Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Securing the History of Old San Juan – The Puerto Rico Historic Building Drawing Society

Our tour guide, Andy, stopped and told us to wait while he went into a jewelry store on Calle San Francisco in Old San Juan. A few minutes later he came out with the key to an apartment building across the street. He opened the creaky gate and, as we looked up the steep stairway, said “It’s worth the climb.”

San Juan, Puerto Rico, is one of the oldest European cities in the Americas, and its buildings are a unique collection of Spanish colonial architecture. It is so unique that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Unfortunately a large number of these treasures have been allowed to deteriorate over the years. The Puerto Rico Historic Building Drawing Society (PRHBDS) is working hard to educate people and help turn this tide.

Alcalde de Viejo San Juan

Convento y Casa de Salud de Siervas de Maria

The PRHBDS is an organization of professionals including architects, urban planners, engineers and educators that has a goal of promoting and educating the population on Puerto Rico’s historic environment. They work hard to make sure that its past is researched, understood and preserved. It maintains a library of architectural drawings, historic photographs and information about over 1200 buildings around the island. They also run educational tours that highlight that history and architecture. 

Andy Rivera - Founder and President, PRHBDS

I had the chance to sit with Andy Rivera, the founder and president of the PRHBDS. The Society was founded in 2001. Today its eight members carry on their mission of education, explaining and showing off the history and architecture of Puerto Rico.

“The architectural details found in Old San Juan and Ponce are not found in all parts of island. Smaller towns have demolished a lot of their old buildings.”

But Andy is optimistic.

“People’s views of the old buildings have changed. Today many are fixing up the older houses, taking advantage of the older technologies and ways of dealing with Caribbean heat and rain, while mixing in newer methods and materials”

 Andy also pointed out that there has been a change in the outlook of companies that are developing properties in Old San Juan and other places around the island. The government and some developers have begun to recognize the value of maintaining the architectural history and are learning how to integrate old and new while rebuilding properties.

Andy’s biggest concern in the redevelopment of Old San Juan is maintaining the balance of the commercial, tourist and residential nature of the area.

 “Old San Juan must keep its character as a living city and not become an artificial tourist destination.”

He believes that there must be a master plan that has a place for all of its history, moneyed and poor, from La Fortelza -the Governor’s Palace to La Perla.

La Fortelza - By Jaro Nemčok (http://nemcok.sk/?pic=25897) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
La Perla - By Jaro Nemčok (http://nemcok.sk/?pic=26115) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

To build the awareness of the patrimony of Old San Juan, Andy and the other members of the PRHBDS lead walking tours. They take groups of people around the old city to view its history. For a minimal cost (usually $10), which goes to fund this non-profit organization, they offer two-hour educational walks that give an in depth look at the history of the buildings in the area, and because they have an educational mission they have access to buildings that other tours can’t enter.  While most of their tours are in Spanish, they do offer some in English, and the tour guides I had were bilingual and happy to help me keep up to speed.

Calle Sol

Calle Sol at Sunset

The Amazing Ms. D during one of our tours

I took three tours with PRHBDS, one to look at examples stained glass windows in Old San Juan, one to look at soles truncus, the traditional wood ventilation screens over the doorways, and one in the nearby town of Rio Piedras and on the campus of University of Puerto Rico. Come back next week for my tour of the Stained Glass Windows of Old San Juan.

Taking the Tours - You can find the complete schedule of tours offered by the Puerto Rico Historic Building Drawing Society on the Facebook page.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Go from Tourist to Traveler when you Explore Old San Juan

The scene is like a post card. The sun is setting on Calle Sol. Face the west and it fills the street placing everything except the lit street lamp in silhouette. Look to the east and the yellow sun makes the pastel colored buildings glow. It is a beautiful end to another day in Old San Juan.

I have been coming to Puerto Rico every year or two for the past twenty-odd years. Many things have changes, even in Old San Juan, but I still get the same feelings that I did when I first came here. It is comfortable here, and I feel transported back in time. Founded in 1521, this city is one of the oldest European settlements in the Americas. Its colonial character has been preserved due to a series of laws and the fact that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. This prevents construction of new buildings in the old city. It has also helped that the streets are so narrow that large construction vehicles would never make it through.

Old San Juan is a neighborhood that is ten blocks long and seven blocks wide, stretching from the Bay of San Juan up to the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The southern half of the city, closer to the bay and the cruise ship terminals, is mostly commercial and very touristy. The streets are lined with stores and restaurants, and while the stores are mostly 3/$10 teeshirt and magnet places there are two that I highly recommend. The first is Mundo Taino, whose main branch sits at the corner of Calle Fortelleza and Calle San Jose. They sell only goods produced on the island of Puerto Rico, so you know that you are supporting local artisans when you shop there. Another place I try to get to whenever I am in Old San Juan it The Poet’s Passage, next to Plaza de las Armas. One half of the space is a wonderful café, the kind where you can come, sit and write about your day in your journal. The other half is a shop with literary souvenirs. They sell poems and verse on tiles or canvas to decorate your home.

