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Eclectico in the city

It's a bohemian oasis in the middle of stressed-out Mexico City: Condesa is home to artists, musicians, novelists and filmmakers who give Mexico its global identity.

July 20, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — IN Tony Scott's action thriller "Man On Fire," there's a scene where a bodyguard played by Denzel Washington realizes that his young client (Dakota Fanning) is about to be kidnapped. Time slows to a crawl, the camera does a loopy 360-degree pan, and the audience sees the world through the bodyguard's eyes -- edgy, alluring and wildly unpredictable.

The neighborhood where this memorable sequence occurs is Condesa, a leafy, Art Deco-studded oasis in the heart of this stressed-out metropolis of about 22 million. Over the last several years, Condesa (pronounced con-DAY-sah) has acquired a reputation as one of this unruly city's most compelling, and occasionally jarring, places to live. It boasts some of the region's trendiest bars and restaurants, splashiest avant-garde architecture and, arguably, its most intriguing mix of residents and residential options -- from classic 1930s Deco private homes to chic new loft apartments.

Condesa also offers plenty of evidence as to why Los Angeles and the Mexican capital are sister cities. Occupying a roughly pentagon-shaped area southwest of the city's historic center, Condesa is Mexico City's Silver Lake and Los Feliz rolled into one, with traces of West Hollywood, Boyle Heights and several other Spanish-speaking urban barrios. "It has an air of Buenos Aires or Barcelona," says Federico Campbell, a novelist and essayist who has lived in the community since 1997.

Like L.A., Condesa has long been a source of fascination for the film business and the image-manufacturing industry. Movie directors, novelists, soap opera writers, musicians, painters, architects and academics, among others, all make their homes here alongside the quaint flower stalls, mom-and-pop taco stands and curbside shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe that give the district a touch of old-fashioned charm.

Condesa also is one of the city's most photogenic and visually iconoclastic locales. The neighborhood attained its first architectural golden age in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, when the Mexican screen diva Maria Felix was shooting movies in the 12-story, Bauhaus-influenced Edificio Basurto and the buildings were as glamorous as the human stars. And like L.A., Condesa appears to have woken up just in time to start restoring and preserving its crumbling Art Deco gems for future generations.

Small wonder the neighborhood has kept its cachet with film location scouts. Besides "Man On Fire" (2004), numerous commercials, telenovelas and a section of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Amores Perros" (2000) have been filmed here in recent years.

These contemporary portraits have given much-maligned Mexico City a global identity as a complex, multi-strata urban-scape where ancient and modern, elegance and squalor, coexist. Condesa too is a neighborhood that has spent decades getting ready for its close-up. Shattered by the monster earthquake that struck Mexico City 21 years ago, the area for a time was all but abandoned, its once-fashionable buildings dirty and decaying, its parks and plazas dimly lighted and dangerous.

TODAY, Condesa is easily the city's most de moda district. Classic Deco apartment houses that once were rotting are being rehabilitated. Sleek new residential glass-and-steel towers, some equipped with shared interior courtyards, rooftop swimming pools, hanging gardens and other high-end accessories, are sprouting like summer lilies. Both locals and tourists, with New York, French or lisping Madrid accents, loll in sidewalk cafes and chat away evenings in smoky tapas bars. The abundant parks offer a respite for rendezvousing lovers and parents with rambunctious children.

But Condesa isn't some gated enclave, removed from the city's bustle and grit. The neighborhood and those adjoining it, though gentrifying, still contain a social and economic cross-section of the capital.

"For me, the most important thing about Condesa is the lifestyle. It's more urban, it's more diverse," says Victor Sanchez, 42, a Stanford-educated software specialist who recently bought an apartment in Condesa with his wife, Cecilia Lopez, 33, a college architecture instructor.

Though the couple had to spend "about a year" searching for a home in the tight housing market, they say it was worth the wait. Besides its other attractions, they were drawn to the neighborhood's relatively central location in a sprawling mega-city where enduring a long rush-hour commute can take years off your life. While a number of their friends have moved to more sanitized, suburbanized locations, the childless couple prefer Condesa's eclectic vibe. "Many of our friends who don't live here want to live here," says Lopez.

Of course, there's a downside to its surging popularity. Some poorer residents have been driven out by rising rents. Weekday parking is a nightmare. In recent months, construction cranes seemed to cast a shadow over practically every block.

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