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'First Stop' Captures Lurid, Vibrant Mexico City

Home to the world's richest man (telecom monopolist Carlos Slim Helú) and to some 12 million people who live in poverty, Mexico City is, in its complexity, an economist's dream and nightmare.

It takes only a tour of the neighborhood of Santa Fe — half corporate headquarters and condos, half "perpetually unfinished" shantytown — to reveal the megalopolis's peculiar bipolarity.

And even an anthropologist would struggle to concoct a unified social definition of the city, which occupies the unique position as both a nation's and a hemisphere's cultural navel. Instead, there are — like Slim and his bottomless supply of pesos — many, many anecdotes.

Representing the largest existing demographic data set in the Western Hemisphere, Mexico City offers the chance to peer into the theoretical future of global and human development. First Stop in the New World expands on that conceit, with author David Lida's reportage and contemporary folk tales combining to form a vivid pointillist portrait of a dry UNESCO concept.

Lida's Mexico City — neither gilded Dubai nor squalid Dhaka — is a terrarium of humanity that begs to be observed; the extremes tantalize, the points between amaze, and interactions among them predict and instruct.

Lida's journalism is personal and, at times, biased. He immerses himself in his subject, whether visiting a jail that, according to one knowledgeable inmate, makes stretches in Georgia's penitentiaries feel like "cakewalks"; chatting as he hurtles through the night with a happily crack-addicted (it's under control) gypsy cab driver; or interviewing an alcoholic Irish expat painter.

Fortunately, Lida's is a rangy, democratic and sometimes luridly detailed viewpoint, his portrait of the pulsing capital as vibrantly rendered as paintings by Seurat or Signac, as informative as Rand McNally, and as entertaining as the "Escapes" section of The New York Times.

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Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.