The upper part of the Avenida Chile (Calle 72 between 7 and 15) marks the frontier of the “North,” or upscale sector of Bogotá. Some would place it farther north, but my argument rests, in part, on the two mighty office blocks, facing each other on the Carrera Séptima that stand as sentinels on an avenue dominated by corporate/financial headquarters. On the east, we find the Banco de Occidente building, an upended paper airplane forced on the architects by the contradictory need to cram as many offices as possible on the plot and respect the ordinances on airspace. On the west, and more apposite, the top floor seat of the Colombian Stock Exchange in the linked towers of the Edificio Avenida Chile, which, thrusting at the corner, faces down the angled office building on the diagonal (the h.q. of the Mazuera construction company). Lest there be any doubt that the business of Calle 72 is business, I spotted a guided tour of thirty students (with translator) from the Rice Business School (Houston, Texas), when I visited it for this article.
The Exchange’s history parallels that of the 72 itself, which, right up to the 1940’s, was practically pastureland with a few ostentatious suburban villas, devoid of high rises until the late 1960’s, the start of a commercial development consolidated in 1982, with its eponymous shopping center, halfway down on the north, originally named after Granahorrar, the savings bank which built it. Likewise and incredible as it may seem given the globalized economy of Colombia today, it was not until 2001 that the three minor league bourses of Bogotá, Cali and Medellín fused into one, and the former moved from a crummy part of downtown that was definitely humiliating for stylish stockbrokers and dangerous at times too – though that’s relative because the construction of the Edificio Avenida Chile caused a 20 meter-diameter sinkhole which fatally swallowed three passers-by in 1994 on the stretch of the 72 near the Claustro de la Enseñanza.
This modest chapel whose cloisters house traveling exhibitions (about Einstein and Da Vinci, for example), that you have to wait on a long queue to get into, is a reminder that the 72 isn’t just the “Wall Street of Bogotá,” which has attracted stockbroking firms, insurance companies, Nokia, the BBVA, Drummond and the Hilton (round the northwest corner), etc., but also boasts of churches, coffee shops, retail outlets, a university and the Higher Council of the Judiciary (recently denounced for paying an exorbitant rent, which would be better spent on improving the scandalously overcrowded courts which attend to ordinary citizens).
The late start of the 72 (and North in general) means that large scale doesn’t insult aesthetics, since the avenue itself, with its tree-lined traffic island (formerly the pre-Bogotazo tramway) is wide and there is enough space between the high rises to ease the pedestrian of feeling like an ant at the bottom of a canyon, as happens in the financial district of Manhattan.
I even tolerate the one exception, which is the way the architectural gem of the neighborhood, the church of the Porciúncula (“small parcel of land” in Latin) is overtopped by the twin glass towers of the adjacent mall, because they are set back from the frontage on a base which follows the line of the roof of the church, freeing the spires above, as the little public plaza on its western side does of the whole and thus, the mall just about honors the law which forbids any temple to be dwarfed by its neighbors. Also worth noting is its restrained exterior, compared with the frou-frou of parapets, buttresses and ogival arches of its peers (like Lourdes or Chiquinquirá in Chapinero), all early modern examples of Gothic Revival.
Crossing the Carrera 11, one reaches the abovementioned university, the Pedagógica, whose merits are relative too. To me at least, the fiery slogans and portraits of martyred “comrades” painted on its walls resemble a museum of the now antiquated ultra-left of the Che era whose nerve center were certain public universities. To be fair, however, I grant that for meaningful place, Colombia does have to clarify a lot of obscure political crimes (by all factions, I’d add) and many of its students just want to study (rather than throw “potato bombs”).
Continuing to the east, we leave boring politics behind to enjoy shopping, first, on the corner of the Carrera 15, at the Panamericana, a nationwide chain which has such a command of its fast-growing sector that if I were an emerging markets shark I would gobble up its shares (which, wisely perhaps, are not quoted on the exchange). It sells stationery, books, school and office supplies and associated products ranging from desks to picture frames, to telescopes, to jigsaw puzzles to computers, to home-lab equipment, to a conventional wall thermometer I couldn’t find anywhere else in the city.
