Here is a guest post from Andrea Stachnik. Andrea has been living in Guatemala for the last two years where she has started a not for profit social enterprise in Guatemala City called Unmarked Streets.
I just moved into a new home/office in zone 4, which is right in the center of the capital. Zone 4 used to be the up and coming part of the city, there is an area right outside my front door called “4 Grados Norte”, which for awhile was supposed to be a young, cool area for urban professionals to work and hang out. There is one main drag, which used to be full of restaurants, bars, cafes, jazz clubs and so forth. The NY Times even covered it last year, hailing the area the “A Silicon Valley dream in Guatemala”. They mention right at the end of the article the trend I have seen in the last couple of years: drunks, drug dealers, and petty criminals came in and started lurking around all the brand new restaurants and cafes. Before long people stopped coming in, because they were unnerved by all the seediness that had sprouted on the other side of the small chain that separated the wealthy Guatemalan elite from everyone else. Now every single one of the restaurants and bars on that street has closed.
Now when people talk about the new, cool, young part of town, they point to Sixth Avenue in Zone 1, just a few blocks away. For the most part 4 Grados Norte was abandoned, and now in the middle of zone 4 there is an adorable, tree lined street, which has not one restaurant, café, or bar still standing. It is absolutely bizarre to me that so much money flooded in: five years ago they created an entire buzzing neighborhood. And just a few short years later almost all signs of it are gone, the only thing still running is Campus Tec, which is home to some young tech and advertising companies.
It seems to me like the way to deal with 4 Grados Norte is relatively straightforward: develop the surrounding areas. Fix the broken windows, add proper street lighting and pick up litter in the surrounding areas, not just the one street where people go to spend their money. The main drag that runs down 4 Grados Norte is still beautiful, but the surrounding streets look just as grimy and dirty as the rest of Guatemala City. It’s no wonder that people thought it was a good place to get drunk on the street and/or commit crimes: it was a rundown area with a lot of rich people nearby. And the lessons of 4 Grados Norte don’t seem to have guided the development of Sixth Avenue in Zone 1. Sixth avenue itself is charming and lovely, but everything around it is still a mess. And the criminals know that: the Public Ministry just declared the area surrounding 6th Avenue (from 5th to 9th) a “red zone” for petty theft, vandalism and the like.
I would love to see a project that was more comprehensive: Guatemala City is full of shopping enclaves that are completely isolated from the rest of the neighborhood that they sit in (Las Majadas, Paseo Cayala, Oakland Mall, Fontabella, Portales). They are completely insular experiences: shut off and guarded from the businesses and neighbors that sit right across the street. But you can’t “develop” just one street or block, you have to take the whole neighborhood with you. I would love to see a long term project that was run by a partnership between the city and multiple developers. I am thinking of something along the lines of the redevelopment of Times Square, which changed and integrated all of Midtown, or the reduction in gang related violent crime in Chicago when they broke up and re-developed Cabrini Green. Both projects were controversial, but both achieved the objective of reducing crime rates. And survey after survey say that that things that Guatemalans want to see most in their country is improved security and lower crime rates. Real, long lasting economic development in the capital will continue to lag until businesses and the people think of Guatemala City as a safe place to live and work.