- City on Fire: Technology, Social Change, and the Hazards of Progress in Mexico City, 1860-1910 by Anna Rose Alexander
Fire and good storytelling often go hand-in-hand, and this book is no exception. But City on Fire is much more than just a fascinating collection of well-written stories about the hazards of living with fire in Mexico City. The book relies on unpublished data from Mexican archives, melded seamlessly with the secondary literature, to illustrate how processes of modernization unfolded in La Capital through the framework of what environmental historian, Stephen Pyne, has referred to as "the nineteenth-century industrial fire regime" (World Fire, 1997, pp. 23-5). Through this framework, each of the seven chapters explores not only urban fire hazards as a byproduct of industrialization, but also the social responses to fire hazards, which were conditioned both by fear and by issues of power, injustice, and differential access to fire prevention technologies. The chapters build on each other, and Alexander ultimately concludes that social and institutional responses to fire hazards served as engines for modernizing change in the gritty, but sometimes dazzling, capital city. At the same time, however, responses to fire hazards tended to reinforce existing socio-geographical patterns—once again, in Mexico, changing to remain the same.
Alexander argues that city residents held an excessive and positivistic faith in: 1) the knowledge of fire experts (e.g., firemen, water engineers, doctors, and fire insurance agents); 2) a dizzying assortment of novel fire prevention technologies and "advances" in [End Page 191] hydrologic infrastructure; and 3) a burgeoning consumer culture eager to join in the com-modification of fire prevention technologies. This excessive faith in "advanced" technology and science served to obfuscate the often-painful fact that few of these methods and gadgets actually worked. Meanwhile, the excessive confidence in purchasable fire technologies drove citizens to greater carelessness and sometimes-cavalier attitudes towards fire rules and regulations. This recklessness, especially among business owners, led to an increase in fires, which, in turn, reinforced the demand for better public fire protection services and technologies. The amplifying feedbacks of this socio-environmental system are evident, and Alexander makes a convincing case that both fear of fire and an overreliance on fire prevention technologies, at some level, served as drivers of modernization and development in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mexico City.
The book touches on issues very familiar to geographers, and its chapters are ordered thematically instead of chronologically. Health or medical geographers should find interest in Chapter 7, which focuses on Mexico City's burn victims and their European vs. Indigenous treatments, skin grafting experiments, and the appropriation of native plants and folk remedies from Northwest Mexico for commercial use in Mexico City. Urban geographers may identify with Chapter 6, which traces the origins of Mexico City's fire insurance industry and touches on subjects of interest to hazards research and environmental justice scholarship. Also of interest to geographers, the chapter ends with a fascinating account of the surveys and mapping projects of the United States-based Sanborn Company (1905) in Mexico City; which documents not only the fire hazards of urban structures and neighborhoods, but also provides commentary and minute details related to the interiors of dwellings, cooking practices, kitchen spaces and the like. Chapters 4 and 5 are among the most interesting to this reviewer as they examine the massive hydraulic engineering schemes designed to provide neighborhoods with hydrant access, as well as the rise of the Mexican engineering class as public servants and safety experts. Moving from the institutional to the individual level, Alexander uncovers patent applications and innovative gadget designs from Mexican archives. From these, she details efforts to promote homegrown Mexican inventions, smoke alarms, and fire extinguisher-sprinkler systems, all created amid a budding culture of creativity and the rise of the urban inventor-entrepreneur. Again, that few of these inventions...