Plaza de Las Armas

But don’t stay in the lower part of Old San Juan. Take the time to get away from the commercial center. Walk north, up the hill, and wander the residential streets of Calle Luna and Calle Sol. Away from the crowds (especially when there are two or three mega cruise ships in port) this area takes me back in time. The streets and sidewalks are narrow, built for a time horse carriages and walking. The outside of most of the buildings are carefully maintained. I love walking through these streets. They are quiet and I find myself becoming lost in thought. I wonder what it was like to live here 200 years ago. Before cars and electricity. These houses look simple on the outside , but every once in a while an open door shows a stairwell with Spanish tiles leading to the second floor, or a dark hallway leading to an interior courtyard that you just glimpse part of as you walk by.

At the top of the hill is Calle San Sebastian. Here you will find restaurants and bars, the nightlife of bohemian San Juan. Stop for a drink, or have a meal. My favorite place is El Patio de Sam, near the Plaza de Quinto Centanario and the Museo de las Americas, both worth a visit on their own. El Patio serves a good selection of ciollo food and has an excellent bar. If you come in mid-January, the festival of San Sebatian will be in full swing. It takes over the street for four days and is Old San Juan’s biggest party of the year.  

If you want to learn about the architectural history of Old San Juan I strongly suggest taking on of the many tours offered by the Puerto Rico Historic Building Drawings Society. This non-profit offers walks through the old city hosted by architects and students. Their tours highlight the history of the buildings and often include access to spaces that most other tours can’t get to. And all for an extremely reasonable price. You can find their schedule on their facebook page.

Getting There: From Condado – Take the T21 or T53 bus to the Old San Juan Bus Terminal.

From Isla Verde – Take the T5 or T53 bus to the old San Juan Bus Terminal.
Just outside the terminal there is a free trolley service into old San Juan. The open air trolley will take you up to the top of the hill to the two National Park sites – El Morro and San Critóbal. The enclosed bus will take you through the center of old San Juan. They both run on continuous loops from 9 AM to about 6PM.

Driving – If you drive in to Old San Juan I suggest the Doña Fela Parking Garage on Calle Recinto Sur. It is less expensive than others in the area, and the trolley stop is directly across from the entrance.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Real NYC #42 - Escape the city with a walk in Riverside Park

Winter in the city is underrated. People who don’t live here think that city dwellers huddle around the radiator, dashing from apartment to subway to work, and then reversing that trip in the evening. The reality is that we get out in all kinds of weather, and the cold is no barrier to a walk in the park, in fact it might even add something to your stroll.

There is a strip of land that sits between the West Side Highway and the Hudson River. Technically it is part of Riverside Park, but until about 10 years ago it was totally undeveloped. Now there is a paved bike and walking path, part of the bike trail that circles the island of Manhattan. You can get to this escape from the city from either 125th street or inside the park and the 98th street highway turnaround. Once you start this walk there is no exit, going forward or back are the only options.

During good weather this path is a mecca for bikers and runners. It also draws people who want to sit and watch the river go by. On a cold December day it was almost deserted and, dressed for the cold, I decided to take a walk along the water. I really enjoy being out by myself. I am an introvert, and I enjoyed walking through the open space. I lost myself, listening to my ipod. The view along the river was serene and as I turned my back on the highway traffic I took in the water and the trees. As I walked north through the park, my eyes were drawn back again and again to the George Washington Bridge towering in the distance.

Between the wind off of the river and breeze generated cars speeding by, the cold was biting at first. My fingers were icicles inside my gloves, and the traffic provided a constant rumble that penetrated through the episodes of The Moth and This American Life coming through my earphones. The cold and the noise cocooned me. They embraced me and separated me from the world. They brought my thoughts in from the outside. My focus narrowed to individual trees and rocks. The shapes of nature filled my eyes and my imagination. My mind framed the photos. Where is the light coming from? Where do the shadows fall? Color or Black and White?

It became meditative, and the feeling of cold slipped away. I moved on, from one picture to the next. My fingers moved smoothly over the camera, set the f-stop and exposure, focus, snap, move on, set the f-stop, focus, snap. The next thing I knew, I had completed the mile and a half walk. No longer cold, I peeled out of the park and headed back to my car, parked a mile away. Now, all I felt was tired, my feet were sore, so I took a bus back downtown. As I warmed up, I came back to the world. Voices invaded my space, along with the traffic on Broadway. I scrolled through the photos in my camera, but I already knew which ones I wanted to use.