Unlikely project revives Guatemala City's downtown

AP News
Posted: Apr 06, 2012 10:21 AM
Unlikely project revives Guatemala City's downtown

Guatemala's capital is a bleak and violent place, a city of dark, claustrophobic streets choked with abandoned cars. The wealthy hide behind barbed wire and concrete walls, hiring rifle-toting guards to fend off armed robbers. Drivers are wary of bandits who grab cellphones at traffic lights.

Some guidebooks suggest international travelers skip the poorly policed capital of 2.5 million altogether.

But on a recent weekday in the center of Guatemala City, a lunchtime crowd of professionals and university students ordered tapas and baguettes with prosciutto and camembert cheese in the Eccentrico bistro, watching pedestrians stroll down tiled walkways lined with ficus trees. At a cafe two blocks away, staff set out tables for customers stopping for cappuccino before heading to a nearby movie theater.

An unlikely urban redevelopment project is thriving for dozens of businesses in a five-block section of the Zone One downtown neighborhood.

A nonprofit, city-run redevelopment corporation known as Urbanistica has spent more than $5 million since 2004 to close streets to traffic, light them brightly and monitor them with closed-circuit video cameras and extra police officers. Rundown storefronts have been repainted jungle-green, indigo or paprika.

Some 670 street vendors who used to sell handicrafts from oilcloth tents that congested more than a mile of the city center have been relocated to a covered market steps from a new bus terminal.

"In the 10 years I have lived here, I have personally seen the neighborhood turn around," said Eluvia Morales, a 42-year-old grass-roots organizer and consultant for nonprofit organizations. "It's a beautiful place and I love that more and more people are starting to come."

Some outside analysts are skeptical that the project can attract Guatemalans beyond the capital's small, prosperous elite and that it can thrive over the long term in a country with one of the world's highest homicide rates and roughly half of its 14 million people in poverty.

They point out that in 2002, a group of private investors converted a nearby area into a pedestrian mall. Although it attracted hundreds, the experiment was abandoned two years later because of drug trafficking and prostitution.

Spending money is "pointless if people in the city are starving, or cannot find stable sources of employment," said Eduardo Mendieta, a philosophy professor at Stony Brook University in New York who writes about modern urbanism in Latin America.

But the young architects and businessmen running the Zone One project say they are confident that they have only begun to tap into the pent-up demand for the type of urban experience associated with wealthier cities in Latin America, Europe and the U.S.

Alvaro Veliz, the head of Urbanistica, said a million people a month visit the heart of the redeveloped zone, the 12 million queztal ($1.5 million) pedestrian plaza known as Camino Real, or the Royal Path, which was the site of the Spanish colonial government's most important buildings and an economic engine of Guatemala City until the 1970s.

When "spaces change, people behave differently and this increases security," he said.

Above the Eccentrico bistro, a developer has torn down walls to create six airy, white-painted loft-style apartments.

Emiliano Valdes, a curator and gallery owner, moved in three years ago for an urban lifestyle that would allow him "to walk around, get the newspaper and go out for dinner without the inconveniences of driving."

On a recent weekend night, a stream of Land Rovers and other SUVs drove up Twelfth Street to deposit patrons at Reilly's Irish tavern, three blocks away, and a candlelit dance bar with an indoor patio.

"I've always loved the city center," said taxi driver Rudy De Leon. "It was really bad a few years ago and it was harder for me to go. But since the changes, I try to come here on Sundays with my wife."

Urbanistica says that it wants to raise money from private investors to build its own rent-controlled condominiums in Zone One.

Silvia Garcia, one of Urbanistica's architects, said that business has grown downtown but "people need to live in the area to ensure long-term success."