Bogota | Up Against the City

Residents of Bogotá resist the urban renewal projects that displaced them from their homes

The site for Bogotá’s Block 5 project, which has led to the eviction of many residents from the city’s downtown area FEDERICO PÉREZ FOR THE CARAVAN
01 October, 2012

"WE’RE THE DISPLACED persons of Block 5!” chanted Jairo, a middle-aged man, as he stood by the house his family had lived in for decades in the heart of downtown Bogotá. Behind him was the demolition site—measuring roughly 8,500 square metres—where the city government had planned the construction of a cultural centre and a housing and commercial complex.

It has now been seven years since Bogotá’s Company of Urban Renewal launched the Block 5 project and it has yet to take off. The cultural centre, funds for which were donated by the government of Spain, was ultimately cancelled as a result of Spain’s financial crisis, one of the worst in the eurozone, and the tough austerity measures adopted by the recently elected Spanish conservative government of Mariano Rajoy. The rest of the block was sold to a private developer in 2011 at several times the price paid by the city to the original owners.

While the city government currently struggles to redefine what can only be described as state-backed real estate speculation, Jairo has managed to cling to his property on a legal technicality, at least for now. As we talked in front of the ruins, he contained his anger. “They came in and robbed us…this has been such an odyssey,” he said.

A few blocks away, in one of downtown Bogotá’s first residential high-rises, built in the late 1950s, live Humberto and Margarita, a couple in their late 60s who were also evicted from Block 5. They lost their main source of income, a parking lot, and have since dedicated themselves to waging a legal battle with the city. Surrounded by aging porcelain figurines and crystal decorations in their son’s modest apartment, where they had to relocate, they shied away from talking, preferring instead to show me the facts.

Sitting in their small study, they opened up an archive they had compiled over the past five years: news videos, photographs, press clippings, official letters and legal documents, among other materials, all organised in folders with dates and headings. As the couple relived their ordeal while sifting through the bureaucratic paraphernalia, it seemed as if it was their way of recovering part of what they had lost.

An indignant Margarita said that what disturbs her most is having been treated in such a manner by the state. The archive, she later confessed, had taken over her life; she spent her days piecing together countless decree numbers, names of public functionaries, and technical planning terms to no avail. Finally, in between sighs, she asked Humberto, “Whom can we talk to darling, if what they call justice is really injustice?”

The Block 5 project has become a symbol of the many anxieties that surround redevelopment policies in one of Latin America’s most rapidly growing capital cities. Over the years, Bogotá has become known worldwide for its innovations in urban policy and, in particular, for the development of a successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system known as the Transmilenio. More recently, sustained improvements in security, economic growth, increased foreign investment and a thriving tourism industry have spurred what some are calling a construction boom and others have already warned is a real estate bubble.

The sight of houses disappearing and buildings sprouting up in their place has become all too common. “The city is constructing its second-floor,” as one urban planner described it. As vacant land within city limits becomes scarcer, the pressure to reconstruct inner city neighbourhoods has increased. The process has been piecemeal—lot by lot, the built environment expands upwards while infrastructure and public space below does not. All the while, the city has spilled over into neighbouring towns and rural areas where industrial complexes now compete with luxurious residential enclaves.

In an effort to manage the unruly growth of the city, policy makers have turned to ideas of planned ‘densification’ to attract more people to the inner city and curb urban sprawl. Public and private sectors have now been given licence by the law to transform areas that have been slated for urban redevelopment on grounds of decay and underutilisation. Most plans have failed, however, due to bureaucratic gridlock and local divisions. And the few that are underway, such as the publicly led Block 5 project, seem to only further drive the wedge between the city’s wealthy north and the impoverished south.

Bogotá’s downtown lies at the crux of these urban transformations. The historic centre bears the marks of a turbulent history of political violence and social fracture. A place of power and prestige during the Spanish colony and up until the 19th century, the city centre became the main stage for Colombia’s independence struggles and anxious entrance

into nationhood.

