Our tour starts on the corner of Calle 12 with Carrera 9, an example of the incongruous juxtaposition of architectural styles, scales and materials which horrified the president of Spain Felipe González when he visited Bogotá: wrapped round one corner, a pseudo-French chateau topped by a blue-tiled dome; and opposite, a bare, squat modernist office building, white with yellow insets, which occupies most of the block which nevertheless ends, at the Décima in a colonial church, plain without, ornate inside. The textile stores on the Novena frontage of that building (and the other side of the street) prove another point about downtown: its division into very specific sectors of commerce.
Downstream of that fake-Mansard affair we find the Caravana, a warren of glassed-in stalls at first indistinguishable from the many San Andresitos around. But, once past the beach umbrellas and aromatic candles practically the resguardo of the Ingano indigenous community – detectable by the murmur of their lengua, the capisayos (long, striped ruanas) they wear and the aroma of the cologne they use to drive away bad spirits – we contemplate the wares of a supplier and his paisanos: traditional medicinal plants (like coca powder and leaves, tobacco to smoke and ingest and shishaja, a fierce purgative); seed rattles, beaded bracelets and chest plates, chumbes (sashes with woven ideograms) and ceremonial feather crowns; and crucifixes, stars of David, amulets and lotions to secure money and love. Why go to the Putumayo to buy such products (or study the characteristic eclecticism of Colombian culture)?
Turning the corner at the Décima, we head south for two blocks past the wall posters of lottery tickets (and humbler Ingano stalls) alongside the abovementioned church of San Juan de Dios, and arrive at the centenarian Pasaje de Rivas, a relic of the city’s first “malls” built in the form of one or two long, very narrow wooden galleries of stalls, right-angling in this case to debouch in the pedestrian passageway where you find another historic church (la Concepción, 1595), which sells pure, monastic honey at a cheap price (one bottle per customer).
And incidentally leads, another two blocks up, to the former site of another historic shopping center, the Galerías Arrubla, on the Plaza de Bolívar, which after it burnt down in 1900, was replaced by the current offices of the Mayor. Don’t lament, however, because, not far from either (Carreras 8 and 9 and Calles 12 and 13), stands one that is older and much better conserved than the Rivas, the Galería Hernández, with its peaked glass roof and cream/aquamarine walls.
Before you enter Rivas, brace yourself, because the goods, piled every which way up the balcony housing the storerooms, are so varied and colorful, the sensorial overload is formidable. In lieu of a catalogue, I must break them down into categories, which is not easy because they are not quite crafts (in the handmade and/or purely ornamental sense) and not quite industrial (in the Home Sentry sense) either. What you basically see is: a) the utilitarian stuff you furnish a home with; (b) and clothe yourself with; and (c) the decorative, miscellaneous and souvenir.
The first are the articles found in most Colombian homes up to a generation or two ago and still used by many and while manufactured in some cases, still basic: beds (interior and camp), chairs (wooden, deck and high), straw brooms, tables, hammocks, coatstands, chests, baskets, esteras (natural fiber mats), crockery (especially the splendid artisanal blackware from la Chamba, Tolima), cups and spoons (some wooden), wall hangings, canework shelves and so forth. The second includes ruanas of every kind, sombreros, carriels (the traditional mule-drovers leather shoulder-bag) and jewelry (including pre-Colombian replicas). And the third, drums, mosquito nets, piggy banks, backscratchers, mobiles, pseudo-African masks, little Botero fatties and chivas (miniature ceramic rural buses) among many other gewgaws.
The upstairs restaurant (where you turn right), which served sopa de raices (made of bull’s testicles) seems to be gone, but it is compensated for (in the same corner) by a place with great gourmet coffee, an inoffensive sign of gentrification, though who knows: just as I never expected to see guided tours of Corabastos (the city’s main produce market), I am no longer one of the few foreigners who know of the Rivas. For the time being, however, it remains the best place in town for youngsters who have fled the paternal nest for their first apartment and bargain-hunters in general.
Crossing the Décima at Calle 11 (taking care not to torear the TransMilenios as many impatient shoppers do), we pass the Pajarera (a center for jewelry supplies), go a block down, and move from the picturesque to the typical, one sector of downtown (among others) which so concentrates the ambitions of a whole nation of real and would-be entrepreneurs that the distinction between the “formal” (rent-paying) and “informal” economy breaks down in the face of the frantic hustle for a living.
At one end of the scale there are the stores selling lingerie, cell phones, watches, eyeglasses, etc., and on the other, the ambulantes of sliced fruit, socks, cheap handbags, jigsaw puzzles, toys and bizarre outsized plastic carpets: the unemployed who filter through every crack in the GDP, though I think of them less as the “poor” than the unstoppable. Even in the slack season, it’s a job to just walk (or worse, drive) through that mass of hawkers: in the days before Christmas, it’s like Calcutta. Nevertheless, the street which parallels the Décima (two down) is as indispensable as the Rivas, in this case, for every kind of metal pot and pan.
The plaza it leads to (going north) is a lesson in the futility of putting urban renewal before redistribution of income. After it was cleared of its tent-city, San Andresito, about 15 years ago, the same unlicensed trading seeped in, though the current sellers of cigarettes, candies, lottery tickets and shoe shines no longer monopolize the public space.
Which leads to our theme, gentrification. It is hard to generalize about the city center in that respect, because it is not only commerce but also museums, universities, banks, offices, government buildings and residences ranging from fleabag hotels to student apartments, to backpacker hostels to the home of the architect Simón Vélez, a veritable Versailles remodeled from a cluster of colonial buildings in La Candelaria.
Still, I’d say that most of it, being commercial, will resist gentrification, due to Density plus Demand plus Desperation. Density, as an illustration of how the unplanned and organic growth of a city often fits function to form better, than the raze-all-and-start-again approach. Chaotic it may be, but commercial downtown works for both buyer and seller, the rich and the poor. Demand, because its sectorization, multiplicity of locales and infinite offer of goods follows the logic of the marketplace: something for everyone and each in its niche. Desperation, because the street hawker, stall-holder and guy who sells out of a rented doorway are like the water in a dam: short of sound engineering, it always finds its own level and not even the social engineering of the Bolsheviks overcame that.
So when the noise, pollution, crowded sidewalks, traffic jams (and occasional pickpockets or muggers) make you desperate, please bear in mind the wisdom of the urban activist Jane Jacobs (d. 1916), which, despite her futile attempts to stop the gentrification of my native New York, may still save the center of Bogotá: “lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”