That was the harsh reality of Mexico City's centro histórico, the cultural heart of Mexico City and the country itself, even just 10 years ago. Now the city is trying to reverse roughly six decades of dispersal and decline in the historic center by encouraging the redevelopment of residential housing with tax incentives and city planning efforts.
Take No. 18 San Jerónimo. The five-story apartment building is painted a fresh poinsettia red. Inside, the walls have been painted a crisp white; new bathrooms and kitchen sinks have been installed; and the scratched 1940s-era floor tiles have been cleaned but left in tact. A two-bedroom is going for 6,000 pesos, or less than $475 – a relatively accessible rent in Mexico City proper.
Or take the building behind it, a sprawling stone complex with an inner courtyard that served as a convent in the 19th century and as a hospital after that before being left to ruin. That building on refurbished Calle Regina is now a completely renovated residence for the elderly.
As the city cleans up the centro histórico with newly pedestrian streets that have attracted more upscale businesses, families and young professionals are slowly returning.
About 200,000 people lived in the historic center at the end of the 19th century, according to Inti Muñoz, director the Historic Center Trusteeship, a city agency. Today, there are about 34,000 residents.
"The exodus was brutal," Muñoz said. "Now there is an intense reunion between society and its historic center."
Before the 1950s, the historic center was the city almost in its entirety. A handful of neighborhoods had cropped up in the outskirts – the elegant Roma neighborhood and Condesa with its Art Deco homes and apartment buildings. But the rich still lived in the high-ceilinged palaces of the center.
Amid a post-war economic bonanza, and with automobiles readily available, Mexico City began to sprawl out. Banks, department stores and – crucially – the Autonomous University of Mexico all sought greener, less congested pastures. And residents moved to far-flung neighborhoods and the growing suburbs.
Meanwhile, a 1946 law froze rents in the centro, which had a chilling effect on investment and upkeep. Invasiones, or squatter communities, sprouted across the centro. Many buildings remain occupied and in subpar condition, said Vicente Flores Arias, director of real estate development for the Historic Center Trusteeship.
The city recently set up a website, www.vivirenelcentro.com.mx, where prospective residents can search for apartments to rent or to buy. Prices range from $275 to $1,000 a month.
The city is working to avoid the kind of gentrification that would exclude working or even middle class Mexicans.
"Our job is to try to maintain equilibrium," said Flores Arias. "We’re trying for a healthy equilibrium, although in some cases there are forces that are not easily managed."
About half of the apartments at No. 18 San Jerónimo have been rented, and owners of nearby buildings have expressed interest in renovating, said Flores Arias.
The recovery has been a long time coming, but it appears the residential rebirth of Mexico City's centro is underway.
Photo: Flickr/Eneas De Troya