Three correspondents from three continents anticipate what 2021 has in store for the cities that they call home.
In 2021, Mexico City will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlán (a decisive moment in the Spanish conquista), while also celebrating the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence – and my home city knows how to throw a party. But hopefully the year will also provide contemporary victories to celebrate. A who-backed scheme will administer coronavirus vaccines – for free, says the government – so by next summer we expect that life will return to the “new normal”, which looks closer to what we remember as normality than what we have today.
Mexico City has many problems: major earthquakes, water scarcity, crime, corruption, pollution – problems that would not make any city appealing. But Mexico City is both extremely resilient and extremely appealing. Every year millions of tourists delight in its street food and haute cuisine or visit its remarkable museums. Queer and drag life in Mexico City is booming, as is contemporary art and fashion. In many ways this city has become the epicentre of culture in the Spanish-speaking world – you only need a long weekend here to realise it.
Throughout 2020 we learned that we needed to bring in physical distancing. This is not something that my fellow chilangos like. After all, this is a city in which we like things big: big Sunday lunch parties with family and friends, big “quiet” nights, big weddings, big birthday parties. For most of the year, those were gone. There were no mandatory curfews but the city was deserted for a few months and it was creepy. Lucky folks kept the company of loved ones. Many couples broke up in the middle of a long quarantine, while some reinforced their mutual love. Others had to learn how to live with themselves and Netflix.
A new year is coming and it’s not easy to be optimistic these days. But there are things to look forward to. Legal recreational and medical marijuana is expected to become a reality by January, which will help to reverse the failed war against drugs that has made Mexico so violent. A huge ecological park, in what would have been a major international airport, is also a much-anticipated feature. Claudia Sheinbaum, the first female and first Jewish mayor of Mexico City, will inaugurate more cycle paths and public parks than any of her predecessors. And, with luck, a vaccine will be found and the city will celebrate in style on El Zócalo, just as it used to. Life will go on.
New Delhi is a city of bubbles. Economic and class bubbles; caste and religious bubbles; neighbourhood bubbles. All have a translucence that made it hard for me as a newcomer nine years ago to know of their existence. India’s economic liberalisation was slowly pricking many of these bubbles. The city was opening up. There were more restaurants catering to something in between five-star hotels and street-side stalls; more public spaces. Ad hoc promenades appeared, allowing all types to strut their stuff.
Then, overnight, India went into lockdown. The streets were silent for weeks. And when people tiptoed out again, it was within bubbles once again. And still is. Sure, restaurants and shops are open for business but it’s not the same. There’s little luxuriating over transactions, leaning back over meals or pulling up chairs for friends. Caution hangs heavy. If there is socialising, then small house parties are de jour, as though the past decade’s outward thrust never happened.
The one silver lining that the pandemic had offered was several months of clean air in the “most polluted city on Earth”. Even that’s gone. If 2021 is to be better for New Delhi, then measures are needed to stem the pollution. A visionary mindset needs to replace short-term political opportunism.
And when it’s safe to go out again, we must go in droves. Not just for the sake of the small businesses but for the city to shed its stratified stranglehold. We have to prove that we want more parks, theatres, museums. We have to prove that it’s viable for more cosmopolitan shops, quirky bars and alfresco cafes to open up. Because if we do this, the bubbles will pop.
Even by 2020’s standards, this has been quite a year for me. I moved back to Europe after a decade living in the Americas, lost a parent and became a father. And although there’s some old-world familiarity to my new home of Milan, it’s also a colossal change after high-speed New York. Everywhere else seems slightly off-pace after the Big Apple, even Italy’s bustling fashion capital.
After a couple of months living here, I can’t claim total mastery of the city’s vices, charms and secrets. But I have spent enough hours pounding its pavements to get an idea of its mix, from the postcard-snapshot Duomo to village-like Brea via the grungier, graffiti-covered Città Studi and the city’s postwar economic-boom neighbourhoods filled with tower blocks. What I do know is that not so long ago it wasn’t somewhere that people wanted to move to. It was smoggy and industrial; other European cities could offer much more.
Italians are moving back and expats see Milan as a far more cosmopolitan city than anywhere else in Italy
Almost everyone I’ve talked to has told me that this has started to change over the past few years, partly thanks to events such as the 2015 Expo and the Salone del Mobile design fair. Italians are moving back and expatriates see Milan as a far more cosmopolitan city than anywhere else in Italy. And things work, even if the country’s labyrinthine bureaucracy stretches to all parts.
So if I were giving a school report on Milan, I’d suggest that the city keeps up the good work. That it keeps reducing pollution. That it keeps pursuing ambitious plans to become a more cyclable city, including the construction of more cycle lanes. It should spend more money on cleaning its building’s façades, from the beautiful palazzi d’epoca to the 1931 Stazione Centrale, which looks decidedly grubby. Milan really wants to go somewhere and it shouldn’t let a pandemic get in its way.