Our Hispanic Sister Republics have called our capital the Athens of South America,” declared Monsignor Maria Rafael Carrasquilla, rector of Bogotá’s Our Lady of Rosario School in his opening day speech in 1895. Carrasquilla was surveying a city which is very different from the one we know today. In 1895, the population was a mere 100,000. With increasing rural violence between Conservatives and Liberals, Bogotá experienced a boom in population. The city saw a huge influx of money and began to grow around the old barrio of Santa Fé.

It’s hard now to imagine any comparison between the glories of ancient Greece and Santa Fé, where drugs, prostitution and corruption all too often define the character of the place. But Santa Fé was once a well-respected neighbourhood in the city and much admired around the world, particularly in Europe.

Today you can still feel the grandeur of the Plaza Bolívar, framed by the Palace of Justice, the Catedral Primada and Liévano Palace which houses the office of the Mayor. Heading west across the Caracas Ave. you enter a shadier part of town known as Los Mártires.

Once part of old Santa Fé, the Plaza España is the ignored sibling of the Plaza Bolívar. The centre of the square holds an imposing column erected in 1851 by Danish architect Thomas Reed (1817-1878), to conmemorate the martyrs of the independence movement against Spain. Few tourists linger long near the looming Basilica on the western edge as the square is usually populated  by homeless people who sit or sleep on the grass under trees which encircle this central monument. The Plaza España also serves as a hub for the workers and craftspeople who do business on the chaotic streets nearby, which are filled with shops selling tools, chainsaws, nuts, bolts , screws of all sizes, second hand clothes and all varieties of construction materials.

One hundred years ago, Plaza España, which was built as a sign of confidence in the postcolonial future of Colombia, was the central market of the well-heeled barrio of Santa Fé. The majority of merchant Bogotanos lived just a few blocks south in the area where the Tercer Milenio park now stands. The houses were large, with ornate wooden doorways and windows and antique streetlights outside.

Multiple churches were built around Santa Fé and were inspired by numerous architectural styles, most notably Baroque but also showing evidence of the architectural legacy of the European Renaissance and holding a markedly Mudéjar influence.  One of the most outstanding of the churches of this area is the Voto Nacional which was built more than a hundred years ago on the anniversary of the peace of the 1000 Days War. Once the preferred church for the weddings and baptisms of a rising elite, the Voto Nacional now flanks one of Bogotá’s grittier areas:  ‘the Bronx.’

The first two decades of the 1900s saw huge investment and development in Santa Fé. Large numbers of people escaped the violence of the countryside for the relative safety of the city and ended up working in large companies such as the Bavaria Brewery and Chocolates Chávez y Equitiva. Many lower class workers lived on the outskirts of Santa Fé in districts like La Perseverancia, which stood behind the city’s jail, later becoming the National Museum.

Santa Fé’s population benefited from this influx of money and labour and invested in the locale. The Faculty of Medicine of the National University was built in 1916 on Plaza España and some blocks north was the important La Sabana Central Station. The station became a focal point of trade and commerce for the inhabitants of Santa Fé as well as the main entry point for migrant workers arriving to Bogotá. The 1920s and 30s saw similar development and Santa Fé continued to prosper and remain a vibrant location within the city.

Following the assassination of Liberal leader and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948, riots erupted, and like much of Bogotá, Santa Fé was partly reduced to rubble. Many inhabitants looked north to newer neighbourhoods such as La Soledad and Teusaquillo. Abandoned homes were taken over by vagrants, thieves and addicts. Refered to colloquially as a “dead-end” or cartucho (spent shell, tip of a joint) for those who ended up there, the area surrounding Plaza España and Plaza Mártires deteriorated rapidly, even becoming known as a place for buying crack cocaine.

From the late 1980s to the mid 90s, the ‘cartucho’ was the most infamous area of the city’s centre and home to recyclers. Avoided “like the plague” by many Bogotanos, law enforcement officials became the target of thugs commandered by the local basuco dealer, “Black Commanche.” In order to take back control of the ‘hood’ with a deteriorated security situation, the administration of Enrique Peñalosa razed the ‘Cartucho’ to the ground.

Later in 2001, then-mayor Antanas Mockus denoted Santa Fé as the city’s first ‘tolerance zone’ (red light district ) where prostitutes and pimps could ply their trade between Calles 19 and 24 and west of the Caracas Ave. In exchange for the freedom to work, brothel owners were required to have First Aid kits, change sheets regularly and attend public health seminars.

Although tourists rarely venture into this part of the city, Santa Fé is not all vice and vice squad. Particularly given long-term urban renovation plans focusing on the city center, it is a testament to a barrio that has survived deceit and decay.