Puerta de Tierra, Tropical Paradise

As part of an investigation into the Caribbean visitor economy, curator Marina Reyes Franco contextualizes architectural and urban development in Puerto Rico as part of a politics of tourism indifferent to the community which resists it.

Puerta de Tierra, Tropical Paradise
One morning in January 2015 I received a flood of text messages from a colleague. “They are knocking down the palm trees in Puerta de Tierra,” she warned. A few weeks before, several neighbors had seen signs of construction on the northern coast of this neighborhood in San Juan, unaware of the plan. I had returned to Puerto Rico a few months prior and the view of the palm trees, the beach, and the Atlantic Ocean on my walk home reminded me of weekend outings with my father in the nineties. No one fucks with my memories. That morning my neighbors and I confronted the construction in order to put a halt to it. The project consisted of the construction of a bike lane, new pavements, seating, green spaces, structures that sculpturally “frame” the landscape, a restaurant, a ceramic mural, a sculpture, and a complete reorganization of the bus routes. In the context of a country like Puerto Rico, which has long been suffering a severe economic crisis, designing this kind of construction project—which cost more than 40 million dollars in public debt—involved setting up a public corporation which issued bonds in order to fund it. The central government’s plan was to transform the northern coast of Puerta de Tierra in order to improve the touristic image of the neighborhood and to contribute to the revitalization of this area, without first consulting the residents. Based on the protests, marches, demands, and numerous neighborhood meetings that took place over the course of that year, an interest arose in the visitor economy, the aesthetics that it imposes, and the art that allies itself and responds to that social conditioning.
I would dare to speculate that the two most symbolic architectural projects in the area’s recent history are the construction of the Caribe Hilton hotel in 1949, and that of the Puerta de Tierra Promenade which began in 2014. The aspirations to tourism, between the arrival of industrialization and its subsequent crisis following the elimination of tax incentives for North American companies in 2006, have architectural projects that correspond to it and bodies that resist them. Various interventions carried out in recent years by artists and community groups comment, criticize, and act on the urban landscape.

Located between the extremely touristic areas of Condado and the sixteenth-century ancient walled city of San Juan, Puerta de Tierra is a neighborhood that developed in isolation: its far-removed location is a result of the failure to meet the sanitizing expectations of the capital. The neighborhood, as its name indicates, was the island’s capital’s connection to land, an area of transit and military defense. It was not until the middle of the sixteenth century that the urban development of Puerta de Tierra began to come into effect, and in 1897 parts of the wall that circled it collapsed. Less than one year later, in July 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico and took over its islands as part of the pillaging of Spain in the Spanish-American War. After the first election of a Puerto Rican government in 1948 and the adoption of the constitution of the Commonwealth in 1952, a rapid social transformation began which impacted the new colony’s projected image—as a modern and tropical destination—and efforts at economic development efforts through tourism.
Modern tourism in Puerto Rico began at the beginning of the twentieth century with adventurers who travelled to the island from New York by boat, seeking an exoticized Hispanic culture over the hegemonic culture of North American. In the thirties, Blanton Winship, the then governor appointed by the president of the United States, established the first Office of Tourism, essential in the context of the Great Depression. Its eminently colonial campaigns presented an image of Puerto Rico willing to satisfy the visitor. This image was criticized by the growing intellectual community and by members of the Nationalist Party, who advocated for the independence of the country. The electoral victory of the recently founded Democratic Popular Party, led by Luis Muñoz Marín, allowed for the establishment of a legal and regulated plan for touristic development.

During the forties the colonial model in Puerto Rico started to change. In 1943 the Committee on the Design of Public Works was established, which, thanks to the efforts of the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company (PRIDCO) and the modernization of the country, revolutionized public architecture and ensured the inclusion of the modern movement in architectural practice. The role assigned to tourism as “an industry without factories, without assembly lines, without machinery” [1] required the expansion of facilities and the marketing of our people, climate, and beaches. After Muñoz Marín became the first elected governor of Puerto Rico in 1948, he negotiated the approval of the Law 600, which established the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, granting the country a new status of limited autonomy. Teodoro Moscoso, head of the PRIDCO, implemented Operación Manos a la Obra, a program of industrial economic development funded by a collaboration of North American investors and governmental investment, which renovated the touristic vision of the country.
Among the problems this program addressed was the image of the existing hotels—colonial in the case of several in Old San Juan, neo-Hispanic in the Condado Vanderbilt, and Art Deco in the Hotel Normandie in Puerta de Tierra. In order to promote Puerto Rico as “the Island of Enchantment” and to attract sixteen percent of Caribbean tourism, the government set out to construct the first new hotel in twenty-five years. Moscoso offered seven North American hotel companies the opportunity to build a modern hotel and to rent it at a low price with the option of buying, but only the Hilton Hotel Corporation showed interest in the offer. In 1946 an open call was put out for the design of the new Caribe Hilton, its only specification that it have three hundred bedrooms with air conditioning and supporting facilities. The hotel would be located in what was the US Navy, in a small adjoining peninsula to the San Gerónimo Fort, the Hotel Normandie, and the Escambrón beach. The local firms submitted modern proposals, while firms based in Florida proposed neo-Hispanic buildings. Finally, Toro, Ferrer y Torregrosa won the design: a modern international building of three hundred bedrooms with sea views.

