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Shining up Latin America's tarnished jewels

Historic city centers fight neglect and renew old luster - drawing back

By Catherine EltonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 1999


About five years ago, the historic center of Lima was not a place a person who valued the contents of his pockets wanted to visit. Ramshackle stands of itinerant vendors jammed the sidewalks of this one-time South American seat of the Spanish Empire. Trucks blasting thick clouds of jet-black smoke clogged the streets. Plazas were strewn with garbage and haunted by bands of street kids who robbed in packs.

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Today historic Lima is experiencing a renaissance, and it is one of the most successful examples of a movement in Latin America to revitalize urban centers. The trend is, in part, a response to the influx of US fast food chains and megamalls. In the battle to win tourism and investment dollars, uniqueness is becoming a competitive advantage.

Since the late 1980s, cities like Quito, Ecuador; Havana, Cuba; and Salvador, Brazil; have undertaken aggressive efforts to rescue their long neglected and deteriorated historic centers.

"With globalization and in a world where media have such a strong influence, cultural identity is threatened," says Lima mayor Alberto Andrade, who is credited with bringing about the renaissance of Lima's historic center. "I think that government leaders should be searching for ways to strengthen this identity."

In cities across Latin America, historic centers were traditionally the home of the country's wealthiest citizens and the focal point of culture and business. But many suffered the way Lima's did in the second half of this century. As Peru industrialized in the 1940s, Lima was hit with the massive migration of rural poor who came to the capital seeking better opportunities. At the same time, the traditional residents of the center fled to newer, outlying neighborhoods followed closely by businesses and cultural activity. Over the years, the center's brightly painted mansions with their closed balconies and ornate wrought iron work have turned into run-down rabbit warrens for 30 or more. As property values plummeted, Lima's center fell into a downward spiral of neglect and decay.

But in 1991, a private Lima organization secured the historic center's status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This was the cornerstone for renewal. And after Mr. Andrade was elected nearly three years ago, tangible changes started to take place.

Early on, the municipal government tackled one of the principal problems facing Lima, the removal of 20,000 vendors from Lima's streets. They were relocated to indoor markets within the city.

Next the municipal government set out to reclaim public spaces, restoring parks and plazas. Reorganization of the municipal police force has made the center's streets safer. The government also has put an emphasis on cultural activity in Lima, hosting a region-wide Latin American art exhibition and offering a wide variety of dance and theater performances.

Andrade's government also implemented the very successful adopt-a-balcony program, designed to bring the private sector into the process of Lima's rebirth and create a symbol for Lima's unique style of architecture.

Lima is known for its enclosed wooden balconies - some painted and some ornately carved natural wood. These balconies, which float over the streets of the center, were a coveted intermediary space linking the home to the street in this 464-year-old capital.