Opposite and more congenial to a bargain-hunter (who should be wary of the false ones which the Panamericana was fined 90 million pesos for in 2016) is a dollar store-type outlet, the Gran Manzana (shades of my hometown), whose eccentric stock, much of it displayed in barrows, includes old magazines and L.P’s, (new) books, c.d’s and agendas, costume jewelry, teddy bears, tools and electrical supplies, including those rechargeable lamps which are indispensable on my street, which seems to suffer more power cuts than any other in Bogotá. It is one of those stores you cannot leave without having purchased something.
When shopping exhausts you – be it a 50 million dollar tranche or a 50 cent notebook I bought in the above – it’s time for a coffee break and the 72 hosts all of the usual suspects: Juan Valdéz, Oma, Starbucks, McCafe, Santa Elena, Crepes & Waffles, yet despite my aversion to global brands, I often choose Dunkin’ Donuts. Their coffee is tasty and their muffins an acceptable alternative to the sickly sweet rings of fried dough which have been excised from their corporate name in the health-conscious U.S. but, most of all, it is because of the locale’s clean, airy modernist décor: high plate glass windows, sleek counters and mirror-like floors.
For my true favorite, however, I head south along the same Carrera 9 for a few blocks which, like the 4A in La Macarena, display a United Nations of cuisine – an Irish pub, a British “gastro-pub,” pizza, Italian and sushi, not forgetting a school of gastronomy – and enter an “area of influence” of the Chile, the Quinta Camacho district, which is generally on a lower scale, more residential and has some interesting restaurants, design centers and art galleries. There, on the corner of the Calle 70, we find one of the best brunch places in Bogotá, the bluntly named Brot, which in addition to its great croissants, wholegrain rolls and chocolate/nut cookies, provides you with the vicarious pleasure of visiting the refurbished New England neocolonial home of a family of the bogotano haute-bourgeoisie of a couple of generations ago, with its ironwork/glass front door, solid wooden stairway, gated front garden and, on the second floor, a sort of boardroom with a massive table which you can hire for strategy sessions of your own, though the exposure of its brick walls (a trademark of such bakery/cafes nowadays) is an innovation.
Among the oddities of the Avenida there are examples of the street-level public sculptures which an unevenly enforced municipal law requires of commercial high-rises: a charming group of deer by sculptor Nadin Ospina which the Banco de Occidente absurdly forbids you to photograph (defied by us, thanks to an indulgent night watchmen) and what looks like an atheist’s idea of angels opposite by Californian Jim Amaral: three gray amorphous bodies with truncated wings, who are perched on wheels and look upwards through metal grille face masks. But, what about the disappearance of the splendid bronze bull from the courtyard of the BBVA (an omen for speculators?) and the same for the clock above the entrance of the Banco de Occidente (cheapskates?). Downhill, we find a vivid mural of the avenue in the automatic teller hall of Scotiabank/Colpatria, and on the 9th again, a series of blown-up Hokusai-type prints on the wall of the low Foto Japón store, which, seen from a distance, are strangely juxtaposed against the white strips of the BBVA and blue glass of the mall’s towers on the other side of the avenue.
To clinch my argument for the 72’s demarcation of the North, we turn around and re-cross the 7 to another area of influence, where the avenue merges with the Zona G (a hotspot of the city’s nightlife) and undergoes a transition from high finance to rus in urbe as it snakes its way up to the circunvalar through a zone of exclusive apartment buildings, so private, so quiet and so sheltered by greenery it’s a world of its own, unmatched by any to the south (down to its confusing nomenclature).
Along the way, we browse at the “fine wines and foods” of a pricey delicatessen/supermarket called the Gastronomy Market (Calle 72bis with Quinta), whose back door leads to a Carulla which is all but invisible unless you are already acquainted with it. It is a sunny Sunday afternoon and a group of bright young things, with not a care in the world, stand by dad’s Merc to take selfies. I suddenly recall the classic exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway:
“You know, Ernest, the rich are different from you and me.”
“Yes, they’ve got more money.”