A photo of an apartment building in Mexico City
Cafetería Trevi, and the residents who live above it, find themselves at the center of a pitched battle over displacement in downtown Mexico City. Martha Pskowski/CityLab

Rising housing costs have triggered a wave of displacement in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico. But residents are finding creative ways to resist.

MEXICO CITY—The Trevi is a six-story apartment building overlooking Alameda Central, an iconic park in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico neighborhood. On its ground floor there’s a time-worn little Italian restaurant, Cafetería Trevi, from which the building takes its unofficial name. With its red-vinyl banquettes and vintage neon signage, Cafetería Trevi looks like a time capsule of Mexico City’s past. But since last year it’s become the epicenter of a battle over the neighborhood’s—and the city’s—future.

The fight began in March 2018, when the Trevi’s current owner told the tenants of the building’s 24 apartments, four storage units, and six storefronts that the building was going to be sold and they would all have to move out. For the past year, the restaurant and a handful of upstairs tenants have been fighting their eviction, determined to hold on to their imperiled corner of working-class Mexico City.

The Trevi residents resisting displacement are not alone: With its aging housing stock and shrinking public housing investment, Mexico City has become Latin America’s most expensive city, based on relative cost of living. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Worldwide Cost of Living Survey found Mexico City had the fastest rise in the relative cost of living (up 23 percent) out of 133 cities surveyed.

The jump in property costs has triggered a wave of gentrification in several neighborhoods, as well as fierce disputes between longtime residents and building owners. Across the city, roughly 2,000 evictions take place every year. Neighborhood displacement can be a violent process. Since 2014, academics have seen an increase in violent evictions, which can involve hundreds of granaderos—riot cops—who arrive to evict residents, often without an official eviction notice from the courts. Geocomunes, a collective of geographers, mapped 63 violent evictions in central neighborhoods between 2014 and 2018.

While the city’s new mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, disbanded the riot police in December 2018, they appeared to be present at an eviction in the Juárez neighborhood in May 2019.

The Trevi and its residents have become central figures in the city’s gentrification drama, in part because of the building offers a vivid illustration of how policies intended to encourage densification in Mexico City’s central neighborhoods ended up displacing longtime residents and local businesses.

Since 1955, Cafetería Trevi has been a neighborhood mainstay. But the neighborhood is changing. (Martha Pskowski/CityLab)

Centro Histórico is a densely packed district, divided into many smaller neighborhoods, spread out over four square miles in the heart of Mexico City. When a devastating 8.0 earthquake struck in 1985, this was one of the hardest-hit parts of the city, and thousands of residents were displaced. In a 2016 study, Victor Delgadillo, an urbanism professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico City (UACM), documented how the demographics of the city’s historic center have changed dramatically in recent decades. From 1970 to 2010, Centro’s population dropped from 389,400 to 248,000. As residents left, new developments, both formal and informal, sprung up in the southern boroughs of Mexico City. While the city experienced meager population growth between 1990 and 2010, eight of its 16 boroughs (including Cuauhtémoc, where Centro is located) lost over 400,000 inhabitants in total. In the other eight, the population grew by over one million.

In 2000, this “peripheralization” of the city prompted mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador (now Mexico’s president) to introduce Bando 2, a policy restricting development in nine boroughs and encouraging repopulation in four central boroughs, including Cuauhtémoc. Bando 2 created tax exemptions for property acquisition, building permits, and utility expenses. The city also launched the Authority for Centro Histórico, an agency to coordinate government programs in the neighborhood.

With López Obrador’s encouragement, private investment also boomed: Between 2002 and 2004, magnate Carlos Slim purchased 63 vacant buildings for renovation.

It worked—perhaps too well. From 2000 to 2008, the average sale price of a housing unit in the inner city rose from 700,000 pesos to more than 2 million. A London School of Economics study found that rents went up between 30 and 50 percent following Bando 2. And the neighborhood’s atmosphere changed dramatically. International chain businesses, from Old Navy to Zara, moved in. Starbucks began to outnumber locally owned coffee shops. “Centro Histórico has transformed,” said UACM’s Delgadillo. “What has been favored is private investment to create housing stock that doesn’t have anything to do with the current residents.”

Carlos Acuña, a journalist and Trevi resident, is blunter: “The charm of Centro Histórico has been lost,” he told CityLab. “Now it’s a shopping mall.”

Acuña has been leading anti-eviction efforts since the building’s owner organized a meeting with the tenants and the potential buyer, the Mexican co-working company Público, which planned to turn the Trevi into shared office space. Some tenants agreed to move out at the end of October, but others—both long-term residents and young people who had moved in recent years—decided to build a legal case to stay. Acuña says that those who entered the lawsuit saw a common cause that went beyond their individual interests. They wanted to save their community, not just their apartments.

