by Rebecca Schoenkopf
Bogota is one of those places I do not want to visit, as it is in Colombia, where shit just got real. And yet, being a good NPR-listening, architecture-gazing, New Urbanist neo-yuppie, of course I had to record and watch something about ... cities or something. Planning. You know. Grown-up stuff, instead of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. (I do not watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians, but my son and my mama do. I watch old reruns of Essence of Emeril instead.)
If you haven’t seen Cities on Speed: Bogota Change, a documentary running on Sundance with three other matched parts (on Shanghai, Cairo, and good old Mumbai), find it, TiVo it, and watch it in awe. It’s an hour of your life you’ll be thrilled to part with.
Bogota done knocked our socks off.
In the mid-1990s, Antanas MOCKUS! (long o) was the disgraced ex-chancellor of Bogota’s National University—he’d resigned after mooning students who were rioting like it was a Prague Spring, except that shortly thereafter, the populace became charmed by his no-nonsense (and caught on film!) response of cheeks-actually-manually-spread. So like five minutes later, he was Bogota’s mayor. (Which was sad for the erudite, progressive guy, Enrique Peñalosa, who’d already been running an independent campaign before MOCKUS! came along and made him seem all centrist and boring, and who is interviewed throughout the film wondering: wha happen?) Shortly after MOCKUS! became mayor, wonderful things happen. We figured he was probably bipolar. How else could MOCKUS! have come up with the traffic mimes?
What is a traffic mime, you are scratching your head and asking, because you are not using the power of your imagination. It is a mime who teaches people how to merge and occasionally even yield to others at clogged Bogota intersections—THROUGH THE POWER OF MIME—which led to a decimation of the corrupt local police force (since there was now no need for them to write those tickets), and also led to 400 downsized cops accepting MOCKUS!’s offer to be trained in the art of traffic mimery instead. And, coincidentally I am sure, it led to traffic fatalities dropping 50 percent.
MOCKUS! believed he could change the morals of Bogota—a city as violent and dangerous as you’d expect the capital of Colombia to be—through an almost Dadaist style of governing as performance art. And the weird thing is, he did. People totally dug the traffic mimes, and when he asked the city’s people to pay a voluntary extra 10 percent in taxes, with the receipts going to the projects and programs of their choosing, 63,000 people did.
MOCKUS!’s first term was followed by that of Enrique Peñalosa (the law allowed for only one term at a time), the abovementioned guy who was the weird independent mayoral candidate before MOCKUS! showed up and by comparison made him seem and sound as entrenched and corporate as, say, Chris Dodd.
But Peñalosa wasn’t Chris Dodd, and as soon as he was in office, he expropriated the country club in the middle of the city that had been privately held by the nation’s wealthiest for over a hundred years. (Bogota mayors apparently can do pretty much whatever they want—with one exception: the law states you can be impeached if you do not fulfill your campaign promises. Bogota is weird.) He made the former country club into a huge central park. He tore down some of the city’s worst slums and made them into open spaces. He envisioned a Bogota sin autos, and in just three years had a massive bus system in place, which now carries 1.6 million Bogota residents a day, with another 400,000 per day riding along the Peñalosa-developed Bike Paths Network. (He also believed fervently that since they were all Bogotans, billionaires should ride the buses alongside laborers.) He built massive libraries. Between him and MOCKUS! electricity and running water became universal in Bogota’s homes. The two never really clicked personally, but they built on each other’s accomplishments (Mockus later had a second term as mayor that wasn’t as weird), and in 2009 they and a third guy traveled around together, campaigning for president. They declined to savage each other, telling voters they were all fairly smart and awesome, and just to pick the one they liked best.
Antanas Mockus is about to be the next president of Colombia. I wonder when we will declare war?