An American Abroad

Santurce Graffiti, Murals, Tags, and Unauthorized Public Art

The Santurce dictrict of San Juan can fairly be described as an aspiring arts mecca. Not that many years ago, many Puerto Ricans considered it a dangerous drug- and crime-infested place rather than a neighborhood to be proud of. Though there are still grim and blighted parts of Santurce, other areas have exploded with vibrant colors, new businesses, and young Puerto Ricans looking for a place to live. The neighborhood’s revival is another testament to the power of public art to change both the perception and the reality of an urban locale.

There’s a lot of street art in Santurce. And many of these works can be found on and around my favorite street, Calle Loíza.

Some of the most striking works depict human heads and figures.

The tagging is exuberant and precisely rendered.

Murals are common and certainly add life to otherwise derelict buildings. Click here to see what the building in the two photographs below looked like just a few years ago. Quite a turnaround, no?

The wall in the photo below, though, shows that far more subtle compositions can be even more effective at setting the mood of a streetscape.

All of these photos were taken on and around Calle Loíza, which runs parallel to the beach just two blocks north. But there are equally wonderful works of public art in other parts of Santurce. And eventually I will get around to photographing them.

The Santurce Culinary & Art Festival

Some writers call Santurce “the Brooklyn of San Juan.” And there is a hip, entrepreneurial, artistic spirit to this barrio. As the New York Times cooed recently, you can walk down the man drag and find new restaurants “led by inventive chefs who prize local ingredients.” There are dance clubs, boutiques and vintage clothing shops, a gay bar, bakeries, an upscale tattoo and body piercing shop, and colorful graffiti everywhere.

It seems like the perfect setting for a culinary and art festival.

Unfortunately, the actual event didn’t quite live up to its potential. There weren’t very many exhibitors — and there was a certain sameness about those who did show up. Attendance was probably in the high hundreds, but not much more. Still, the vibe was festive and relaxed.

I heard a strong cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” as I approached Calle Loíza. Though Kingston is two islands and 700 miles west of San Juan, no one was complaining about the Caribbean cultural mash-up. The song set my mood for the day. And it was coming from this boutique/cafe, where the bartender mixes a mean mojito.

The first festival-goer I met was jauntily dressed and seemed to be enjoying all the people who came up and talked with him.

He wasn’t the only one who was literally at street-level. Two of the artists from the hipster tattoo parlor were making chalk art on the sidewalk.

Older folks lugged lawn chairs out in front of the pumps at the local filling station and sat there talking, drinking, and people watching. Hanging out like that is pretty common here and, to my mind, nicely obliterates the ordinary commercial grimness of gas stations.

Alcohol, rather than food, seemed to be the vice of choice at the festival. Bar tents outnumbered food tents by about three to one.

The spirit of the festival seemed to be to be captured by this bumpersticker. I think Bob Marley would approve.

It wasn’t only people on the street who were enjoying the relaxed mood of the day. You can just see the bare feet of a man sacked out in a hammock on his Calle Loíza balcony.

While he took a siesta, other people took advantage of the festival being closed to cars and promenaded down the street, seeing and hoping to be seen.

Others used the occasion to walk the dog.

After a couple hours of walking around, I craved someplace peaceful to sit and relax. I walked over to a Dominican chinchorro (i.e., a hole-in-the-wall bar) just off Calle Loíza and bought a Medalla beer from Mercedes, the beautiful old woman who runs the place. I took a seat out on the sidewalk in a plastic lawn chair, watched the world go by, and did my best to chat up one of the Dominican guys who’s a regular at the place.

Santurce’s not Brooklyn, but it’s not trying to be. It’s more like a laboratory where many mostly-younger Puerto Ricans are trying to build something new in a barrio that used to be known for drugs, crime, and blight. Not everyone approves of the changes that are happening here.

My take, though, is that even if the festival wasn’t a roaring success, the people of Santurce are succeeding at building something more enduring and important.

Hato Rey: My New Neighborhood

Tomorrow I celebrate three weeks in Puerto Rico and nine days in my new home in the San Juan neighborhood of Hato Rey. It’s a neighborhood of vertical living and working. I live in a cluster of apartment buildings between 12 and 16 stories tall. At street level, large shade trees provide relief from the tropical August heat. At my level, the eleventh floor of a building on Calle Honduras, gentle breezes blow from the balcony to my kitchen. I get home from work, get some cross-ventilation going, and cook myself dinner.

In the morning, the skies are light blue with puffs of seaside clouds. This is what I see out my window.

Downstairs, out through the lobby, and just a short block away down Calle Mejico is a city park one small block square. There are basketball courts and a swingset for the kids–but at the center of the park is a pavilion with shelves of books free for the taking.

I’ve seen Libros Libres (Free Books) in several parts of San Juan. It’s a mystery to me who sets them up, who tends them, and who frequents them. But I’m glad they exist. I’ve helped myself to one book so far, a hardboiled detective novel by Ross Macdonald. I plan to crack it next weekend.

Though most of Hato Rey is office towers and apartment buildings, there is an old human-scale district just north of where I live. There, the houses are made of wood and breeze block and are, at most, two and a half stories tall. The streets have letter and number names, not the Latin American nation names that the streets have where I live. It’s not a well-heeled locale, but it has a jaunty feel to it that the concrete towers of Hato Rey lack.

The only institutions in this part of Hato Rey are housefront churches of the evangelical Protestant variety and this place, which is called a chinchorro in Puerto Rican Spanish.

Chinchorros are tiny hole-in-the-wall bars–literally, in this case. Customers get their drinks through the window and then sit on ratty old plastic lawn chairs right in the street or on the sidewalk. They are loose, boisterous, fun places.

Darkness comes earlier here than it does in America. From my kitchen window, I look down onto a deserted parking area.

Tomorrow I will get up early again and explore more. Because right now, there is nowhere I would rather be.