Uber: A three city review

Uber car service in Mexico City.
Uber car service in Mexico City.

I heard about the car service Uber when it launched in New York in 2011; friends and acquaintances who were early adopters described the service as addictive, and I could see why–the appeal of having your own non-surly driver who wouldn’t bitch or sigh or raise an eyebrow if asked to chauffeur you across the Queensboro Bridge, for starters. A company rep had given me a promo code at a trade show and I downloaded the app, but didn’t even make a trip. Uber’s rates didn’t seem competitive compared to taxis, which I avoided anyway, preferring the subway, Citi Bike, or my own two feet to get around the city.

Fast-forward to last month, when I was chatting with my friend Cristina about my upcoming trip to Mexico City. Did I know Uber had launched in the capital last year and that it was fabulous? No, I had missed the news and I remained dubious, despite her enthusiastic endorsement. Still, I downloaded the app again (since I’d deleted it, having decided I’d never use it) and found myself curious enough to try it out when I landed at the airport a couple weeks ago.

I jumped on the airport’s WiFi network (Infinitum has a growing number of WiFi hotspots around the capital and you can “prueba el servicio–“try the service”– for free once a day.) and hailed my Uber car. It arrived in about two minutes, as the app informed me it would, and I knew the driver’s name, what he would look like, the make and model of his car, and his license plate number… all before he pulled up. Already, I was impressed; one of the persistent problems (and some would say, dangers) of taking a taxi in Mexico City is knowing whether a driver and his or her car are legit, much less knowing who he/she is. Uber eliminated that problem entirely, and right away, I could see the numerous advantages that presented to both the passenger and the driver.

Before we pulled away from the terminal, the driver asked me if I wanted a bottle of water and whether I needed to charge my phone. I said “yes” to both, and he produced one of several chargers, including one that fit my iPhone. He pointed out the newspapers in the seat pocket in front of me, noting that they were mine to enjoy, should I want them… and I did.

He asked where I was going and I told him; he punched the destination into an iPhone and away we went. This was novel for Mexico City, too; being such a gigantic metropolis, it’s very common for drivers to get lost or to ask the passenger for directions or–this has happened to me several times in Mexico City–to simply give up after trying to find a destination, depositing the passenger at a curb with a mumbled apology and a “Suerte!”

The car was gleaming, inside and out, and still had that new car smell, and the driver was spiffy, too, dressed in a suit. No 5-o’clock shadow on his face, his hair slicked back… what WAS this? It was different and, frankly, I liked it.

I explained to the driver that I’m a writer and asked if I could interview him about his experience with Uber. He was obliging and I turned on my recorder, letting him chat away about how much he loves driving for Uber. A former taxi driver, he feels more professional and more safe: “We never have to exchange cash,” he says, “and you know that here, someone will kill a taxi driver for a hundred pesos” [about $7.50 at the current exchange rate]. Uber stores the passenger’s credit or debit card information and calculates the charge at the end of every trip. The charge automatically processes by the card company and Uber emails the passenger a receipt. Two more problems eliminated: that of making change (Mexican taxi drivers rarely have the change to break bills, even ones that a visitor might consider small, like 100 pesos) and that of getting a receipt (drivers of street hail taxis in Mexico City rarely have receipts).

I used Uber at least six more times during my four days in Mexico City and every trip was exceptional. The drivers were professional, the cars were in perfect condition, and the trips went off without a hitch. The rates were generally competitive with taxi fares, and for what I was getting, I didn’t mind when they exceeded what a typical trip might cost (during times of high demand, rates are adjusted–upward, of course–for service).

Did I miss the street hail taxis of yore? Of course, I did… but only in the way that your dad misses the days of walking uphill to school in the snow, both ways. Which is to say that I missed the idea and the image of the street hail taxi–especially the green and white Beetle taxis that hurtled down the streets when I lived in Mexico City–but I didn’t actually miss the experience of the street hail taxi.

New York
Fresh from my fantastic experiences with Uber in Mexico City, I returned to New York, more eager to test the service here. I still expected the rates to be somewhat higher than taxis, so when I landed at JFK, I requested an Uber and selected the option to calculate the projected trip cost. The price was competitive and so I confirmed my request… but the car was at least 16 minutes away. Grr. The taxi line was long, but I’d wait it out. Why taxi drivers are complaining about Uber when there still seem to be incredibly long lines at both area airports is beyond me.

A couple days later, headed back to the airport again–LGA, this time–I requested Uber again. A female driver pulled up and my family and I tumbled into the back seat. The level of professionalism and polish I’d enjoyed in Mexico City just wasn’t there. The front passenger seat was filled with kid detritus; she had obviously just dropped her kid off at school. There was no bottled water, no phone chargers, none of the extras that made the value of the trip in Mexico City worth every peso.

