being passed from those who are profiting from the Zócalo project as well as the roof on the Guelaguetza amphitheater, the widening of the Fortín highway, the remodeling of the old governor’s palace into another (and probably un-needed) museum, and other such, to Murát’s campaign funders, in the form of kickbacks.

Two of the major movers for the project – the chief architect and the artist Zarate whose drawings were used as a model for the plan – have resigned.

Defenders of the project tend to concentrate on only one issue: the health of the giant Indian Laurel trees that shade the Zócalo and the next-door Alameda , providing a respite from the sometimes enervating sunlight, and a nesting place for countless chirping and whistling avians; as well as a visual perspective of green-leafed longevity, grandeur, and tranquility. Both sides of the issue have weighed in with experts who, predictably, have come up with the answers most pleasing to their sponsors. On one extreme, there are those who have testified that the laurels represent a clear and present danger to all who walk under them or sit in the sidewalk cafés; that they are infected by root rot, and that just the vibrations from a passing delivery truck (the square is blocked to all regular traffic) could be enough to bring them crashing down. On the other side, are those who say that the two trees that have fallen during the deconstruction / construction effort were the victims of corporate industrial vandalism: deliberately cutting too close to the trees, thus severing their roots (the trees have a very shallow but very wide root system) as a way to justify removing them.

My guess is that both sides have a piece of the truth: that some of the trees are indeed rotten-rooted and may need to come down; that others are healthy; and that still others are in need of attention in order to avoid further degeneration. Hydrology of giant trees is not a new concept in Oaxaca . The nearby giant cypress at Santa Maria del Tule, well over 2,000 years old, was, not too many years ago, in danger of dying from lack of water, lack of proper trimming, and imbalance of nutrients. Massive amounts of money and attention were applied. The prognosis for the cypress today seems to be that the situation is under control, although it will require constant monitoring. At this point, the crucial issue for the Laurels in the Zócalo is under whose husbandry and with whose money will the necessary treatments be initiated and maintained – if they will be maintained at all.

Aside from the trees, the other major concerns are what will the feel and vista of the Zócalo be like when it is reopened, and when will that blessed day arrive. The government is sticking by its estimate of completion by Guelaguetza, in about four weeks. The opposition is saying “not before Christmas”. My own observation is that there is an enormous amount of work going on, with scores of laborers working 24/7; and that while it may not be completed by Guelaguetza, there is a better than even chance that the work will have progressed far enough by then, that the tin will come down from in front of the portales.

As you can see from the conception board, the new Zócalo will have a “modern” look to it. Gone for good, the faux cobblestones, in favor of a pinkish quarried stone that is most often used for molcajetes (grinding stones). Opponents say that these stones will hold more heat, making the portales a less-cool place to hang out; and that nobody has tried to use this stone for these purposes: that the Zócalo is not the place to experiment with new materials and methods.

There will be a lot less landscaping, although there are many holes in the concrete for plantings. The small bushes and trees will not return. They probably will be replaced by “native plantings”. It is not clear whether or not the benches will be replaced.

It appears that there will be a more efficient system for controlling water runoff. Note the ditches in the concrete, which will apparently be covered with gratings. One rumor has it that the city will be making use of the ditches by hosing down the public areas and flushing the garbage down the drain. Personally, I think it makes a lot of sense: however quaint it is to see the little men with the big brooms made of tree branches sweeping the streets, it cannot be denied that they raise a lot of dust which passersby and patrons of the sidewalk cafés are forced to breath in – and some of that dust is to say the least mighty unhealthy to consume.

As to the composition of the opposition, there appears to be at least three groups -the largest of which is the Citizens Vigilance Committee – and a variety of sub-agendas. The Laurels appear to have been saved, probably because of a general agreement on that score among the various factions. (Unfortunately, not enough people seemed to be paying much attention to the Jacarandas, and the Flamboyants.) PRO-OAX, the environmental organization funded by Francisco Toledo, weighed in late in the dispute, partly because of lack of direction from Toledo . PRO-OAX, with almost-daily statements in the local press by Toledo, led the successful campaign to stop the “foreign devil” MacDonald’s from putting a store in the Zócalo. Their lack of interest in this issue in the crucial early stages, and their tepid response once they acknowledged the debacle, has driven many key supporters from the organization.

The foreign residents are almost monolithic in their silence (most of the gringo noise comes from visitors), and the few demonstrations that did occur appear to have been small and tepid. INAH, the national ministry for antiquities, apparently could not find any grounds for interference, and UNESCO – in the person of their representative for Mexico (Oaxaca, a world heritage city, gets money from them) – has been mostly absent, after filing an objection on bureaucratic grounds (that the governor failed to file a notice with them).

[The shoe shiners that used to demark the periphery of the square now are housed temporarily in the portale (covered walkway) in front of what used to be the governor’s office building]

So, am I glad that they are doing it? No way. I don’t think it needed doing, and I will miss the old Zócalo. Am I angry about it? Yes, mostly because they spent the money they should have applied to serious infrastructure problems. Do I think that it will “ruin Oaxaca ”? Absolutely not. First of all, Oaxaca is more than a Zócalo. The square will be different, and while some would say “that’s it; they’ve gone and ruined it”, I would say that it looks -judging from what I have seen since we returned – like something I’ll be able to live with in peace. Meanwhile, there is lots of art, crafts, architecture, music, food and beautiful weather. C’mon down.

Changes at the Pochote Organic Market:

About a third to one-half of the vendors have left the group selling their wares at the “organic” market held each Friday and Saturday on the grounds of the Pochote theater. The divergence seems to be twofold.

Since its inception, the market has “employed” two “asesores” (directors) to settle disputes, front for the group with the authorities, etc. Many of the sellers have objected to paying fees to these folks, saying that they prefer to do it themselves as a group, but until recently, the argument, had not been resolved.

Last week, Francisco Toledo (that name seems to keep popping up, doesn’t it?) who holds the deed to the land, ruled that fees were out. Period. The ones who remained have elected a “counsel” to govern their affairs. The others have gone, with one of the asesores, to the atrium of the Merced church, in the southeast sector of the city. We will visit the “new” market next Friday, and report on it in the next newsletter.

The other problem has been “certification”. While the original intent may have been that everything sold at Pochote would be organic, over the course of time the market had devolved into a mix of food, artesania, cooking devices, carpets, clothing, and a host of other products. The majority have always favored some sort of system of inspection, but the original more strict standard has changed with the times.

[Displaced by the Zócalo construction, these puestos have crowded the plaza in front of the Cathedral. It’s unclear whether they will be allowed to return to their old haunts when the reconstruction ends).

My understanding is that everyone who sells at Pochote will have to agree to an inspection by a committee of the group, to determine whether they are advertising their products honestly. Thus, if you say you are “organic”, then you must show your certificate; if you say you are a “home kitchen”, then you must demonstrate to the inspectors that you can and do produce your product at home; if you are a reseller, you must say so.

Some of the people who have left did so not because they couldn’t prove the truth of their claims but because they felt that inspections were too intrusive, and because they did not wish to submit to a standard other than their own, a position I can sympathize with, although I also see the point of the “truth in selling” position.

However you look at it, shopping has just gotten more complex – although we are pleased that one way or another, all the foods that we had gotten used to will be available.