During the first two decades of the 20th century many voices and a diversity of social sectors decried the living conditions in Puerta de Tierra and even its very existence. The barrio detracted from the entrance to the Capital, it was dangerous and violent, overcrowded and frequently subject to epidemics and diseases. These difficult circumstances were intensified in the lower areas of the sector, on the shores of the San Antonio Channel, where the mangrove was being reclaimed inch by inch as workers who came searching for work built their houses.
Concerned with the deplorable impression the neighborhood made on visitors to the Capital, in 1910 the New York architect Prentice Sanger proposed an elaborate project for beautifying the city. According to Sanger, Puerta de Tierra should disappear and only “first quality” structures should be built at the entrance to the Capital, a city that in his opinion was destined to be one of the principal cities of the Americas. Yet Puerta de Tierra survived the proposed beautification plan. The Chief Engineer of the city, Miguel Ferrer, although recognizing the need to improve the entrance to the capital city, sustained that the cost of expropriation, dredging, and construction were an excessive burden for the city budget. Thus, the plan to improve the entrance to the capital was set aside for a later date.
Curiously, the main concerns of both the architect and the municipal engineer were beautification and the city budget. The living conditions and housing for the residents of the barrio were, in the best of cases, secondary issues in the discussion between the officials.
In the summer of 1912 the debate regarding the destruction of the neighborhood was revived. This time the most insistent demands came from organized labor. In the face of protests that had arisen among the citizens of the capital due to an outbreak of bubonic plague which had apparently originated in Puerta de Tierra, the leaders of the Unión Central de Trabajadores de San Juan (Central Labor Union of San Juan), in an impassioned document, demanded that the barrio be burned down and destroyed. Among other things, the labor leaders denounced the Property Owners League of San Juan for the poor sanitary conditions and overcrowded housing that characterized Puerta de Tierra. According to the union representatives, the greed of the members of the property owners league had lead them to subdivide apartments and houses in order to create small and inadequate housing. In their frenzy to build rooms and shabby cubbyholes to rent, the owners paid little attention to sanitary facilities. Latrines, kitchens and wash areas were converted into communal areas, at times shared by dozens of families. This thoughtless construction led to the deterioration of the living conditions of the tenants. In the opinion of the labor leaders the Federal government needed to intervene in the matter and take the same action in Puerta de Tierra as they had in San Francisco’s Chinatown when it was hit by the plague. The neighborhood should be burned down and destroyed. They recommended that a clean and modern working class neighborhood, that could be a model for future neighborhoods on the islands, should be built. But their demands fell on deaf ears. The plague subsided and public opinion in the capital turned to other matters. The residents of the barrio continued to suffer the old ills.
During the second decade of the century one of the more determined voices that denounced the difficult living conditions of the Puerta de Tierra residents was that of Father Juan Lynch. As parish priest of the San Agustín church he knew neighborhood life first hand. His constant visits to the poor areas filled him with indignation and led him on many occasions to demand intervention from city and state-level authorities.
One of the issues that the priest was concerned about was the image of street violence and labor unrest that was associated with the neighborhood. In the priest’s view, this image, which was so harmful to Puerta de Tierra, was largely the fault of the tobacco manufacturers and the workers at the tobacco factory. According to Father Lynch, these workers had invaded the neighborhood and disrupted the labor climate in 1906, when the Porto Rican American Tobacco Company set up its main factory on the island in Puerta de Tierra. In 1914, during the great tobacco strike, a rumor circulated around the neighborhood that the factory was going to close, and the priest interpreted the possibility as a blessing from Heaven. Unfortunately for the San Agustin parish priest, the factory did not close, and according to his own testimony, the neighborhood became the main center of strike activity on the island. During this period, the residents of Puerta de Tierra participated in and witnessed strikes and stoppages by tobacco workers, women tobacco strippers, tobacco factory workers, dockworkers, and truckers. In 1917, there was a general strike in the neighborhood to demand salary increases and to protest the high cost of living. Among the residents, the tobacco workers, including the women, the despalilladoras, or tobacco strippers, were famous for being the most active union members and the most liable to go on strike. Many people, besides father Lynch, held them accountable for the change in labor culture in the neighborhood.
Yet more than criticizing the tobacco workers and industrialists, the priest was focused on improving living conditions for the residents of Puerta de Tierra. As part of his many efforts to change the harsh reality of the barrio, Father Lynch recruited a projectionist to record scenes in the poorer areas. The priest hoped that when the scenes were shown in island movie houses he would find new allies for his crusade. Although I have not found later references to the project, I find Father Lynch’s proposal an extraordinary resource for illustrating life as it was in the neighborhood, and will therefore attempt to recreate a tour of Puerta de Tierra in the 1920s through the photographs shown on the next few pages.
This article is a passage from the essay by Arturo Bird Carmona “Puerta de Tierra: Life in a Working-Class Neighborhood, 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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