Changing Planet

Satellite Cities: The Early Suburbs of Mexico City

Maintenance on a home in Ciudad Satélite — Photograph by Michael Waldrep, click to enlarge

This week, continuing in my investigation of the geography of growth in Mexico City’s metropolitan area, and following my most recent exploration of the wealthier, more U.S.-styled segments of sprawl in the city, I made a trip out to Ciudad Satélite, one of the oldest, and most famous suburban developments in the region. Thanks to the extremely generous Manuel Solano, I got a tour of the neighborhood and a wealth of reminiscence from a life spent growing up there.

Los Torres de Satélite, designed by Luis Barragán and Mathias Goeritz
Los Torres de Satélite, designed by Luis Barragán and Mathias Goeritz — Photograph by Michael Waldrep, click to enlarge

Satélite was planned, in the mid 1950s, as a car-centric community, removed from congestion of the city’s center and near to the industrial jobs in Naucalpan—its famous symbols, the Torres de Satélite, were designed by some of Mexico’s foremost midcentury architects, and stand in the middle of a freeway to welcome home its commuting populace. Mario Pani, the principal architect of the massive housing complex at Tlatelolco, laid out the curving circuits of the development, and helped to set the tone for its stripped down, modern homes.

A home in Ciudad Satélite
A home in Ciudad Satélite — Photograph by Michael Waldrep, click to enlarge
A home in Ciudad Satélite
A home in Ciudad Satélite — Photograph by Michael Waldrep, click to enlarge

As in Cuautitlán, and other government-funded, middle-class developments in the sprawling edges of the city, the neighborhood has been remade over time. In the case of Satélite, homeowners with the means to build to their own specifications have, for the most part, left little trace of the neighborhood’s modernist roots. At the urban scale, the greenbelt of parks that were meant to encircle this “city outside the city” gave way to the crush of people moving to the suburbs. The streets have a air of quiet, suburban repose to them, even in a riot of architectural styles and flourishes, up to and including a stained-glass window with the Versace logo embedded within. The saving grace, in terms of unity of design, are the ubiquitous walled-off parking spaces in front of each home; barbed wire, electric fences, and armed guards on many blocks betraying either a reality of having money in an unequal city, or a collective nervousness.

The abandoned Acropolis shopping center in Naucalpan, Estado de México
The abandoned Acropolis shopping center in Lomas Verdes, Naucalpan, Estado de México — Photograph by Michael Waldrep, click to enlarge

In the place of that planned, and now-forgotten open space on the development’s edge are more homes, more neighborhoods: places like Fuentes de Satélite, Jardines de Satélite, and Lomas Verdes. The latter, which translates to “Green Hills” is more concrete than vegetation, but as these early suburbs are forgotten and passed over for the newer, the further out, I saw at least one example of a shopping center going to seed.

As always, you can find my project on instagram for more consistent photo updates, and follow along here on the blog as well. Any input in the comments is much appreciated!

Los Angeles native Michael Waldrep is a documentary filmmaker, multimedia artist and researcher, currently in Mexico City to document the city, its neighborhoods and its 22 million inhabitants through writing, mapping, data visualization, photography and video. He is one of five inaugural Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows.
  • Lawrence Meagher

    Interesting piece about probably the greater Mexico City’s most solid “middle class” area. The development was a private venture of outgoing Mexican president Miguel Aleman (’46-’52) – though almost certainly benefitting from funds of the public coffer (as was the case of his other projects; such as Acapulco’s big expansion and birth in prominence). The development languished for several years, then expanded explosively from the 60’s through the 80’s. It became the true enclave of the solid middle class; family oriented (many of whose children were the first of a generation of college, and post college educated young. Many typically financed that life style by living at home into adulthood, then relocating to apartments/condos in the same Satelite. The mall was the first grand mall on the US model, and for many years (probably until today) the most profitable, if not the most elegant, high-end shopping alternative. It was often said, the people at Satelite Mall BUY; those at PeriSur and Santa Fe VISIT. It may be the D.F.’s most cohesive residential area; citizens have banded together to insure integrity and security to the extent possible. The obvious indicators of security measures (closed off, guarded streets; private security patrols, etc.) are not symbolic, however. As in virtually any neighborhood of the capital, there are legitimate security concerns. Few families have escaped carjacking, home break-ins, gunpoint robberies at ATM’s, etc. However, Satelite is probably still one of the more secure neighborhoods.

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