Street Lamp Construction in Mexico City, 1952-1964

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For my initial mapmaking projects on Mexico City during Uruchurtu’s tenure as regent, I plan to focus on the construction of new public works throughout the growing metropolis.   As an aside, in my descriptions of this project as well as in future projects, will I use the terms “Mexico City” and the “Federal District” interchangeably, as both terms are commonly used to describe the geographic territory composed of the actual capital and its twelve surrounding delegations (administrative divisions).  The greater metropolitan area composed of numerous municipalities adjacent to the Federal District remained outside the domain of city leaders and was administered by corresponding state governments.  This first project will focus on the construction of new street lamps for the city, part of Uruchurtu’s plan to modernize and moralize the urban landscape.

During Uruchurtu’s first two terms as regent from 1952-1964, over 81,000 mercury lamps and over 35,000 incandescent lamps were installed throughout the metropolis, actions which purportedly turned Mexico City into “one of the best illuminated cities in the world.”  The geographic placement of these two basic types of lamps revealed the dual function which illumination could serve for the production of power within the spaces of the city.  In the wealthier colonias near the city center, DDF engineers installed 250 watt, mercury “colonial-style lanterns” which sought to “add a touch of bygone elegance, suitable to this part of the city which is a product of Mexico’s illustrious past.”  Uruchurtu and the DDF used the installation of such softly lit, ornate street lamps to reveal the beauty of this sector of the city, the tree lined sidewalks and colonial architecture of these older neighborhoods symbolic of an idealized cultural past.  Near the Centro Histórico, structures inscribed with cultural and nationalistic meanings such as the Catedral Metropolitana, the Palacio Nacional, and the Plaza de la Constitución were especially well illuminated.  These ornately illuminated religious and civic temples were capable of inspiring intense loyalty to the imagined community of la patria and served as powerful political instruments for the ruling party.

In contrast, for the colonias proletarias, the DDF installed extremely tall, 400 watt incandescent lamps which cast a wide arc of intensely bright light.  These modern, industrial looking street lamps were not designed to illuminate the beauty of the neighborhoods they were installed in.  Instead, they were intended to penetrate the dark spaces within working class neighborhoods, areas which were considered a breeding ground for immorality.  Within the rhetoric of urban planners, the electrification of these “modest zones” of the city went hand in hand with modernization, the safety and security they provided a “necessary requirement for any modern city.”  In early 1955, Uruchurtu ordered the Department of Public Works to cooperate with the DDF police in identifying gaps in the illumination of the colonias proletarias, with the regent’s focus primarily on the security aspect of lighting for the city.  The electrical illumination of these neighborhoods increased the visibility of residents to police patrols, thus discouraging the potential criminal activities of residents through an expansion of the state’s surveillant gaze.

The map displays major roadways and neighborhoods with mercury lamps in blue and the incandescent lamps in red.  To create this map, I compiled data from the public works archives of the Department of the Federal District (DDF) which provided street names and the types of lights, but not the exact total of lights attributed to each street.  The DDF data provided the total number of street lights constructed during this time period, but no data from year to year or month to month.  However, as much as this mapmaking project is incomplete in some respects, it is a starting point for further investigation and just one of many layers I hope to overlay on top of the city’s landscape in order to partially recreate Mexico City during this formative time period.  To view a more interactive version of this map (something which I highly recommend), you can directly download the .kml file to be opened with Google Earth here.  Stay tuned over the next week or two for another project on market construction.

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