A burning issue

City on Fire: Technology, Social Change, and the Hazards of Progress in Mexico City, 1860–1910
Anna Rose Alexander
2016, University of Pittsburgh Press
224 pages, plates, paperback

FIRE may seem like an unusual lens through which to explore the development of modern cities – after all, its destructive power obstructs development in all sorts of ways and is anathema to progress. But as Anna Rose Alexander shows in her highly readable history of Mexico City at a crucial stage in its evolution, fire can be a valuable tool when examining the urban environment. The author has explored in fascinating detail the role played by fire in social and technological change in the Mexican capital in the period in which the city’s modern form took shape. Fire was a constant, daily hazard in such a growing city – the population more than doubled from about 190,000 in 1860 to 417,000 in 1910. In the scramble to emulate European capitals, construction standards in elite neighbourhoods often emphasised form over safety. Elsewhere, waves of rural migrants crowded into poorly-built barrios lacking basic infrastructure, and hazardous industries were established in heavily-populated areas. In turn, the official response to fires became increasingly sophisticated as urban governance, scientific understanding and technological innovation evolved in parallel with a growing public demand for risk and disaster management. In 1866 the level of that risk was thrown into stark relief by an exceptional number of conflagrations in the capital, and the author points out that it was these smaller, frequent fires that became a cumulative catalyst for social change. Moreover, City on Fireprovides an innovative example of the divergence between social development and the prevailing philosophy of elites that has so often been apparent in Mexican political development. The scale of the fire hazards in the growing metropolis required an obvious compromise between the liberal individualism favoured and disseminated by the Porfirian elite during the period under study – one result of which was an official response to fires that prioritised the rich – and the demand for collective action by the popular communities most affected by fires in practice. As the author writes, “Controlling a hazard like fire that exists in both private and public spaces requires the participation of individuals and the community as a whole. This made fire control at the turn of the twentieth century in Mexico City ill fitted to the traditional liberal mold that emphasized individualism, self-improvement and private property … Fire hazards illuminate a fundamental tension in this period of Mexican history; namely, that the contradictory processes of increasing privatization of responsibility and increasing public intervention both occurred at this time. By examining this tension through the lens of science and technology, it becomes clear that neither the liberal spirit of individualism nor excessive reliance on the public sector fully predominated at this moment.” [p. 148] It was precisely this space between the consciously European attitudes of Mexico’s technocratic elites at that time and the lived reality of the masses that both eroded elite support for the surprisingly liberal Emperor Maximilian at the start of the period under study, and also ultimately led to the Revolution of 1910 at its end. Indeed, Anna Rose Alexander also notes how fire became a weapon during that revolution, as foes used flame to destroy properties and livelihoods. It was perhaps hardly surprising, then, that by 1912 Abraham Chávez, the city engineer, had become a vocal advocate for reshaping fire-safety protocols to benefit all residents, regardless of their social status. Indeed, City on Fire shows how a new form of citizenship had ultimately been forged in a crucible of flame.