Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Stadium for Nobody?

Worn and empty benches in the Santamaria bullfighting plaza.
When he got elected in 2012 with the fervid support of animal rights activists, Mayor Gustavo Petro promised to turn the Santamaria bullring into a cultural center. The Plaza de Toros would become a Plaza de Todos - a place for everybody.

The entrance to the Moorish Santamaria Plaza. 
For a while, that seemed to become reality. The last bullfights were held in early 2012, and for a while the plaza was used for cultural events: concerts, gymnastics, theater, high-diving and, most memorably, ice skating. Attendance, however, was irregular.

But since late last year the plaza has sat sadly empty and unused, except for occasional visits by tourists and bullfighters practicing their passes. It's a sad state for one of Bogotá's historical, architectural and cultural landmarks. The stadium was built in 1931 by cattleman Ignacio Sanz de Santamaría, who went bankrupt doing it, and has been the scene of landmark events such as the launch of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan's presidential campaign and a 1950s political massacre by henchmen of dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla.

It also has been South America's most important bullfighting arena, hosting immortals such as Manolete, José Tomás and Colombia's Cesar Rincon.

A statue of Cesar Rincon,
Colombia's most famous bullfighter.
Now, Mayor Petro plans a $37 billion peso remodelation of the building, projected to last thru 2018. (Naturally, it'll take longer and cost more.) The plaza is unquestionably worn and bedraggled. Some of the concrete seats are cracked and crumbling, the paint is fading and weeds sprout in corners. But the building seems structurally sound. The renovation is intended to make the plaza better for concerts and other events. But why invest all that money if the plaza already works for such events - and yet sits empty? Besides, the plaza's neighbors have sued to prohibit concerts there, and their attitude won't likely change.

In 2013, Petro installed an ice skating rink in the plaza during the normal bullfighting season - which just happened to make bullfighting impossible. Some of us suspect that the renovation plan is really yet another maneuver to prevent bullfights, and that once renovated, the plaza will no longer be useful for bullfights.

The bullfighting stadium is a handsome landmark with a great location, so it's a tragedy that it sits nearly unused. With a simple facelift it'd be an excellent site for concerts, cultural events - and even bullfights. But closing the place for four years and spending a small fortune on it isn't the way to get the most out of the plaza.

Ignacio Sanz de Santamaría, a cattleman who donated the land and built the stadium - and went bankrupt in the process. The stadium carries his name. 
Cracks and weeds in the stands.

The empty arena, except for a few bullfighters practicing.
A plaque commemorating Jorge Eliecer Gaitan 1948 launch of his presidential campaign. 
A plaque commemorating Manolete, one of history's greatest bullfighters, who fought here.

Pepe Rincon, a Colombian bullfighter who was killed fighting in Manizales.

The presidential boxes.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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