Sketch of the Puerto Rican Fortified city

Sketch of the Puerto Rican Fortified city

Extramural development of San Juan and resistance by the military

It is said that modernization, among other things, means “making the world a more ame­nable place for community administration governed by the State” (Zygmunt Bauman, La globalizazión. Con­secuencias humanas, 1999). In order for this to be so, the world must appear “transparent and legible” to the administrative authorities. Maps, censuses, plats, among other strategies, are part of this posture of the modern state, which leans toward organizing and controlling the space over which it exercises its power. In 1867, a year considered by many as “ca­lamitous” for Puerto Rico, by means of a land survey act, the Ley de Alineacion, the colonial State made a decisive move to frame the social space of the is­land in an organized, transparent and legible model. The legislation regulated urban public spaces such as squares, streets and setback lines, as well as insisting on uniform measurements, colors and nomenclature for scales and identifying spaces.

In San Juan, a disputed urban space throughout the 19th century, regulation of property faced another situation. Two characteristics of its particular urban constitution became disproportionately important:

1. The dominant role of the military that dictated San Juan’s growth from the moment San Juan became a city. The military had the preeminent right to disenfranchise other social agents in their claims for space. In spite of the diminished geopolitical importance of Spain in the 19th century, the military still was omnipotent in Puerto Rico.

2. Due to San Juan’s particular location on a narrow islet and its tightly constraining walls, the possibilities for urban expansion were somewhat complicated. In order to grow contiguously, the city is to say the ejidos or commons.

Following the medieval tradition, the Laws of the Indies had provided for setting apart unoccupied land for common use, next to the urban texture of the cities. In fact, etymologically the word ejido is derived from the Latin word meaning to leave. The ejidos were lands on the outskirts of settlements.Rather than being land to be used for cultivation, it was common property where the neighbors could unload and clean their agricultural products.

Yet that was not the sole purpose of the lands. The law also referred to them as recreational space for the cities. A provision in that regard is made in a Royal Decree issued by Philip II in 1573: [That…] the ejidos be at such a distance, that if the population were to increase there would be sufficient space left so that the populace could enjoy their leisure time and pasture their cattle undeterred (in Martínez 1977:51).

In the case of San Juan, the common right to the ejidos had been contravened since the 16th century by the garrison nature of the city. In spite of this, in 1838 the military engineer Manuel Sicardó had designed the first urban space destined for recreation on com­mon land in San Juan. Following the model of the rec­reational parks established in Madrid and Havana, the Paseo de la Alameda, on land outlying the city walls, includes three small squares and a causeway with a view of the bay. The 18thcentury Enlighten­ment was finally reaching San Juan, fifty years later.

The existence and use of the ejidos was a constant source of concern for the colonial administrators. In the 19th century, almost all of the inquiries or reviews during the governors’ official visits to the Island included a specific question as to whether the settlements had ejidos, since these public lands were the only reserves available for expansion. As the idea of the ensanche or expansion and urban reorga­nization gained currency on the Peninsula, proposals for expansion materialized in Cuba and Puerto Rico underscoring the availability of the ejidos.

The occupation of the San Juan ejidos by the mili­tary was a limitation to any expansion plans. The map, the quintessential representation of the will to dominate space, reveals in the case of San Juan, the submission of the ejido to military designs. The term ejido does not appear on 19th maps and all the terminology used on the maps is military terminol­ogy. Instead of religious, noble or popular names, the area outlying the San Juan walls was divided into imaginary demarcations related to the firing range of the cannon on the various lines of defense. The easements and firing ranges determined the bounds of the island and even the lands on tierra firme, the main island on the far side of the San Antonio Bridge, constituting the so-called zonas polémicas, or military zones, which were assigned numbers in the mid-19th century.

Military Zone Number 1 included the Carbonera neighborhood of the Recinto Sur section and the Paseo de la Alameda section in Puerta de Tierra. It extended to the last square along the Paseo where it converged with the Main Highway. Military Zone number 2, on the other hand, occupied the center of the islet and ended at the second line of defenses, demarcated by the road keeper’s cabin Number 1 and the facilities of the Marksmanship School. A third Military Zone ended at the first line of defense located at the entrance to the islet. A fourth zone ran from the batteries of the fortified San Antonio bridge and San Gerónimo fortalice, reaching into the lands of Santurce in the Olimpo Hill section.

Symbolically and practically, the outlying lands of the city were described in terms of the range of fire. It was evident that any structure within firing range would limit and interfere with the effectiveness of the cannon. Thus, military consent was required in all claims, litigation and occupation in these zones of potential urban growth. This made the naturally slow process of obtaining a permit for purchasing lots and construction even more difficult, as could be expected, and is the reason why most constructions, remodeling or alteration cases had to be sent to Madrid to be decided.

This article is a passage from the essay by Aníbal Sepúlveda-Rivera and Silvia Alvarez-Curbelo “From “Military Zone” to Neighborhood: Puerta de Tierra and the Birth of an Urban Space in San Juan”, which is included in the book San Juan: The City that Grew Beyond Its Walls, Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades. For further information about accessing this publication, you may reach EPRL by clicking Contact us.

Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: December 29, 2009.

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