The city is a very complex cultural artifact that has survived countless socioeconomic transformations, assembling a mix of material and symbolic functions: village, cosmogony, temple, fountain, fort; square and theatre –polyphonic places of representation– ; locus of collective memory; the space of desire and power, of the imaginative and the playful, of writing. The vital significance of the city lies not only in its representation of a focus of power –by validating an instrument of authority– and sacredness, but in its being a cultural object that concentrates, stores and conveys culture. Through activities that take place only on its premises, the city functions as a transformer of a community’s energies into the symbolic forms that it preserves and remembers: “The ability to transmit in symbolic forms and human patterns a representative portion of a culture is the great mark of the city […]”. 1
As a collective invention of humanity, only language surpasses the city’s capacity for transmitting culture. The cumulative activity of the city turns it into an essential organ in this process: the city is nurtured by memory and lives in our memory.
San Juan is a polycentric city, whose functional and emotional center, a space that must have been sacred at the time of its foundation, has been successively displaced. From the original core in Old San Juan islet to the West, dominant until the 1930s, the center was pulled to Santurce, to the east, during the 1950s, and to Hato Rey, to the south in the mid- sixties. Around these centers spread the slums of La Perla and Puerta de Tierra; El Fanguito, Martín Peña and Trastalleres. The old core is Spanish and the more modern areas of Santurce –including the hotel and residential zones of Isla Verde and El Condado– and Hato Rey are related to North American building canons. Currently, however, the distinctive characteristic of this city is “urban sprawl”, which started with the first housing developments and seems to have no end. Where does San Juan begin, where does it end?
As I write this, a sense of disenchantment or rather, nostalgia, vis-à-vis the place where I have lived for more than forty years is reawakened, mixed with the place left behind: Cuba and Puerto Rico, two wings of the same bird…. The city, that huge palimpsest, of layer upon layer of meanings and resignifications, evades us; our memory is a prolonged exile; the proliferation of track homes, malls and highways has taken over places where the nonexistent city might have been, with its own rivers, promenades and squares; that is, a city made in the scale of man. Instead, this is, increasingly, a non-place – or a place like any other, as generic as Burger King and MacDonalds– a model followed uncritically so as to avoid having to chose to be anything; like choosing none of the above or like the invention of purgatory… It also occurs to me –maybe it is a strange idea– that the absence of the city may be related to the persistence of our nationalisms, which, in a world of increasingly blurred frontiers, are the most open expression of anachronism and reaction, but which may be explained by such absences. In other words, we have been deprived of the sense of belonging to a city and a nation, and our only reaction is to become folkloric.
Victor Hugo, writing in the early 19th century, worried about the possibility that books could have killed the city, a chronicle written in stone; he expressed it thus in his novel Nôtre Dame de Paris:
Thus, until the coming of Gutenberg, architecture was the main, the universal form of writing. This book of granite was begun in the Orient, carried on by Greek and Roman antiquity, and the last page was written in the Middle Ages. 2A century later, around 1924, Louis Aragon worried about the haussmannization of Paris in his novel Paris Peasant, and of course, this is more relevant for our present, pointing to its origin:
The great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of police during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums [passages].3In this hybrid novel, Aragon includes various texts, among them numerous advertisements of small businesses that after being seized were forced to sell their goods and equipment; to quote an example:
THE BD HAUSSMANN BUILDING SOCIETY
Several of the small tradesmen who have been victimized for the benefit of huge enterprises such as the Galleries Lafayette 4 are, we learn, on the point of seeking relief from the competent judicial authorities. But there can be no doubt that the City of Paris was fully aware of all the underhand deals and corrupt practices which have studded the history of the Boulevard Haussmann Building Society.
What is quite certain is that, at the very least, the compensation payments should have been allocated equitably. But the majority of the members of the Town Council – and this is a matter of public scandal – are shamefully involved in the misappropriation of public funds, and got themselves elected solely in order to pursue such activities.
Now, it may not be long before we learn some interesting facts. And thanks to the legitimate indignation of these shabbily treated tradesmen, it will be possible to lift the veil concealing the skullduggery of our aediles and of certain big financial sharks.5
Now, more than a century later, the main problem is the automobile. With the spread of the suburbs –an urbanization pattern that is the enemy of the city –the individual is cut off from the city, which ends up by losing the sense of a coherent work, of a legible urban reality. The most recent statistics reveal the unbelievable figure of two automobiles for every three residents, in a proverbially small island. With this phenomenon of the last fifty years, the city that perhaps was never meant to be has finally evaporated, as prophetically sung by Pablo Milanés: “wing that fell into the sea/that could not fly,” intertextualizing the verses by Lola Rodríguez de Tió. Susan Buck-Morss describes the automobile as a disruptive element of the city’s aura, as defined by Walter Benjamin, 6:
Today it is clear to any pedestrian in Paris that within public space, automobiles are the dominant and predatory species. They penetrate the city's aura so routinely that it disintegrates faster than it can coalesce.7On the other hand, Saúl Yurkievich remarks that the automobile became –with the poet Apollinaire– a symbol, “not of mere spatial movement but of the passing from one era into another.” 8
More than coming to an end somewhere, the city of San Juan slips away into suburbs that have also slipped away from other cities… The limits between urban and rural spaces are hazy in a Puerto Rico that arrived at the 21st century as a cloudy hybrid, an island-city-subur-exurb. […] of all technical innovations the automobile has been mainly responsible for significant changes in the physical aspects of the city. 9According to Henri Lefebre, the bourgeoisie has not been creative as a class; it replaced the architectonic and urban creations enjoyed by the ancients with the product; use value for exchange value. Social awareness, then, transfers its point of reference from production to consumption, to commodity fetishism. Hence, the opposition between use value (the city and urban life, urban time) and exchange value (places bought and sold, consumption of products, goods, sites and signs). As stated by Lefebre:
The city and urban reality reveal use value. Exchange value, the prevalence of commodities spurred by industrialization, has a tendency to destroy and subordinate the city and urban reality, which shelter use value, the germs of a virtual predominance and a revaluation of use.10The awareness of the city is stunted along with urban reality. Such alienation, expressed by an impotent effort to preserve structure and coherence, while experiencing the conflict between a dense communications network and the isolation of individual conscience, the massive introduction of randomness and the opposition between technification and subjectivity, gives rise to the ontological illusion that confuses being with representation. Who are we? Are we still interested in building cities? Is it still possible?
Yolanda Izquierdo was born in Havana, in 1954, and has been a resident of San Juan since 1961. She earned a B.A. from the University of Puerto Rico in 1975, and at the Universidad Complutense, in Madrid, pursued graduate studies in Hispanic philology between 1976 and 1979.In Puerto Rico she completed her master’s degree with a dissertation about the novel Cecilia Valdés, by Cirilo Villaverde, and her PhD with a thesis about Alejo Carpentier and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, which in 1999 received the Luis Llorens Torres Award from the Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española. Izquierdo is associate professor at the Humanities Department of the General Studies Department, and teaches at the Hispanic Studies Department and the School of Architecture. She has published several essays in journals, and the book Acoso y ocaso de una ciudad: La Habana de Alejo Carpentier y Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Isla Negra/DEGI UPR, 2002), which received an award from the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. She is the author of school texts published by Ediciones Santillana and of essays about the history of architecture for the Architecture and Construction Archives at the University of Puerto Rico.