Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Neighborhood Divisions

For the past few weeks, I’ve delved into the neighborhood politics and social relations in the area of the historic center where the sex workers work, the barrio of San Marcos. I’ve been surprised by how divided San Marcos is, not just on the issue of prostitution, but on everything under the sun—how garbage should be collected (what time of day people can start placing it on the street for pick up that night), how they envision the future of San Marcos generally, how they should control crime (some want alarms installed on the front of every house), how they should handle increasingly “errant” children and teenagers….parking dilemmas, curfews, conflicts over the planning of the festivities of August 10th, a national holiday in Ecuador in honor of one of the first battles of independence of 1810. One strong group is the old-timers--some of these families have lived in San Marcos for several generations and have lived their entire lives within the confines of the three principle streets. Some of them are now in their 60s or older, but many of their children have also chosen to remain in the neighborhood.

The largest clashes are between these old time residents and newly arrived business owners who are set on gentrifying the neighborhood. For instance, in the past 10-15 years, six new museums and cultural institutions have arrived, 2 in the past 3 years. San Marcos is a quaint, beautiful area of the historic center with colonial and republican architecture, but since most of the (huge) homes have been occupied by just one family over several generations, their original details are still intact despite their poor condition--they’ve never been renovated which means these grand homes are a gold-mine for new investors who want to start “boutique hotels,” fancy restaurants, new art museums, galleries, etc. Similar to other parts of Quito’s historic center, many families started dividing their grand homes into smaller apartments to rent out to new families migrating from rural areas in the 1970s. But for whatever reason, this process happened less in San Marcos than in other areas of the historic center, perhaps because it is a bit further from the Plaza Grande and due to its geography has always been set apart from the rest of the Centro. (It developed as a tiny neighborhood of only 3 streets between two deep ravines—it ends in a dead-end so there are only 2 ways to enter it and you are forced to exit in the same way you entered….)

The old-time residents get annoyed because they don’t feel included in the plans of the new business owners. For instance, at the last Neighborhood Association, the neighbors complained that the new art gallery and museums were over-looking local artists in favor of exhibiting artists from other parts of the country or at times from other parts of the world. The business owners of cultural institutions do not tend to promote local artists or even invite the residents of San Marcos to their events. Some of the museums have said they’ve tried to invite the residents in the past but none of them ever come so they’ve given up. The tensions boil down to class issues. The old-time residents of the neighborhood belong to the middle or lower classes. Indeed, there are very few wealthy families left in San Marcos. The new arrivals are very wealthy Quitenos who have decided to invest in a beautiful neighborhood that they view as having serious business potential. Most of the new business owners do not actually live in San Marcos, they still live in North Quito, although that is changing—one of the gallery owners just bought a house in the neighborhood and is in the process of restoring it. Several wealthy individuals from North Quito have bought and restored some of the grand homes of the neighborhood in recent years, so there is a definite movement of the upper classes reclaiming San Marcos as “their territory.”

The old timers who have been there for 25 years or more feel threatened by the new wealth in their neighborhood. They are definitely wary of the new arrivals, even though some of these businesses might be economically beneficial to them too, especially if there is more foot traffic in the area. The two groups are at odds in their visions for the future of San Marcos and have very different concerns for the present. For instance, the new business owners consider prostitution and security issues as their absolute top priority because they feel these are the biggest obstacles to the barrio’s gentrification. As long as sex workers are standing on the corners of the neighborhood’s entrance, tourists will not feel comfortable visiting the area. The new arrivals seem to think the neighborhood is incredibly dangerous, which is debatable. Some parts are, especially where the sex workers work, but others are very safe, at least during the day.

The old time residents A) don’t feel the neighborhood is dangerous in the slightest and B) don’t have as strong opinions on prostitution because it has existed in the area for a decade. They seem resigned to the fact that the sex workers have claimed two streets on the periphery as their own. It seems that as long as the sex workers do not actually enter the neighborhood, (which they don’t), the residents don’t seem to care. The residents are more concerned about continuing to be included in the changes of the neighborhood. They have mixed feelings about tourists visiting the barrio because San Marcos has always been a very quiet area. They don’t want more restaurants and definitely no bars at all because that would dramatically change the family atmosphere of the neighborhood. As it stands, not one store in San Marcos sells alcohol. It is not an official law or ordinance, it’s just something the neighbors have agreed upon together. For now no bars have moved in and all the restaurants are only open for lunch, so tensions around night festivities have not yet come to a head, but it’s definitely an issue on people’s minds and a worry for the future. The residents seem to realize that they wouldn’t have any power to stop a bar from moving in.

It surprised me that there are some residents who refused to sign a petition created by one of the new business owners demanding that the prostitutes be removed from the neighborhood. It seems that as long as these stark divisions and antagonisms exist between old and new residents/business owners, the sex workers will be able to work without worry. Only if San Marcos becomes a unified front could they make such a drastic change of kicking the women out.

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