An apt name for the sliver of downtown circumscribed by a few blocks round the traffic circle at Carrera 3A with Calle 19 would be Universidades (the metro station on the former), because its development has been dominated by two of the wealthiest private universities in the country. It was also the first place in Colombia I lived in, 40 years ago, which serves as a yardstick.
Departing from my current residence in La Macarena, our tour begins on the hill in Bosque Izquierdo, by the frontier of Calle 26, which affords a panorama of that sector, where, first, I am dizzied by the weird but, I suppose, functional arrangement of the two zig-zag pedestrian bridges, low railings, which span the S-curves of the access to the Circunvalar and 3ra, respectively; then sobered by the familiar (if unpretty) Torres Blancas and Fenicia apartment blocks, with a glimpse of the shanties on the Cerros, the Parque de los Periodistas and La Candelaria in the background; and finally, unsettled again by some new towers I will shortly discuss.
Safe on the far side, I note that the modest Santa Mónica Hotel no longer boasts of a duck and geese pond and briefly cross the 3ra to examine a building, nondescript on the outside, but resembling a combination of brewery and a mad scientist lab within.
The Tadeo’s engineering center, it turns out, but to get a better idea of its impact on the neighborhood, I re-cross and walk past one of its new plazas, where, despite myself, I am impressed by the boldness of the stark grey-white block with inset windows diagonally set against another with a massive corner pillar. A statement, I tell myself, and looking below, through an entranceway of three, maybe four, receding rectangles, I see its original brick-built seat, add one to another and understand its meaning.
Nevertheless, I cannot entirely condemn the Uni Tadeo for gobbling up the neighborhood. Its expansion has been concentrated, rather than sprawling, and in some parts, that area remains a typical lower-middle barrio, economical enough for tiendas, service stores and unpretentious but excellent seafood restaurants.
Furthermore, it didn’t have the advantage the Uni Andes had in 1948, when its founders, true visionaries, bought a huge tract of virtually abandoned property on the foothills, built an eclectic assortment of classroom and admin blocks, ranging from a restored brewery, convent and women’s asylum to Creole Bauhaus, terraced them into the woody slope with stairway links and created the only private university campus worthy of the name in Bogotá, except for the Javeriana.
However, that’s relative too. In addition to invading what is supposed to be the protected forestland above the Circunvalar (along with other universities), the Andes is also responsible for the most obtrusive complex of new buildings in this sector, but before tackling that, I walk south to memory lane, but continue to be bothered, on my right, by the highest building around there, subliminally, because I already know what it is but with every change of angle, it shifts its shape – one tower or two, obelisk or pencil box, Rubiks cubes or milk crates? – and certainly looks perilous.
Meanwhile, I am soothed by a picture framer, which has survived for decades, whose name El Piojo de las Aguas reminds us that this part of the 3ra is the former site of the flea market now on the Carrera 7 with Calle 24. Nearby is another relic, the statues called the “muñecas,” half a dozen Giacometti-like blobs topped by distorted faces.
A few steps down the north side of Calle 20, I reach the climax of my pilgrimage to the past, which looks like a cereal box stuck on the sidewalk to infuriate pedestrians. Though but two notional floors and windows, it suited the purposes of the two penniless artisans my ex-wife and I then were (who anyway worked on the sidewalk when the sun shone). Or so we thought until the owner of the car-park alongside (now built on) tried to seize it from its co-owners (my ex and hers). When he cut off our water, we made do with buckets, but since it was only a way station to the countryside, we eventually gave up. Whether the guy actually grabbed the title to the property, I don’t know, only that it was a beauty parlor for a while, is now empty, and awaits a plaque saying “Jimmy lived here”.
Opposite (and an example to all) is a mostly intact colonial-style house, with splendid tiled mosaics on its frontage, which was a brothel in my day and now houses one of the last traditional bookbinders in the city (if not the Western World). It still does the finest work at the cheapest price.
Turning around, I confront what I fear may be the future, though I’m not wholly unprepared for it, because the function of the three gaudy towers I see at the northeast corner of the Calle 19 with 3ra is supposedly the same as the one of a ziggurat affair already glimpsed, on the right, as I went south on the third: students residences.
But first, the architecture. The former, an irregular juxtaposition of cubes at different levels, with striking mottled brown-black contrasts. The latter? Well, if color is what you like, the checkerboard pattern of olive, blue and lime which stretches to the sky does enliven the drabness of downtown, may compensate a little for its abuse of setting, scale and, especially, harmony (given the ugly, rusted, eyeless panels of the new Cinemateca Distrital at street level) and at any rate, is irrelevant to my argument, which is that a) only a privileged elite of students can afford it. That applies even more to its counterpart, LivinnX21, a multinational venture, with spa, gym and yoga room, which, despite its claim of “student housing”, is really aimed, as it announces, at “entrepreneurs and young professionals” and b) in both cases, they will pay the hidden cost of dehumanizing themselves in one of those anonymous warrens which, from the Tower Blocks of the East End to the upscale high rises in Hong Kong, pose as an “innovative” solution to urban housing. Myself, better a cruddy room in a lodging house than a cubbyhole in an office building with a security gate.
The stores, offices and coffee shops which surround the little plaza of the “City U” are a portent (but not yet proof) of the imminent gentrification of the district. Ominous, when you consider the windblown corridors trendy architects go in for; the Mac Center, Starbucks, mysterious Davivienda “expo zone” and pricey bookstore; and the general run of their clients, present or future yuppies. Not so bad, if you focus on the low-cost Ara supermarket, and, on the curved balcony above, the tasty yet affordable bread, pastry and coffee at Hornitos (whose exposed brick wall is now the trademark of quality cafés in Bogotá).
My grumpiness is further softened by a sight, to the left, of the charming little colonial church of Las Aguas, with its white front and two rows of arched belfries, and the surprising cleanliness of the waters of Salmona’s nearby “Eje Ambiental,” a promenade, with palms, which funnels the waters of the Río San Francisco through a series of miniature locks.
The two office/apartment buildings that flank the top of the 19th: the Procoil and Barichara (site of a notorious art theft) are a further reminder that modernity is not necessarily a threat, as the shape-shifting Bacatá Entre Calles down the road is. At two and a half times the height of the towering Colpatria, but still unfinished and with rumors of a rival, it is, might or will be the highest in the land, but once again, I won’t quarrel with its aesthetics, remembering that what I dislike is loved by my son, who is studying architecture and presumably knows better.
Rather, my doubt is, what’s it for?, when the city is already crammed with often half-occupied office buildings, malls which far exceed the needs of consumers and other superfluous developments at a time when the priority should be more parks and schools, fewer holes in the roads and above all, low-cost and humane housing.
Nevertheless, aesthetics do matter, though, paradoxically, it is less a matter of taste than the statement they make. As with the Olympic Park in London or the Hudson Yards in New York, City U and LivinnX21 are saying that, like ours or not, we are the wave of a future pioneered by the Guggenheim in Bilbao on the premise that showy (if heartless) architecture, plus a token investment in “culture”, will automatically uplift depressed or rising but still under-exploited cities like Bogotá.
Yet, as everyone in the know understands, the usual result is to displace the poor to the bainlieu’s (and the middling, to the suburbs), raise commercial rents to the level of chain stores and turn the city center into a paradise for yuppies, dinks and Trump Tower kleptocrats. Whether it is too late for Santa Fe, no one can say. All I can is that downtown is messy, but still livable-in.