By Sarah Grainger
MEXICO CITY (Reuters Life!) - Plaza Garibaldi, an outdoor nightspot in the heart of Mexico City, is famed for raucous open-air drinking and folk music but city officials want to clean it up and add a dose of sophistication.
A symbol of Mexican culture and a highlight of many visitors' itineraries, Garibaldi brims after dark with cacophonous mariachi bands and tequila sellers, and revelers pack the square and its surrounding cantinas.
But the plaza is also notorious for thieves and pickpockets and Mexico City's left-wing government, having spruced up parts of the capital with bicycle lanes and artificial beaches, now wants to put an end to Garibaldi's seedy image.
"It's important to rescue the square because it's gone downhill a lot, both the physical buildings and because of all the social problems that make it unsafe," Felipe Leal, Mexico City's head of urban development, told Reuters.
For many, Garibaldi's poor lighting and run-down atmosphere only add to its appeal, but officials want to install a shiny new tequila museum and musical academy, plant trees and cacti and add exterior lighting and security cameras.
"I don't think it's a good idea. This is some kind of Mexican tradition and it should be passed on from generation to generation," said Austrian tourist Josef Hammer, clutching a cold beer in the square and swaying to the music.
In a decades-old tradition, bands of mariachi musicians in tight suits studded with shiny silver buttons stroll the square with guitars, violins and trumpets, serenading passers-by for money and trying to pick up work at private parties.
Street hawkers sell hot corn tamales, colorful ponchos, cheap tequila shots and even "Toques" -- electric shocks administered by cables connected to a live battery to groups of friends who link hands and see who can stand the gradually increased charge the longest before letting go.
The city and federal governments plan to spend around $6 million on sprucing up Garibaldi. Musicians and hawkers hope the renovation will bring them more business.
"We wish they'd get on with it so we can have a clean square and there's more space for us," said Mariachi singer Juan Camacho by the fenced-off area where work has begun.
The first phase, including building the museum, is to be completed by November 2010 when Mexico will celebrate 200 years of independence -- likely with boisterous round-the-clock partying at city squares like Garibaldi.
"It's important that the soul of this plaza stays," said tourist Gwendoline Monnot from Paris, who had Garibaldi on her 'must-see' list of sites in Mexico.