Eager to convince my skeptical husband that Uber really was worth the money, I requested another Uber at the airport in Miami. This driver arrived with a towel stretched across the back seat. “Um, I feel pretty uncomfortable,” Francisco whispered to me, pointing out that while I felt my experience in Mexico City had been highly professional, in the U.S., our experiences so far had felt like we were being picked up by a friend of a friend: someone who was pleasant enough, but who wasn’t really making a tremendous effort to provide an experience worth paying for.

Because I needed to pay with a credit card and because I needed receipts for work, I continued using Uber during our Miami trip, making at least eight trips over the course of two days. None was exceptional and two drivers declined to give me a ride once they showed up, citing that since I have children, they would need car seats. One driver called en route to say that traffic was so slow he suggested I just cancel my car request and walk back to my hotel, which I did (and was charged a $5 cancellation fee). The cars in the Miami pool were of varying quality. One Crown Vic looked like it just rolled off the back lot of a police precinct. On more than one occasion drivers, though equipped with iPhones just as in Mexico City, didn’t come to the correct pick-up point or seemed confused about the correct drop-off point, even though I’d entered both accurately into the app. It was a good thing the driver who thought I was going to Fort Lauderdale double checked with me verbally before he actually drove there.

The Take-away
So will I use Uber again? If I’m in Mexico City, absolutely. In New York City? Only when I’m in a pinch that a taxi can’t get me out of. In Miami? Next time, I’ll rent my own car.

Have you tried Uber? Where was it and how was your experience?

Now in New York: “Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today” at Guggenheim

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
It had been ages–probably more than a decade–since I’d been to the Guggenheim for a show, and once I left the museum after seeing “Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today” yesterday, I remembered why: I have never experienced art in a place that is less suited for it than the Guggenheim.

But first, let’s talk about the propósito of “Under the Same Sun,” which opened last week and runs through October 1 before it moves on to Brazil and Mexico.

The show, curated by Pablo León de la Barra, is important to the extent that it attempts to introduce viewers to contemporary Latin American art. On its face, that effort seems absurd: Latin America is so vast, both territorially and culturally, that its art is similarly diverse; efforts to gather it together thematically may be fruitless. Holland Cotter, writing about the show for The New York Times is a bit more pointed in this review, which is not off the mark one jot.

And yet… the problem here is not so much the work the curator has selected for “Under the Same Sun,” nor the admittedly predictable categories into which he has organized the pieces– “The Tropical,” “Conceptualism,” “Political Activism,” “Abstraction,” Emancipation/Participation,” and “Modernities”– but the setting in which they are presented. Spread out over two floors and one film room, the show sounds ambitious in size, but there are only 50 works total. The installation of the pieces over such a seemingly large portion of the museum is misleading, then; the exhibit itself is not large. The space is small. It is also, for the most part, cramped and uncomfortable, with little, if any, intuitive sense of where the viewer should be going if he or she wants to see the entire show.

Having seen several of these works in other settings, it’s not the art that disappoints, but the context in which it’s being seen. Tania Bruguera’s video “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” needs more sound (or a set of headphones), especially since it’s in the same room as a mobile made of cymbals, which viewers are invited to strike at their leisure. And Regina Jose Galindo’s powerful, provocative work, which I first saw at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo at UNAM in Mexico City several years ago, can really only achieve its maximum impact in a space that is larger.

Still shot from one of Regina José Galindo's works, which I first saw in Mexico City.
Still shot from one of Regina José Galindo’s works, which I first saw in Mexico City.

The argument can be made, of course, that seeing these works in this setting compared to the spacious halls of, say, the MUAC, is neither better nor worse, but simply different. That argument can be extended by saying that the experience gives those of us already familiar with these works a better sense of how they can incite a broader register of emotions. Neither argument would be false. That being said, it’s a shame that an idea so grand in scope fails to deliver simply because the works selected for this space don’t seem to fit comfortably within it. The goal of introducing viewers to contemporary Latin American art isn’t fully met in this show, which is too bad, since so many seminal pieces are included in it.

Now Open in NYC: Oscar Murillo’s “Mercantile Novel” at David Zwirner Gallery

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
I learned about the new exhibit at David Zwirner Gallery via a somewhat unlikely source: the parenting blog, Mommy Poppins. Oscar Murillo’s installation, “A Mercantile Novel,” “isn’t that interesting for kids,” the blogger admits, but there’s free chocolate-covered marshmallows, made on-site as part of the exhibit. Mariel approved… heartily. So heartily, in fact, that she has gone to bed early with a stomachache after palming a few extra confections in addition to the packaged ones she got to go.

Mariel approves of this exhibit.
Mariel approves of this exhibit.

It’s true; the exhibit is somewhat underwhelming, mainly because the 13 workers who traveled outside Colombia for the first time to make the chocolates on-site as part of the exhibit are kept from interacting with visitors due to health code regulations. Even the process itself, which kind of seems like the big deal, is beyond gallery-goers’ direct line of vision. You can peek through a stack of boxes to get a glimpse, but personally, this seemed like the most interesting part of the project (not to mention a big part of it), and the rest of the show, such as it is, is somewhat underwhelming.