The hotel opened its doors in December 1949, one year after Muñoz Marín became the first governor to be elected democratically. The modernity and efficiency of these constructions was a sign of that political change. That was how “the architecture in Puerto Rico adopted, overwhelmingly, the values of the international style, and rejected explicitly the role of history in the process of architectural design.” [2] The Caribe Hilton is a local precursor of the modern architectural contributions on which other architects would later work. The hotel represented an optimistic vision of a future for Puerto Ricans: a diverse economy and the island transformed into a world-class tourist destination. Critics of the project, however, pointed out not only the high cost involved—more than 7 million dollars—but also the fact that the island would be flooded with rich tourists looking only for “luxury, sun, and casinos.”

Puerto Rico stopped being the “bridge between the Americas” in order to become the “glass cabinet” of the US.

The Cold War contributed to the development of mass tourism in the country and redefined its economic and cultural interactions with foreigners, presenting itself as a “postcolonial territory protected in democratic capitalism by the United States and generously granted autonomy.” [3] Through its status as a commonwealth of the US, Puerto Rico distanced itself from Third World instability, embracing modernization through various schemes of industrialization and touristic development which transformed it into a paradise. “The sale of the refined image of the island, as it is reflected in the gleaming new hotel, forged a new mythology of the tropics which, paradoxically, led to a change in the way in which the society saw itself.” [4]

Sofía Gallisá Muriente’s piece Lluvia con nieve reflects on this historical period at the beginning of the fifties through images about Puerto Rico that were distributed in the United States. This double video projection, along with a publication which compiles news from the era, shows relevant images from a 1955 report about the arrival of two metric tons of snow and a family from New Hampshire to Puerto Rico, and of the reception that they received from thousands of young people in the Parque Sixto Escobar of Puerta de Tierra. This Christmas celebration marked the fourth and final time that the then mayor of San Juan, Felisa Rincón de Gautier, brought snow to the island with the help of Eastern Airlines. The artist slows down the shots, accompanies them with by a Mon Rivera mambo, and separates them in two moments of action. In this way, we are able to pay attention to the details of the image’s construction, the contrast of political ideals in this forced show of national reconciliation of Puerto Rican traditions and the “magic” of the snow brought from the metropolis. The swamp that forms—in the publication we even discover that the celebration was cancelled because supposedly there were rocks inside the snowballs—is also metaphorical and representative of the alliance that the island had just entered into with the United States. In the logic of the commonwealth, it was possible to be in the tropics and to have snow; to be Puerto Rican and “American”; to bring snow in the same plane that thousands of national migrants used to take to New York—you can have your cake and eat it too.
The history of the Puerta de Tierra Promenade is more anecdotal, immediate, and still in progress. In 2014, when construction began, Puerto Rico was less than a year away from declaring that its public debt—more than 73 billion dollars—was “unpayable.” Nevertheless, the idea prevails that construction implies development: to construct is to progress, to generate jobs, and, above all, to create a concrete image. Tourism will be our savior. Various administrations of the central government have wanted to “revitalize” Puerta de Tierra or to integrate it into the rest of the tourist circuit, but without success. Between the construction of the Caribe Hilton and the present one, there has been a brutal economic crisis as well as a deterioration of the neighborhood. For decades, Puerta de Tierra was synonymous of drugs and danger, while abandoned buildings wait for those who want to benefit from its ruin, and hundreds of families have been displaced. But the physical deterioration of the neighborhood doesn’t take away the value of its strategical geographical position.

Little by little, there has begun the construction of tall and luxurious residential buildings of questionable legality, whose views promise to take over all that they see. Since 2005, the Paseo Caribe complex—Laguna Plaza, Caribe Plaza, and Bahía Plaza—has expanded to the entrance of the island of San Juan. Its residential and commercial area is promoted as a neighborhood in itself. This is perhaps one of the most controversial constructions in the recent history of the country, particularly due to the actions of the environmentalist activist Alberto de Jesús, better known as “Tito Kayak,” who climbed up one of the construction cranes and remained there for a week in protest. His subsequent escape from the police is so legendary that in 2010 a law was passed—later declared unconstitutional—criminalizing the interruption of constructions.
The enhanced nature that accompanies these architectural trends is also part of the propaganda of the Puerta de Tierra Promenade. According to the ex-director of the Authority for the Financing of Infrastructure (AFI), Grace Santana, “the tourists already go there and you see them walking on that southern sidewalk that is all broken and it is a disgrace. There are areas that are not safe at all. For example, Paseo de los Enamorados is an area of criminal activity. The promenade will change that.” [5] The so-called Paseo de los Enamorados used to be a popular cruising area for gay men, which the authorities criminalized by calling it an area of prostitution. The emphasis on the northern coast of Puerta de Tierra, where a minority of residents lives, makes it very obvious that the concern is for the visitors. Santana adds: “In tourism they are enthusiastic because we have these labels which explain the cultural history to our visitors. In these squares, we are designing some open spaces so that you can have recreational and cultural activities. So you can have […] city life. And a wonderful view.” [6] Ironically, the design of the architect Segundo Cardona—an eternal beneficiary of grandiose commissions from the government—constructs by raising the terrain to such a point that it loses the view of the horizon. This insistence on a cosmetic project, which hardly focuses on improving the life of those who live there and much less on the environment, provoked activism against the construction, but also interventions and a community movement linked to art, which is still active.

