Long overlooked, the Dominican Republic's colonial capital gets a face lift

The Dominican Republic is the most visited country in the Caribbean, but just 10 percent of tourists step off the beaches to visit Santo Domingo. The government's trying to change that.

By , Correspondent

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    This pedestrian walkway is lined with shops catering to tourists and residents in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Jan. 18, 2006. Under an ambitious revitalization project, the Dominican government is working to create a pedestrian-friendly street design in a city overrun by motorbikes and microbuses.
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Urban planners are ripping up the streets of the oldest European city in the Western Hemisphere to try to save its future.

Bulldozers crowd the streets of the colonial city of Santo Domingo, once governed by the son of Christopher Columbus and later sacked by the notorious pirate Sir Francis Drake. Workers are tearing through concrete, knocking down telephone poles, and scraping paint from fading facades, all in the name of making the area a prominent tourist attraction in a country known more for its beaches than its history.

Under an ambitious revitalization project, the Dominican government and international organizations are not only attempting to convert the colonial-era city into a destination, but are also working to create a pedestrian-friendly street design in a city overrun by motorbikes and microbuses.

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“This was the first city in the Americas and it copies the European renaissance cities. So what we’re doing is not so much reinventing the city, but bringing it back to what it was, to its origins,” says Carla Quinones, an architect who is overseeing one of four phases of the reconstruction plan.

Streets built for horse-drawn wagons are too narrow for the mash of cars, delivery trucks, parking spaces, pedestrians, bikers and others that are present in the modern city that Santo Domingo has become.

The Dominican Republic is the most visited country in the Caribbean. Tourism and travel accounts for 15 percent of the DR's Gross Domestic Product, according to a study by the World Travel and Tourism Council. But to date, less than 10 percent of the roughly 5 million tourists who visit the Dominican Republic come to Santo Domingo. The push to increase visits to the city is part of a government plan to position the country as more than just a beach vacation, by highlighting its culture and history.

Yet the city is a far cry from what it looked like in the early 1500s, when crowds gathered to watch Christopher Columbus’s daughter-in-law, Maria de Toledo and others parade up and down the first street in the Americas, which later earned the apt name, The Ladies’ Street.

As it grew into a city of 3.5 million, Santo Domingo’s thoroughfares lost all semblance of civility. Today, tourists cram onto narrow sidewalks, avoiding full-throated motorbikes contributing to a cacophony of blowing horns.  

Last year, the World Health Organization named the Dominican Republic the most dangerous country for drivers, based on traffic fatality rates. The 2013 report found there were 41.7 motoring deaths per 100,000 residents in 2010, placing it just ahead of Thailand. (The tiny South Pacific island of Niue topped the WHO list, but it’s small population of 1,400 meant each traffic fatality drastically changed the fatality rate.)

Urban planners believe that a reinvented colonial city can serve as a model that balances the automobile and the pedestrian. “You can’t just pretend the automobile doesn’t exist,” says Agamemnon “Gus” Pantel, an archaeologist who oversaw digs in San Juan and is now working on a study in Santo Domingo. “But what you can do is find a way to bring harmony that respects pedestrians.”

'The original'

Santo Domingo is one of a handful of Caribbean cities that served as bases for the Spanish as they explored the New World, many of whom are now receiving a history-invoking face-lift. Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, Panama Viejo in Panama, Colombia’s Caribbean city, Cartagena, and Old Havana in Cuba have all been targeted for reconstruction.

But Santo Domingo “is it,” in terms of European history in the Americas, says Mr. Pantel. “This is the original, the first,” he says. “This is as important for the people who live here as it is for making the area a tourist destination.”

Nestled above the intersection of the Ozama River and Caribbean Sea, the colonial city is a picturesque Caribbean urban setting with cobblestone streets emptying into ample, Spanish-style squares flanked by stone buildings and restored museums. It has served as such in a handful of motion pictures, such as “The Godfather: Part II” in which it filled in for Havana.

“What makes it different is the fact that the colonial city is a living city, with thousands of people living here,” Ms. Quinones says. “We’re integrating them into the plan to make the area a cultural experience.”

The good and the bad

On a recent sunny midweek day, tourists strolled through a popular plaza alongside Dominican businessmen who stopped for coffee and a shoeshine at an outdoor café.

Nearby, visitors shuffled through the house built by Columbus’ son, Diego, when he was viceroy of the Indies. The house is part of what made the area a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990. The city was founded in 1498, six years after Columbus first landed on the island he named Hispaniola, now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. 

“I think people come here and they are shocked by what we have, by the history that’s here,” says Yessica Alvarez, who works in a trinket shop around the corner from the oldest Catholic cathedral in the Americas.

Wearing a cream-colored Panama hat and a point-and-shoot camera dangling from his neck, Russell Smith, visiting from London, stopped to snap a photo of his wife in front of a pigeon-covered statue of Christopher Columbus.

“We really didn’t know all this was here,” Mr. Smith says. “We’d come for the beach and popped over for the day, but it’s really very interesting. “

Smith took a shuttle from Punta Cana to Santo Domingo along a new highway that cuts travel time between the areas to two and a half hours, shaving as much as two hours off the voyage.

The highway was constructed as part of this push to bring tourists to the capital. Since its completion late last year, visits to Santo Domingo are already up 15 percent, Quinones says. In coming years, the city hopes to attract as many as 800,000 visitors a year, doubling the number of visitors before the highway opened, she says.

Yet, in doing so, the project will confront an ugly truth about how Santo Domingo has grown. Not far from the heart of the colonial city, abandoned buildings mar a historic neighborhood near the wide boulevard that runs along the Caribbean Sea. Petty crime is still a problem, despite a large presence of unarmed tourism police, and locals like José Gonzalez, who is waiting for a neighborhood game of dominoes, says the construction has made things worse.

“They are [digging] up the streets, nobody can get through, and for what?” Mr. Gonzalez asks. “What will it do for the people who live here?”

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