CIUDAD NEZA, Mexico, Oct 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
E ven if Eloisa Vasquez Morales had enough money to leave Ciudad
Neza, once a sprawling slum and now a scrappy suburb east of
Mexico City, the young mother says she would stay.
So would Juan Francisco Perez Buendia, a government housing
official, as well as Carlos Rodriguez and Victoria Gomez
Calderon, a retired couple relaxing outside their neatly
whitewashed house and garage.
"I believe that I am here for a reason. If I am going to do
better for myself, I also want that for my community," said
Morales, 30. "I want to support them."
By staying in Neza, once a dried-up lake bed of shanties set
up after World War Two, residents have built a community of
contrasts, where the comfortable and the destitute coexist.
Neza, now home to 1.2 million people, is an example of how
slums - rather than being bulldozed - can be supported and
upgraded to create thriving suburbs.
Trim homes sit alongside hovels covered with tattered rags,
and horse-drawn wagons filled with garbage clatter past shiny
This, say experts, is the urbanization of the future.
Nearly 900 million people live in slums worldwide - or a
quarter of the world's urban population, according to the U.N.
Historically in Latin America and the Caribbean, slum
upgrading - as opposed to demolition and reconstruction - has
been an important strategy in providing housing for the poor.
Today, 24 percent of the region's urban residents live in slums.
Far from ideal, Neza is shabby, poorly served by schools,
transportation and health care and is considered extremely
dangerous, even by Mexican standards. Yet it holds lessons in
growth and resilience for other cities, according to experts.
"The story isn't, 'Oh dear, dear, what a terrible slum.' In
a way, it's a success story, in spite of the present problems,"
said Priscilla Connolly Dietrichsen, a professor of urban
sociology at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico
Ciudad Neza, short for Nezahualcóyotl, sits on the bed of
Lake Texcoco, drained to combat flooding over hundreds of years.
Too salty for farming, the dry land was taken up by developers
who laid out a grid of streets and sold off boxy parcels, mostly
without proper title.
In a burst of urban migration in the mid-20th century, new
arrivals to Neza set up shacks of wood and cardboard, without
electricity, a sewage system or running water, schools or paved
roads. A bus came by every two hours or so, old timers say.
"We had to suffer for a long time, because there was a lot
of mud, a lot of bugs, a lot of garbage," said Gibeto Garcia
Jeronimo, 66, who has lived in Neza for four decades.
"Now I like it," she said. "Now we have garbage services. We
have water, we have sewage, and they've fixed up the roads a
"A PURE WASTELAND"
When Victoria Gomez Calderon, 82, moved to Neza from eastern
Mexico as a young woman, the putrid remains of the lake were
just a half block from her tiny home.
"It was a pure wasteland," she said.
Residents banded together to demand services in the 1970s,
and a government program to formalise ownership provided land
titles, experts say.
Neza's reputation as the world's largest slum, coined when
its population was combined with two other blighted areas
decades ago, no longer applies, they say.
"Neza, it's a success in a lot of ways, in a way that like
every other suburban development post-World War Two has been a
success," said Michael Waldrep, a documentary filmmaker who has
done extensive research in Mexico City.
"Millions of people have been given a place to live that
they can call their own, that they take care of, and they have a
community," Waldrep said. "You have to give credit to tireless,
anonymous activists who worked for decades to make this into a
That spirit remains, said Maria del Carmen Moreno Moreno,
50, who is adding an extra room and bathroom to her house in
Neza, where she has lived since she was a small child.
Neighbors get together to buy water from a visiting "pipa"
truck each week, she said.
"We're very united. If someone has a problem, we can give
them a helping hand," she said. "I support my neighbors."
Whether by choice or lack of choice, residents of Neza tend
to stay put, experts say.
"Family is very strong. It's not like Western Europe and the
States where as soon as anybody's got a bit more money, they
move house. They don't do that," said Dietrichsen.
Even educated residents may find few opportunities
elsewhere, she said.
"The mother may be a domestic worker, the daughter may be a
secretary, the granddaughter may have a PhD in something," she
"THIEVES RETURN TO SLEEP IN NEZA"
Yet a lingering stigma surrounds Neza, with a reputation as
a dangerous, high-crime area, said Mirna Andrade, 43, who runs
the Xocoyotzin Community Center for Children.
People say "Watch your stuff because he's from Neza," and a
common saying is "Thieves return to sleep in Neza," she said.
The Xocoyotzin center is one of several daycare centers
started by local mothers that now receives help from the global
charity Save the Children. The parents are laborers, factory
workers, gas station attendants or seamstresses who pay
typically 800 pesos ($41) a month for childcare.
Residents say Neza needs much better schools and more local
jobs. Many people make long commutes, riding battered microbuses
through choking traffic to catch trains at an outlying eastern
tip of Mexico City's subway system.
But Neza is absent from tourist guides proposing excursions
outside the city limits and its worst-off denizens hunch over
open fires in front of lean-tos.
Scavengers paw through trash while teenagers, identified by
locals as drug dealers, stand guard on street corners. Many
homes do not have running water.
The experience of Neza's bottom-up development can serve as
a model for other blighted urban areas, said Jose Castillo, an
urban planner and architect in Mexico City.
Its lack of zoning, for example, means Neza is teeming with
micro entrepreneurs working from home or sharing spaces in what
would be called co-working in trendier places, he said.
"My argument is let's stop asking what urban planning can
do to fix the city and let's focus on understanding where we
could also learn from those processes," he said.
"There's a strong sense of pride in place. It's a community
based on the notion that jointly these people transformed this
Juan Francisco Perez Buendia, 42, a lifelong resident who
works for the State of Mexico's Institute of Housing, joked that
people throw a lot of parties in Neza.
"That's a good reason to live here," he said with a smile.
But seriously, he added: "There are people who effectively
have the resources and could go live in another secure place.
"But really, I think they like it, they like Neza," he said.
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, additional reporting by Anna
Yukhananov. Editing by Paola Totaro and Ros Russell. Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights,
trafficking, land rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)