“The other thing they said was bicycles,” said Rene Caro, part of the city’s public space authority, told me recently, “Even people who probably aren’t riding bikes – seniors citizens for example – all agreed that eco-bici and bicycles in general had an important place on the avenue.”
These snippets were part of a discussion about the city’s planned revamp of one of La Roma’s most important avenues, Álvaro Obregón – home to the majority of the colonia’s nightlife and also a lot of its daily chaos. Groups of neighbors with varying interests formed a part of a series of 4 workshops that the city government held to get feedback about the planned project and find out what was important to people about the avenue. The obvious issues raised their ugly heads – parking meters (one side of Obregón has them and the other doesn’t), dogs (some neighbors want dog parks, the others want no dogs allowed), street vendors (are they providing a service or adding to the chaos?) and noise (bars and restaurants, motorcycle gangs).
According to Caro, and the official project proposal, what’s first is a revamp of the physical area. That means fixing the streetlights, repaving the sidewalks, treating sick trees, renovating the fountains and (I hope) adding more trashcans. This will all begin after the first of the year.
The second phase of the project will be a little trickier.
The Long Arm of the Law
“What we’re not short on is rules,” says Caro, “the problem is enforcement.”
The project’s second stage is getting businesses and residents to follow some of the city ordinances already in place. That means restaurants are limited on the amount of tables they can have on the sidewalk (and what they can have can’t block pedestrian traffic), it means clubs and bars have to respect noise limits, it means residents have to pick up after their dogs. It also means that most sidewalk vendors will have to go.
This last issue is a particular bone of contention, with one side abhorring the vendors and the other side applauding their utility. For many people, their removal will be one more example of gentrification in La Roma.
But Caro says that along with vendors’ utility come issues of legality, mobility on the sidewalks and the trash that street markets and lines of vendors are notorious for leaving behind.
“It’s all about creating a balance,” he says. “We’re never going to lose this culture of buying and selling the street, but we need to organize it in such a way that street commerce respects the space of the other as well.”
As a resident of this neighborhood I hate the idea of reduced sidewalk seating at my favorite restaurants and I don’t agree with kicking vendors off Álvaro Obregón – they not only add to the vibrant street life of the city, but fill the streets with onlookers, an important part of making them safe, especially at night.
BUT on the other hand, it would be nice if the sidewalks were clear for disabled residents, if I had a place to lock up my bike and if the streetlights worked.
“We complain a lot about the government and its corruption and ineptness,” says Caro, “ but when it comes time to follow the rules ourselves we refuse. This creates a vicious circle of blame. We all have to learn how to become responsible citizens.”
Later we talk about Mayor Mokus of Bogota and his famous experiment in the 90s where neighbors were given red and yellow cards to flash at each other when they caught someone doing something wrong – cutting someone off in traffic, throwing trash on the sidewalk. Psychology and perception have a strong influence over how we act on the street. We’ll have to wait and see how Álvaro Obregón’s facelift changes the neighborhood (and the neighbors) – for better or for worse.