Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Finding your way around the block

The next time you’re in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico look up to the top of the 17th and 18th century buildings. Most have a niche on the corner with a sculpture of a saint or other religious figure. These signs of religiosity by the original owners are also clever navigational aids.

I was reminded of this by the monthly magazine “Kilómetro Cero” (“Kilometer Zero”), published by the Historical District Trust Fund. The magazine’s name can be considered an address. It refers to the Zócalo, where roads to all parts of the country originated.

In last month’s cover story, historian Guadalupe Toscano traced the origin of these niches to the Holy Cross Hospital in Toledo, Spain, where an arched niche contains a sculpture of St. Helen discovering the Cross. In her book ‘Witnesses in Stone,’ Toscano said Mexico City adopted this as a style in architecture. “While the image in the niche was an expression of the owner of the building’s devotion for a particular saint or virgin, the niches soon became landmarks for those who needed to locate an address. Numbers were not used.”

This prompted me to remember Mérida, Yucatan’s similar practice. Stone plaques — many still in place — with an outlined picture were affixed to the walls of corner buildings giving a name to each corner. Mermaids, elephants, saints — over 250 of them. Addresses were given with the name of a street and the name of the closest corner.

Eventually this gave way to Merida’s contemporary, easy to understand street numbering system. Odd numbered streets (Calles) run east to west. Even numbered streets run north to south. The Zócalo is at the intersection of streets 60 and 61. Addresses include the street number and the number of the building followed by the closest cross street.

Puebla introduced a similar system in 1917. Street names were replaced with numbers, with avenues (avenidas) running north to south and streets running east to west. Numbering radiated out from the Zócalo and was divided into four quadrants. Puebla historian Sally Ochoa said with a smile, “It’s totally logical — once you figure it out.”

In the northeast quadrant the streets and avenues are all even-numbered. In the southwest they are all odd-numbered. In the northwest avenues are even and streets are odd-numbered. In the southeast quadrant it’s the reverse. I’ve never been in Puebla long enough to find an address without a map in hand.

Outside Puebla’s historical center the street naming reverts to Mexico City’s style. Each neighborhood has a certain category of names — such as rivers, or species of flowers, or mountains. My favorite in Mexico City is Colonia Telefonistas with streets such as Dial Tone, Handset, Operator, Direct Dial. That’s what happens in a city as large as Mexico — you run out of names.

In my book, Colombia takes the prize for the easiest to understand street system. In Bogotá, what are called carreras, run north to south and streets run east to west. When I was in high school we lived at Calle 69A #10-23. Calle 69A is between 69 and 70. Our house was 23 meters west of the corner of 69A and Carrera 10.

Being an odd-numbered house, you would know it was on the south side of the street. This is so, logical a blind person can find an address in Bogota by pacing the distance from a corner.

Pacing is used in Costa Rica where directions are given in meters. But there meters can expand or contract. A city block is considered 100 meters — even extra long blocks are ‘100 meters.’

In neighboring Nicaragua, blocks are ‘cuadras’ and many streets have no names. My parents’ official address at the Valdivieso Eccumenical Center was the bust of José Martí, 2 cuadras east, 1 cuadra north, Managua, Nicaragua.

In Caracas, Venezuela streets are named, as are buildings and houses. No numbers. You need to know the location of a building to find an address. The British Embassy’s address in Caracas is Castellana Tower, 11th Floor, Eugenio Mendoza Avenue.

As vague as addresses can be, they seem to go hand-in-hand with our identity. To open a bank account in Mexico you must provide proof of your domicile with a utility bill.

A telephone company receipt is the preferred ‘comprobante de domicilio.’ The address also needs to match the address on an acceptable government-issued document. A driver’s license is not acceptable, however a voter’s registration card is. Foreigners can use their immigration document.

But you residents know that’s still not enough. “¿Entre que calles?” (between which streets) the banker wants to know. What color are the walls/ gates of the house or building? If you’ve gone in search of an address you understand why. House or building numbers aren’t necessarily in orderly succession. The name of a street often changes when crossing an important artery.

How improved is this from Viceregal Mexico City’s address system?As we search for an address might it help to have a nearby saint in a niche ready to intercede on our behalf?

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