A peek at the production line... from afar.
A peek at the production line… from afar.

That being said, the concept, about which you can read here and here, is pretty interesting and raises some provocative questions about how social media is/can be used in contemporary art (too bad, though, that the staffer on hand didn’t know the gallery’s own instagram handle off the top of her head…. She had to look it up).

The exhibit runs through June 14.

Now in New York: Photography Exhibit about El Salvador

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
I don’t ever take for granted the fact that I live in New York City, where we enjoy so many resources and events related to Latin America. One of those resources is New York University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), which sponsors a number of lectures, exhibits, films, and other activities that are open to the public. Today, Francisco and I headed downtown to check out one of their current projects, the exhibit, “Stories of El Salvador.”

The exhibit is at NYU's Kimmel Center.
The exhibit is at NYU’s Kimmel Center.

There are many stories from Latin America that were never fully or well reported in the U.S., and the civil war in El Salvador was one of them. For this reason, the exhibit is important; at the same time, it probably doesn’t provide quite enough context and background for the visitor who happens upon it. Still, the powerful photos that comprise the exhibit, particularly the ones that were taken during the war itself, may be intense enough to provoke the viewer’s curiosity, compelling him or her to learn more.

“Stories of El Salvador” joins two different but complementary collections of photos. Because the venue, the Stovall Family Gallery on the 8th floor of NYU’s Kimmel Center, is not an actual gallery (just a hallway and part of a common room where students relax or study), and because it’s not staffed by anyone, it’s not immediately clear where the exhibit begins. Turn left and go through the glass doors, looking for the “Stories of El Salvador” text on the wall; after viewing the photos in the common room, come back out to the longer hallway for the remainder of the exhibit, which includes photos from the war and more recent images of women who were and remain involved in social justice initiatives related to the war.

A photograph by Susan Moelles in the exhibit.
A photograph by Susan Moelles in the exhibit.

The exhibit is only open through this Sunday, May 4, but the gallery is open daily. If you’d like to visit and you’re not a student, just be sure to bring a photo ID, which you’ll need to present to security on the ground level of the Kimmel Center at NYU (60 Washington Square South). The exhibit is on the 8th floor. There is no charge for admission.

“Step right up, one day only!”: A Peek inside the 1964 World’s Fair New York State Pavilion

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo

New York State Pavilion.
New York State Pavilion.

New Yorkers will stand in line for some crazy things, banal stuff that’s peddled as either sublime (Shake Shack burgers), exclusive (cronuts! Get ’em before they’re gone!), or novel (cupcakes sold from a vending machine).

As I’ve said here before, I will rarely stand in line for anything. Life’s too short and too many trumped-up things others hype as “totally worth the wait” turn out to be a total waste of time.

I was ready to make an exception, however, for a chance to peek inside the New York State Pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair, which was open for three hours earlier this week. And boy, was that line loooong. So long, in fact, that when I spoke with John Piro, the mastermind behind the one-day-only event (part of a push to preserve the site- more on that in a bit), even he was floored: “We’re estimating that there are 1,400 people in line right now.” “And how many did you expect?” I asked him. “Maybe 800,” he said, adding, “Yep, I’m pretty thrilled.”

The line.
The line.

The line snaked around the pavilion, out through Flushing Meadows Corona Park and continued across a bridge spanning the highway. Its end was beyond my line of vision. Fortunately, I didn’t have to stand in line; since I had a press pass, I was able to gain immediate access.

“That’s it?” my four-year-old asked after we donned our hair nets and hard hats and stepped into the empty space underneath the pavilion’s Space Age-style tops. She echoed my thoughts exactly; it’s just that adults are too restrained to say such things. I tried to imagine how impressive the structures must have been back in 1964, how they reflected the aesthetic and sociocultural preoccupations of the day. Without a few interpretive signs placed around the pavilion, it would have been tough; I had no mental image of what the structures had looked like before their steady decline.

Hard hat tour with somewhat unimpressed four year old.
Hard hat tour with somewhat unimpressed four year old.

Few of the structural or design elements that must have been so impressive at the time have survived. The plastic sheaths of the domes are long gone, and the elevators that sped passengers up to decks for what must have been incredible city views are also out of commission and removed from the site. The mosaic floor, which was a map of the state, has been removed for preservation. Once you’re inside, then, there’s actually not much to see, and for a four-year-old, especially, the scene, especially after being surrounded by so much excitement, must seem pretty anticlimactic.

But still, there was something about just being there that did something for me. I couldn’t glimpse the past, exactly, but I could feel a newfound interest in it.

New York State Pavilion.
New York State Pavilion.

That seemed to be the case for many of the people who had shown up for the peek at the pavilion, too. The New York State Pavilion has now been declared a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, one of only 44 such places with that designation in the entire country. The naming of the pavilion as a National Treasure is hoped to spark widespread support for preservation of the World’s Fair structure, a controversial issue in New York City, given the relative expense of preservation versus that of demolition. Read more about the issue on the excellent blog, Preservation Nation.