Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bogotá's Battle Over Public Space

Vendors lined up on the Plaza San Victorino
In Bogota, like most of the developing world, public spaces serve as stages for much of life. Evangelizers yell at crowds on streetcorners. Singers croon salsa and cumbias for a few coins. Vendors yell out their offerings of drinks, candies, fruits and clothing. Nostrum hawkers and practicioners of black magic lecture believers. Young men play soccer. And couples walk hand in hand.

In recent years, Bogotá's mayors have made improving public spaces a central part of city policy. They've created new parks, cleaned up plazas and improved sidewalks and ornamentation along the newly built Transmilenio lines.

Move on, move on.

But keeping public spaces open to the public is a perpetual battle between the forces of law and those of poverty, apathy and corruption. For the poor - particularly Colombia's millions of internally displaced people, who have nothing - the city's sidewalks, parks and plazas are rent-free sales areas. In some areas, thru either sympathy or corruption, the police seem to leave vendors alone. In others, such as the Plaza San Victorino, police do periodic sweeps, or 'operativos,' in which they drive the vendors away from the plaza's center. The vendors know this is coming, and so they spread out their toys, clothes, shoes or other wares on a plastic sheet or blanket. When the police appear, the vendor pulls together the blanket's four corners, turning it into a sack, in which he carries away his wares.

Away you go!

Unfortunately, however, the city's offensive against public space invaders appears to be directed primarily against the poor. The middle class and wealthy park their cars on sidewalks all over the city with no fear of tickets or towing.

But here's a good use of public space.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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