MEXICO CITY—After years of steady deterioration, Mexico City’s Centro Histórico is finally showing signs of health.
Public and private efforts, especially by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú, have bulked up security, refurbished old parks and gathering spots and increased economic development in the area. But the renaissance’s defining feature is obvious: it’s the ground.
In recent years, the Centro has closed off three streets to vehicular traffic and has plans to convert more. Known for its museums, landmarks and busy markets, the area is now drawing more youthful crowds, thanks in part to shopping and nightlife on its pedestrian streets.
The street closure treatment has also deterred crime, according to local business owners. One of the zone’s biggest problems is residential vacancies. While Centro’s always bustling by day, it’s still desolate after dark in many spots.
The first walkway, Regina street, was inaugurated in 2008. Dubbed a "Cultural Pedestrian Corridor" by the government, it’s loaded with hip, laidback restaurants and mezcalerias.
Between new security cameras, a greater police presence and more nighttime activity, crime has diminished since the street’s transformation, say local businessmen and women.
"It’s changed totally…100 percent almost," says Martha Lima Suárez, who was running her son’s restaurant, Al Andar, on Regina one recent afternoon.
When her son first opened his business, he was "harassed," she says. Locals just barged in off the street and grabbed things.
"People opened the refrigerator and took beers…," she says, "until one occasion they took a bottle of Mezcal and my son said, 'enough.'"
Before the street got pedestrianized, neighborhood business owners used to strike "unspoken" agreements with the local thieves, says Rogelio Murrieta, who owns a printing business on Regina.
"The thieves who were from this area they went to other areas, they didn’t rob people from here," he says. "We’d give them something, support, and they respected us. It was a purchase basically."
In the last few years, many of the regular crooks have gone to jail and others have cleared out because of increased security, he says.
During October 2010, the city inaugurated the converted Francisco I. Madero street, the main thoroughfare used by tourists and locals alike to reach the city’s central plaza, the Zócalo.
Whereas Regina offers more independent businesses, Madero includes many of the nation’s biggest clothing chains, banks, fast food restaurants and smaller businesses alike. It too stays opens late.
Another long stretch, including various streets in the eastern Centro, has also been pedestrianized. Revitalization plans, like renovating building facades, are still incomplete though.
The Centro Histórico Trust, one of the main groups driving redevelopment, announced that Moneda street, also in the Centro, will be converted next year as well.
Undoubtedly, Centro still has a long way to go. Walking between Francisco I. Madero and Regina streets, there are long, empty stretches after dark. But the pedestrian streets offer the most encouraging image of what a fully revitalized Centro could become.