Shining up Latin America's tarnished jewels

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

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.

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.

"These balconies are found no where else in the world.... The balconies of Lima are an easily identifiable symbol of the city," says Adolfo Vargas an architect who works on the program.

So far more than 80 of the city's balconies have been restored by embassies, businesses, and, in one case, by a large group of poor residents of the city center.

Lima's restoration efforts have been aided by being part of two networks of cities in Latin America. These cities exchange ideas about restoration, and learn from one another's experiences.

Quito, Ecuador - also founded in the 16th century - was the first Latin American city to secure a loan from a multinational bank for the restoration and revitalization of its historic center, setting a precedent in the region.

Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia, is an excellent example of successful historic preservation, but it has also given cities like Lima an example of what to avoid. In trying to restore the historic center, Salvador offered to restore residential buildings free of charge, as long as the landlords agreed to rent the ground floor of the property for the following 12 years. The buildings were restored, attracting several new businesses, but not new home owners.

Havana, Cuba, has tried something different in its restoration process. All hotels pay a percentage of their earnings to a fund dedicated to restoring the historic center, and the government has elevated the office of the historian to a cabinet-level position.

Cities like Managua, Nicaragua, and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, in the first stages of the process, will be able to learn from these other cities, as well as from the more recent example of Lima.

Of course, taking a similar course of action does not always guarantee similar results. Like Lima, Mexico City has tried to clear its historic center of thousands of street vendors and their clutter, as a way of revitalizing its historic center. But it has had only limited success, and the city's effort has led to repeated protests.

But here in Lima, the changes are already bearing fruit. Some high-end businesses have moved back to the center, and property values are rising. Tourists who once flew straight to Cuzco are now staying a few days in Lima. Cultural activities are returning to the center. Perhaps most important, many Limeos who had stayed away for over a decade are returning to the center and bringing their children with them, many of whom had never seen the center of their own city.

There is still a way to go, though. City officials say the center's revitalization will take more than 10 years and has some very serious problems to overcome - especially in transportation and housing.

But people here recognize that revitalization of the city center is a worthwhile endeavor. "As Limeos we wanted Lima to regain the excellence that it had in past years," says Patricia Quesada, manager of one of Lima's hottest restaurants, which recently opened a new location in the center. "Even though we know that it will be difficult to achieve this goal, we have faith that little by little it will happen, and we wanted to help."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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