Why well-to-do are leaving world's second-biggest city

Mexico City native Ricardo Tapie always considered himself 100 percent chilango, a product and enthusiast of Mexico's capital city through and through.

But then the sales representative for a medical-supplies company saw the city's pollution as affecting his children, and a rising crime rate worried his wife and himself. Ten months ago the Tapies moved over the mountains to the smaller city of Cuernavaca - and, despite the hour-long commute he now has, Mr. Tapie says he'll never move back.

"I see the more tranquil life we have now," he says, "and I definitely know we did the right thing."

The Tapies are not alone. After a population explosion over the past three decades that made Mexico City the second-largest metropolis in the world (Tokyo is the first), the city has seen its growth rate fall sharply. And a contributing factor is the growing decampment of middle-class families like the Tapies who say they've had enough.

What worries city leaders is that many of the departing households are well-educated, upper-income families headed by high-tax-paying professionals. At the same time Mexico City continues to draw poor families from rural states who still see the capital as an economic magnet.

The net result is an impoverishment of the city that exacerbates already serious problems such as scarce revenues, poor housing conditions, underemployment, indigence, and crime.

"We are seeing people with higher incomes and higher educational levels moving to other states or even other countries, while people with few resources and very low education levels continue coming in," says Pablo de Anda Mrquez, a city assemblyman on the Urban Development Commission. "This gives us the black-market economy, the proliferation of street vendors and carwashers we see, but it's also part of the higher crime rate."

According to Mexico's National Statistics Institute, 586,000 residents left the city between 1987 and 1992. During the same period, 404,000 new residents arrived, largely from such poor rural states as Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Hidalgo.

Like what hit US cities after WWII

The demographic shift is not unlike what hit American cities in the post-World War II era, when white, middle-class families abandoned the cities for the suburbs. At the same time cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles were also magnets for waves of poor rural Americans.

The difference is that those workers had labor-hungry factories to go to for work. But, like most other large cities, Mexico City in the 1990s has been losing jobs in the labor-intensive sectors where rural migrants might once have found employment. Now a former subsistence farmer from Chiapas is more likely to end up selling trinkets on Mexico City's streets.

"The loss of industrial jobs was particularly sharp in the 1980s, and it has continued since then," says Gustavo Garza, an urbanologist at Mexico City's Colegio de Mexico, a graduate research center. Average family income in Mexico City, which in 1989 was 70 percent higher than the national average, was down to 30 percent higher in 1996. "That explains why you have people leaving this city."

Dr. Garza says more "subjective" reasons for abandoning the city - pollution, crime, the search for a better quality of life - are options only for residents whose economic level won't be affected by a move.

Liliana Espinosa agrees. With a nice house, a full-time maid, and a van to ferry the kids in, she nevertheless is busy working on a move out of the city in July.

"I realize we can make this change because of our economic level," she says. "People who aren't so fortunate have to resign themselves to coping with it."

Despite what some dub "professional flight," urbanologist Garza says Mexico City will recover its attractiveness as it completes a transition to a service economy. Noting such cities as New York, London, and Paris "are growing and prospering again," Garza says: "We'll see a return to this city as the same trends take hold."

Models for change

While Mexico City's share of the country's industrial sector is now down to 29 percent, he says, the capital's share of Mexico's high-end services is 60 percent.

Assemblyman de Anda says there are steps the city can take to remain "livable for professionals," and they aren't all expensive examples from more monied first-world cities. Pointing to some Latin American models, de Anda says Curitiba, Brazil, offers low-cost solutions for roadway and other infrastructure improvements, while Santiago, Chile, offers lessons in a clean, efficient police force.

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