David Lida first approached Mexico City, the subject of his new book, with a wariness verging on trepidation. The native New Yorker made several trips to Mexico starting in the early 1980s but had always steered clear of its capital, "influenced by the propaganda dismissing it as a teeming, overpopulated, polluted bedlam, full of horrific testimonies of insuperable poverty." Then during a vacation in 1987, a layover forced him to spend a night in a downtown hotel. It was love at first wide-eyed sight for the American journalist, and Lida moved to Mexico City in 1990. He has distilled 18 years of observation, exploration and firsthand experience into "First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century" (366 pages. Riverhead Books).
"First Stop" is the first in-depth study of the city to be published in English since Jonathan Kandell's 1988 book "La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City," and it was partially worth the wait. Lida's affection for the much-maligned metropolis shines through in chapter after chapter, whether he's describing in loving detail its quirky cantinas or the annual re-enactment of the Passion of Christ on its crime-infested streets. And for us outsiders who have also zealously embraced this impossibly huge home to 20 million souls, Lida's book is a welcome respite from the usual depictions of Mexico City as a menacing hellhole of corruption and violent crime.
The writer lays out his basic thesis in the opening pages. If Paris epitomized the European capitals of the 19th century and New York reigned as the "urban Rosetta stone" during the 20th, then Mexico City is emblematic of what Lida calls the "improvised hypermetropoli" that will dominate the world stage in the coming decades. Here he has in mind the Mumbais, Cairos and São Paulos of the planet "which, with virtually no planning whatsoever, have expanded to accommodate monstrously multiplying populations" that have already surpassed 10 million.
This is a fresh approach to a familiar topic that deserves to be fleshed out. But Lida unfortunately does nothing of the kind, abandoning the argument altogether until the epilogue. The work thus reads like a series of deftly written vignettes about city life sandwiched by two analytical bookends instead of a coherent exposition demonstrating how and why the Mexican capital will become a model for other Third World megacities. Indeed, Lida candidly presents the work as a "love letter" to the rich cast of real-life Mexicans he has met—a hustling newspaper vendor, a crack-smoking cabdriver and a faded cabaret queen among them.
Lida says he was strongly influenced by the American journalist Joseph Mitchell, who wrote about New York City for various newspapers and magazines from the 1930s until the 1960s, and the best passages of "First Stop" focus on the patterns and rhythms of the world's second largest urban sprawl with a bull's-eye accuracy. Lida is struck by a culture of courtesy "found in few cities in prosperous countries" and the relaxed ambience of an upscale bistro where you rarely see the kind of neurotic behavior often on display at fine restaurants in New York, like "the panicky expressions while checking watches in anticipation of an encroaching appointment." At the same time he doesn't shrink from exposing some of the more irritating habits of some Mexico City natives, including a diner's tendency to address a waiter as jóven (boy) regardless of his age, and a penchant for inventing directions to a motorist's destination rather than admit ignorance of how to get there.
The 48-year-old author must be truly smitten by his adopted hometown. About two thirds of the way through, Lida discloses that in 1996, he and his then wife were abducted by a kidnapping gang on one of Mexico City's busiest thoroughfares. The ordeal lasted two hours, and its revelation comes as something of a jolt, especially after Lida has gone to such painstaking lengths to debunk sensationalistic portrayals of the city as the crime capital of Latin America.
But even when tackling the seamier side of life in el D.F.—a widely used shorthand term derived from the Spanish words for federal district—Lida never loses his impish sense of humor. He recounts how he and his spouse tried to obtain their release from the kidnappers by claiming (falsely) they were asthmatic and pregnant, respectively. And when a Mexican friend and fellow writer was also snatched off the streets one afternoon, the perps discovered copies of the victim's recently published novel on him and asked him to autograph a copy for the gang leader's girlfriend. Such anecdotes sparkle on the page, but what could have been an instructive portrait of Mexico City in the early 21st century comes across instead as an urbane guidebook.