Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

Urban Development, Public Health, and the Environment: A Historical Case Study in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Possibilities for the Future

Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

Urban Development, Public Health, and the Environment: A Historical Case Study in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Possibilities for the Future

Article excerpt

A number of years ago, while I was researching the history of public health in the Archivo General de Puerto Rico in the section of the city of San Juan known as Puerta de Tierra, the windshield of our rental car was shattered. The damage was the result of a falling coconut. When I called the rental company, however, the representative immediately assumed the damage had been caused by vandalism and asked me what I was doing in a bad neighborhood like Puerta de Tierra. A good deal of the area's unsavory reputation comes from problems related to drugs and crime that emerged in some of the zone's housing projects in the 1980s, but the neighborhood's stigmatization has a longer history. At the time of the windshield incident, I had already found many documents in the archive dating back to the nineteenth century that discussed disease, inadequate housing, environmental challenges, and the poverty of the zone's inhabitants. However, with the coconut incident, I began to consider Puerta de Tierra's present and future, as well as its past. My gaze shifted from more general work on public health to an examination of the neighborhood where I spent my days.1

This article is the result of that effort. It examines the historical origins of the neighborhood's reputation for poor hygiene, disease, and environmental degradation and places that story in the context of Puerto Rico's development programs since the 1940s. I argue that trends that began in the late-1800s were reinforced by housing policies originating under the New Deal and continuing in various forms to the present. At the same time, many aspects of Puerta de Tierra's history-even events or programs that apparently caused the neighborhood to deteriorate-might contribute to its potential to become a flourishing urban center and a model for other cities.2

Since the mid-twentieth century, Puerto Rico and its capital city San Juan have experienced two major kinds of mass housing development. One is a wave of public housing project construction that began in the 1940s and 1950s and continues through the present day. These projects were supposed to be part of the solution to the often swampy, crowded urban slums that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century as increasing numbers of people leftrural areas seeking work in the city. The other type of development, which also persists today, is based on the U.S. model of suburbanization. Over the last 50 or 60 years, real estate developers have constructed thousands of private, detached homes, which have occupied more and more of the island's land.3 A group of Puerto Rican environmental scholars have called this explosion in horizontal housing-made possible by the privately owned car-"paramount to madness, given the limited amount of available land on the island."4 It is ironic that the island's license plates proclaim Puerto Rico to be the "Isla del Encanto" (Enchanted Isle), since private motorcars are what actually made it possible for developers to turn the previously lush countryside into housing projects.

In hindsight, it is easy to criticize both public and private housing initiatives of Puerto Rico. A certain amount of criticism is warranted; a lack of central planning, government cronyism, and even corruption have contributed to the issues created by both types of housing.5 However, it is important to understand the magnitude and urgency of the housing crisis faced by planners and officials in our consideration of their work. By 1950, 42 percent of the island's population lived in urban areas and about 46 percent of all dwellings in cities (about 95,000 homes) were considered slums.6 In 1940, only 50 percent of urban dwellings and 7.2 percent of countryside homes had indoor running water. Additionally, 35 percent of urban homes and a meager 3.3 percent of rural homes had flush toilets.7 From these numbers, one can see how pressing the problems of sanitation, public health, and overcrowding were and how ambitious the effort to provide adequate housing for all of the island's people was. …

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