“Yes, we have a right to housing, but we realized that we were fighting for a lot more,” he says. “This block has everything: people who come to dance on the weekends, the tourists staying at the Hilton, the skaters, the old guys who play chess. … We think if we lose this building, that culture is going to get chipped away. Eventually they’ll stop people from playing their cumbia over the weekend.”

To drum up publicity, an organizing committee called the Neighborhood Observatory 06000 (named for the area’s postal code) formed last summer, taking inspiration from other Mexico City neighborhoods fighting gentrification. Sergio González, a housing-rights organizer from Juárez, the neighborhood west of Centro, helped the group get started and shared his experience. They began organizing events at Cafetería Trevi, inviting poets, bands, and DJs. In September, they held a “torta-thon” at Tortas Robles, the tiny sandwich shop in the south-facing side of the building.

While tenants have now moved out, those in about a half-dozen apartments have held out, filing a lawsuit against both the former and new owners. While the legal struggle continues, they cannot be evicted. The new owners, Público and the Mifel bank, decided to allow the Robles sandwich shop to stay in the building. Cafetería Trevi has a separate, ongoing lawsuit.

“Those who wanted to negotiate already did,” says Acuña. “The rest of us are going to stay. We want them to sell us our apartments or let us keep renting.”

Many cases in Centro are complicated by the fact that residents lack property deeds or their rental agreements were never written out in a contract. These long-term residents are facing displacement, as city authorities seek to “regularize” the neighborhood. The Authority for Centro Histórico lists 27 properties “recuperated at the request of private citizens” between 2014 and 2016, in its latest management plan.

To fight evictions, Neighborhood Observatory 06000 connects older residents with their younger neighbors who moved to Centro more recently. The newer residents are social-media savvy, but rely on life-long residents’ deep knowledge of the neighborhood; the group spreads information over Whatsapp when an eviction is underway and rallies community support for renters in need. When a fire destroyed an elderly woman’s apartment on Calle López, for example, the Observatory shared her story over Twitter and collected donations to help her recovery. Another neighbor on Calle Zapata who is fighting eviction was able to publicize her situation through the group.

Centro is just one of the many neighborhoods in Mexico City facing gentrification: In San Rafael, Santa María la Ribera, San Miguel Chapultepec, and Xoco, residents are also taking similar stands. The forces driving displacement vary in each neighborhood, and local groups have adopted multiple techniques to combat it. “We all share advice because we’re in the same boat,” says Acuña. “But each neighborhood has its own strategies.”

Some neighborhoods have targeted the developers of luxury apartments, calling out corruption when officials approve projects that violate code. That’s the case in Xoco, where neighbors have led a years-long campaign against the enormous Mitikah complex, a 60-story luxury tower rising alongside a neighborhood of single-family houses and small apartment buildings. Construction is currently suspended after workers illegally cut down dozens of trees. Acknowledging the depth of the problem, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum began a review of all major real estate development projects when she entered office.

In Juárez, meanwhile, neighbors tried another gambit: deploying Santa Mari La Juaricua, the “patron saint against gentrification,” to draw attention to displacement and rising cost of living.

In many Mexico City neighborhoods, occupying vacant buildings has long been a popular means of protesting housing costs. Housing organization like the Francisco Villa Popular Independent Front occupy abandoned properties or lots, forcing the city to eventually recognize their claim to the property. But the city has been cracking down on many occupations in recent years. On the one-year anniversary of the 2017 earthquake, Mexico City police descended on a building in Colonia Juárez, which a group of Otomí indigenous people have occupied for two decades. Since being evicted, the Otomí (also known as Hñähñu) have set up two street encampments on either side of the building. One of these encampments was violently removed on May 30 after neighbors repeatedly complained to the city government.

While gentrification in Mexico City is often understood in terms of class, Juárez neighbors also use the term “blanqueamiento”—whitening. As the Otomí eviction showed, often indigenous people or their descendants are the first to be displaced, in favor of wealthier, and whiter, residents.

Back in Centro, the remaining Trevi residents chose another means to amplify their anti-gentrification message: a dance party. On April 27, the Trevi hosted a festival at Cafetería Trevi with other neighborhood organizations to promote the anti-eviction efforts. Naturally, the festival’s soundtrack was cumbia, a percussive genre emerging from indigenous and African music in Colombia that later came to Mexico, and danzón—slower, Cuban-style dance music. As the DJ blasted the first songs of the night, couples—from grey-haired sweethearts to tattooed 20-somethings—popped up to dance on the sidewalk outside the Trevi. While the threat of displacement still looms, at least for one night, the cumbia drowned it all out.

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