On the 4th of July, 2015, we celebrated A Summer in Puerta de Tierra, organized by myself and Alexis Martínez, with the participation of artists and residents closely linked to the neighborhood, who contributed to an open-air exhibition with sculptures, installations, music, projections, and informal talks about the history of the neighborhood. We sought to question the prevailing notions of progress, evolution, and development, thinking about Puerta de Tierra and the changes that we had witnessed. Over the course of the night, we screened videos made in collaboration with people active in the fight against the promenade and with those who viewed the act of laying the foundations of that construction as another step closer to erasing the poor community.
Another artist we invited was Yiyo Tirado. One early morning in July 2016, Tirado in a van with a group of accomplices approached the area where they were constructing the controversial promenade and unloaded various sculptures of palm trees on bars, cement coconuts, and a hammock constructed with orange construction mesh. The location of these pieces is registered in the series Paisaje hipervisible. Workmen removed sculptures that same morning. The work of Tirado collects and highlights the unease in the face of the excessive constructions that benefit capital, the privatization of beaches, and the abuse of power, and that legitimize the idea that progress is achieved through cement at the cost of the environment and the community. His recent body of work focuses on the development of the country in the post-tourism moment and a look from the experience of the visitor, which transforms the living conditions in the country.

The Brigada PDT is the community and artistic project that has achieved coherence of content and action in the same neighborhood. One of the participating artists in A Summer in Puerta de Tierra, Jesús Bubu Negrón, started the “spontaneous campsite,” a workshop with children and teenagers, in order to repair a sculpture. Afterwards, the young people created informative murals and organized activities where they publicly highlighted the problems caused by the implementation of the first phase of the promenade. Later on, in August 2015, the group organized itself under the name of Brigada Puerta de Tierra, with the slogan “People Live Here.” [7] Recently, the Brigada PDT, together with Negrón and the artist Luis Agosto Leduc, was selected as the winning project of the Visible Award 2017, awarded to socially engaged artistic projects. The prize of €25,000 will be invested into the Plaza-Vivero property. With the support of Americas for Conservation + the Arts, the brigade organized a program of work experience and community service which paid both the workshop facilitators and the participants for their summer work. The young people participating in the program ran a radio show through the online station Radio Red, built a platform in the construction and design workshop, and produced the first product from their own garden: alcohol reinforced with herbs. Among the future plans are the creation of a museum of the neighborhood and a center for innovation and community management in the Infanzón Building, geared towards the economic development of the neighborhood.
Puerto Rico’s economic crisis and the urgent need to diversify the incoming money into the coffers of the country make the change towards tourism imminent. Almost all public cultural activity is justified as part of some odd strategy to make ourselves more pleasing to the tourist’s gaze. San Juan Waterfront, Bayshore Villas, and West Condado are some of the foreign names that are being considered for the revitalization projects that they are developing in Puerta de Tierra. Projects such as those the Brigada PDT proposes question these versions of the development of the city and defiantly declare “People Live Here”.


  1. Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company, Informe Anual, Año Fiscal 1948–1949 (San Juan, PR: PRIDCO, 1949).

  2. Enrique Vivoni-Farage, “Modern Puerto Rico and Henry Klumb” en Docomomo, no. 33 (September 2005), p. 27–37.

  3. Dennis Merrill, “Negotiating Cold War Paradise: U.S. Tourism, Economic Planning, and Cultural Modernity in Twentieth-Century Puerto Rico” in Diplomatic History 25, no. 2 (Spring 2001), p. 196.

  4. Jerry Torres Santiago, The Invention of the Gates of Paradise: Images, Architecture, and Context in the Development of Hotels in San Juan, ed. Enrique Vivoni Farage, Ever New San Juan, (Río Piedras: Archivo de Arquitectura y Construcción de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 2000), 150–151.

  5. Nelson Gabriel Berríos, Para el 2016 El Debut del Paseo Puerta de Tierra. Revista Construcción, February 12, 2015. Accessed on September 13, 2018: [https://construccionelnuevodia.com/noticia/para-el-2016-el-debut-del-paseo-puertade-tierra/].

  6. Ibid.

  7. More information at: [https://www.brigadapdt.org].


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