My thoughts upon returning to Santa Monica from 5 days in Mexico City

My wife and I just returned from 5 days in Mexico City, where we traveled for a family wedding. I wanted to briefly share my thoughts because I certainly learned a lot (and it wasn’t good… for us!).

We landed in the international airport and realized that, unlike LAX, where only the rich can now get an UberBlack or UberSUV to pick them up at the curb for 3-6x the cost of a normal UberX, we were able to order an UberX and immediately get one to take us to our hotel (30 min away) for only $6. Not a typo. Needless to say, I tipped well.

On the drive to the hotel, I saw 0 tents, 0 homeless, 0 litter. Yes, passing through an industrial area, we saw a very poor neighborhood with small cinderblock homes with very basic roofs, but those individuals and families weren’t homeless. They had homes and their streets were clean.

Arriving into the center of the city, our jaws dropped. The streets (not just a couple, but most of them) were lined with beautiful trees, VERY well landscaped medians, and many had gorgeous parks flanking both sides of the street (think Palisades Park but with more lush vegetation). Not one tent. Not one homeless person. Not one visible piece of litter. How could that be? So we waited until the next morning to venture out and explore further.

Before leaving the hotel, we asked the front desk staff if it’s safe to go out and whether we’d need to hire a car or a guide or better yet, stay inside. They all laughed at us until one staff member said “señor, you are from the United States. It’s probably safer here than where you live.” Well, he was right.

Walking down one of the main boulevards, where all the shops and restaurants are (from basic to high end), we felt MUCH safer than we ever would in Santa Monica. Whereas in Santa Monica, we would have undoubtedly been accosted by at least a handful of drugged out, crazy, and/or criminal homeless individuals, instead, we walked in peace. Who did greet us? An army (not kidding – see pics) of professional street/sidewalk cleaning crews that were all over the city. Police, real police, clearly visible, heavily armed (many with automatic weapons or assault shotguns), with bulletproof vests and in uniform, every block and in many places every several feet. Were they scary? Absolutely not. On the contrary, they made everyone feel safe. No criminal would DARE commit a crime in their midst, which meant basically anywhere in the city center. They weren’t “ambassadors” or unarmed welcome staff. Yes they were “militarized” but they weren’t shooting people or appearing threatening or racially profiling individuals. The police smiled, offered to chat upon realizing I’m a tourist who spoke their language, and politely called me “caballero.”

Then we entered Chapultepec Park, the city’s equivalent of Tongva Park or Central Park. It was surrounded by beautiful tall metal gates (that could be closed and locked at night). It was full of cleaning crews and police. It had beautifully arranged trash cans of every sort available at every turn. What did we NOT see? A single homeless person. A single tent. A single panhandler or beggar. A single piece of trash out of place. Any scary individuals. So what DID we see? Beautiful artwork, as far as the eye can see, neatfully arranged along pedestrian paths, not defaced. Children running, playing, or having a picnic with their families. Couples kissing or walking hand in hand. Families taking photos, playing music, dancing, enjoying life. Elderly people sitting on chairs or in the grass reading. Tourists enjoying the public art, the photos and sculptures all over.

Was this for real? We returned the next day to discover the answer was yes. In fact, it was now a Saturday and the place was packed. Far more people, a few more police and cleaning crew members, but not a single homeless, crazy or criminal person to be seen. Lots of legal street vendors neatly arranged along the perimeters of certain pedestrian paths selling food and toys out of their booths.

Walking around at night, nothing changed. City remained clean and safe with shops and restaurants bustling til the late hours with the streets packed with pedestrians and cyclists, families and couples, young and very old.

We returned today to LAX, where we had to make a decision between waiting for a shuttle bus and dragging our luggage onto it and making our way to a distant lot to get a cheaper UberX or ordering a much pricier UberBlack and having to wait for it to make it to us through dense airport traffic (because they can’t pick up after dropping off anymore – waste of time and gas and convenience). And once we got home after a long drive through rush hour 405 traffic, we smelled and saw smoke and discovered that a homeless man living in the bluffs between Palisades Park and PCH had set a blaze that shut down two busy streets, destroyed a palm tree on Ocean Ave, and could have destroyed a lot of property and taken people’s lives. Welcome home to Santa Monica!

I am admittedly ashamed that I ever considered subscribing to the arrogant notion that Mexico is a “developing nation.” If we want to see what that looks like, we need to look in the mirror. The government of Mexico City and its residents have PRIDE in their community. They love themselves, their neighbors, their guests and visitors, and have a deep affection for their city. They don’t view it as a get rich quick scheme or some means to solving all the world’s social justice problems. They value TRUE equity and inclusion (not the fake virtue signaling that has gotten us until this mess). They value cleanliness, public safely, BEAUTY (something we have all but forgotten here), jobs, shops and restaurants, nightlife, parks and museums, public art, and children, families, and elderly. All things we (and by that I mean our leaders and the citizens who voted them in) have destroyed systematically, deliberately, and continue to dismantle. And this means they take the steps to achieve that. They allow the existence of TRULY affordable neighborhoods, not with $1.5 million ocean-adjacent, taxpayer-funded condos that replace essential parking facilities, but small residences that low-income individuals and families can truly afford on their own. They do not tolerate people living in the parks and on the streets. They do not tolerate any crime in their midst, nor do they tolerate any littering.

Returning home from Mexico City, I am ashamed of what we have become in Santa Monica. But I also see what is possible. Like so many of us, I love our city. I may not have lived here as long as many here have, and yes I did once refer to Santa Monica City as “SaMo” (only to be corrected by 50+ residents, most of whom were angry, several of whom were frankly rude, that this refers to the high school, not the city — lesson learned!), but I wouldn’t rather live anywhere else on earth. I want to be right HERE. But if we want to become a world class city again, with a high quality of life and strong tax revenues that make it unnecessary for us to continually come up with new tax schemes that will eventually collapse like any Ponzi scheme ultimately does, we need to look beyond our borders. We need more humility. We need to realize we have been wrong about many things. We have to admit our mistakes and we must ask for help. We can do this but it will take deep introspection, a willingness to lift the veil of arrogance that has infected many of our institutions, and make the hard decisions that will ultimately benefit all of us.

My goal is to one day read a similar post, written by a visitor to Santa Monica, using us as an example of what their city should aspire to be. I bet that, in the not too distant past, that happened countless times. Let’s restore our city to being even better than what it was before.

Houman Hemmati, Santa Monica