Many Colombians trace the beginning of the country’s armed conflict to the assassination of populist leader and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 in the Avenida Jiménez in the heart of Bogotá. The riots that ensued left a trail of rubble through several downtown districts. Interestingly, destruction by political unrest facilitated an urban operation at the time to build a modern avenue through downtown Bogotá, the Carrera Décima (Tenth Avenue). The modernist ambitions of local planners, amplified by the visit of planner Le Corbusier, deepened these processes of urban destruction and reconstruction in the city’s core.

The aims of political and economic elites to modernise downtown Bogotá and rid it of undesirable populations and decaying structures were never accomplished. In later decades, a bourgeois flight from the centre of the city was followed by sustained disinvestment and escalating crime. But in spite of its dwindling residential population, downtown Bogotá never ceased to be a hub of state power, economic activity, and social life. The city may have become segregated, but the centre, as the home to elite educational institutions, state services and formal and informal commerce, remained the meeting ground for stakeholders of all sorts.

Still, many continue to search for ways to reverse the perceived decline of the heart of Bogotá. The city has launched several waves of renovation policies over the decades: real estate development in the 1970s, heritage preservation in the 1980s and the construction of public space in the 1990s. One idea has remained: the city centre’s renaissance depends on its repopulation. The question, of course, is renaissance for whom and according to whom. Calls to re-centre the city could well result in the middle-class re-conquest of downtown spaces at the expense of the less privileged.

Yolanda, a strong-willed middle-aged woman, lives with her father in the town of Funza, more than an hour and a half west of Bogotá. The town is a prime example of the haphazard urbanisation of the city’s hinterland: green pastures are gradually filling with factories and subsidised housing projects. I met Yolanda in one of these bucolic low-income projects where she was now the manager. As she walked out through the gate, I was struck by the sight of the city behind her, at a distance, in the foothill of the tall and green eastern mountain range. As we greeted each other, she looked past the fields and remarked with sadness at how that used to be her home.

Yolanda was evicted from her apartment in downtown Bogotá in 2011. The five-storey building where she lived for more than 20 years was located in an area that had been marked for urban renovation and where the city government is currently carrying out a plan called Estación Central (Central Station). Several blocks were expropriated for the construction of an underground BRT station with a real estate development project above it. As in Block 5, the amount of money received by property owners made it impossible for them to find new homes in the area. “I will never have the quality of life I used to have,” Yolanda told me as we sat in a cafeteria in Funza near the housing project where she now rents an apartment with her elderly father. “It’s so nice now over there,” she continued. “How is it possible that they won’t let us stay…[So it turns out] I left my home to benefit only a few.”

Ironically, the real estate company in which Yolanda works as a building manager will very likely be one of the same firms looking to invest in the Estación Central project that expelled her from her home. Now a renter who pays greater costs to access urban services and amenities, Yolanda and her story are reminders of how the city can be rebuilt for profit and not for people.

By chance I met Jairo and Humberto from Block 5 again, in front of the Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Theatre, a few blocks north from where the political martyr, after whom it is named, was assassinated in 1948. Downtown residents had come to the theatre to hear about the new city administration’s revitalisation policies. Bogotá’s planning director María Mercedes Maldonado explained how the administration was attempting to “overcome the distrust the previous renovation approach had brought about…with a model based on citizen associations”. Estación Central, she stressed, would now be an opportunity to redress previous exclusions.

During the meeting, a well-known community leader—the person who had put me in touch with Yolanda—went around the auditorium handing out small slips of paper with a message on them. The last sentence, typed in bold letters, punctuated the stakes of redirecting the city’s redevelopment policies: “The Plan must be inclusive for all, not as it has been for the people who they already took out of La Alameda neighbourhood and are today displaced and without a roof or opportunities because what they received was not enough.”

Federico Perez  is a PhD student at Harvard University. He is currently conducting research on urban planning and redevelopment in Bogotá. His work has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Inter-American Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council (Drugs, Security and Democracy Program).