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The Hydrographic City: Mapping Mexico City's Urban Form in Relation to Its Aquatic Condition, 1521–1700

John F. López, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Summer Fellow 2010

On September 7, 2009, Mexico City awoke in the midst of floodwaters. Nearly 700 years after the Aztec founded their island city of Tenochtitlan (renamed Mexico City), it has yet to solve its flood problems. Mexico City is a special case in urban history because the measures taken to avoid inundations have fundamentally changed this city's character. In 1521, it was an island-city; in 1629, it lay on the banks of the Lake of Mexico; and by 1700, it rested on reclaimed land. This transformation is significant, speaking not only to the flood control approaches of the Aztec and Spanish, but equally important, to how these methods profoundly altered this city's urban condition. Like the Aztec, the Spanish sought to control the six lakes surrounding the city to prevent inundations, yet their approach was quite different. The Aztec model relied on containment and regulation, while the Spanish undertook drainage, referred to as the desagüe. Despite the scholarly attention devoted to pre-Columbian and colonial hydraulics and this city's urban form, no comprehensive research examines the relationship between the two.

I used my fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks to test out the principle premise of my dissertation: how did flood control measures implemented by the Aztec and Spanish transform Mexico City. The avenue used to prove my hypothesis was by writing a twenty-five-page paper, entitled The Great Deluge, to be presented at the Latin American Studies Association conference in Toronto this fall. In this paper, I touched upon several key issues of the dissertation. For example, I identified how early Spanish flood control practices were founded on Aztec hydraulic measures, based on the containment and regulation of the lakes that surrounded the city. I also speak to the difficulties that the Spanish encountered in trying to break free from the pre-Columbian method, but continually returned to it when options for a desagüe were defeated. In 1607, the desagüe was finally implemented under the supervision of Enrico Martínez, via a canal and tunnel, and, in spite of never achieving his goal of saving Mexico City from floods, the concept of drainage is significant. From 1607 to 1637, drainage was implemented through conscripted Indian labor, the brute force of beast-of-burden, and simple machines. However, once the Franciscan Order was handed the colossal task of converting the tunnel (in 1637) to a canal, science and technology are at the core of flood control. In latter sections of the paper, I identify an epistemological shift that occurred no longer requiring the desagüeto be wholly dependent on conscripted labor, beast-of-burden, and machines. Instead the desagüe also relied on the scientific and technological ingenuity of the Franciscans, where nature's unending power was harnessed and applied to the tunnel's conversion using Aristotle's theory of elements and Flores' sluice-bursts. Such plans were ingenious because they were implemented as labor-saving schemes that accounted for a decline in available conscripted labor.

Although the conversion was finally completed in the late eighteenth century, its effects upon the condition of the island city during the seventeenth century were great, and to show this transformation, I turn to maps. For example, by using Juan Gómez de Trasmonte's Forma y Levantado de la Ciudad de México and Planta y Sitio de la Ciudad de México (both of 1628), I identified the urban character of the island city. Specifically, I speak to the utopian vision offered by Trasmonte of the city in its aquatic setting. I then looked to the anonymous authored image of Ciudad de Mexico anegada (ca. 1629) to illustrate how the flood of 1629–34 did away with Trasmonte's idyllic image and to show its disastrous affect upon the city's urban condition. My final image, Diego Correa's biombo painting of 1690, La mui noble y leal Ciudad de México, identifies a new vision for Mexico City. Unlike the other three images, Correa portrays Mexico City as a mainland city where Lake Mexico no longer exists. The importance of maps to this study is important, providing a fundamentally different picture of the city than has been offered by urban historians. Images are one of the best evidence for understanding the city's urban transformation from an island city to one resting on reclaimed land.

My time at Dumbarton Oaks was fruitful. It gave me the opportunity to work out several key points of the dissertation that will eventually become chapters. Perhaps most important of all, it allowed me to test my hypothesis on the effects of flood control upon Mexico City's urban character.