Re-imagining spaces in the city: Clear out or collaborate?

Arepas, clle100 con cra18, Bogotá, Colombia

Jhonatan y sus arepas, clle100 con cra18, Bogotá, Colombia

(Leer en Español….)

Somewhere today, on the streets of northern Bogotá, Jhonatan sells what Colombians know as ‘arepas’. They are delicious maize pancake-like things that are split through the middle and stuffed with cheese, ham and scrambled eggs, at your command. They are usually quite cheap, no more than $3,000 COL ($1.00 USD), depending on what you put in them.

From Monday to Saturday, Jhonatan rises before sunrise. He buys eggs and prepares hogao (a mixture of onion and tomatoes), crosses the city from south to north, commuting for about an hour, in order to arrive at the crossing between clle100 and cra18 by 5 a.m. This way he is able to prepare his stand and be ready to greet the early risers, who don’t have time to eat breakfast at home, with their routinely breakfast, ‘arepa de huevo’.

Across from Jhonatan, a lady sells orange juice, fruit cups and yoghurt with muesli.

A little further, an old friend of ours, ‘el mono’ used to sell sandwiches and has now been replaced by his uncle, who has maintained the sandwich shop for the last couple of months.

For a few months, I had the privilege of being one of those who had a routinely ‘arepa de huevo’. I would stop and first of all scoff down my arepa in order to satisfy my starving sensation and then discuss the weekly news or latest gossip.

Jhonatan y sus arepas, clle 100 con cra 18, Bogotá, Colombia

Jhonatan y sus arepas, clle 100 con cra 18, Bogotá, Colombia

My most recent conversation introduced me to the illicit yet organised and supervised privatisation of this particular sidewalk. What do I mean? It’s a highly criticised system whereby a square meter of the sidewalk is rented, and somewhere there is someone who had claimed that square meter many years ago and is today living off the rent of it. Why is it criticised? Because it’s using public space for private profit, because it’s invading a space that has a function to benefit the general public and not one specific person and finally because, for some, this is a form of ‘visual pollution’ (in other words it doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing).

Nonetheless, the level of organisation is impressive. The selling activities are supervised by the local policemen and conflicts over vendor competition are resolved through dialogue, technically in the presence of ‘the law’. Yes, I’m serious. As Jhonatan explained “…when there is someone new who comes along and settles down to sell we usually speak to him first and let him know that there is a system and if they put up a fight then we talk to the policeman and he helps us resolve the problem”.

Not only are these street vendors highly organised, but they are also transforming the space through their activities and those of their customers. There is a technical term for this dynamic: inhabiting. It refers to the relationship between the ‘space’ that is occupied by individuals and the ‘spatialities’, otherwise understood as the activities that take place within that particular space. In this case, the inhabiting of these 4 square meters has transformed its spacial meaning.

Today, it is not only a sidewalk stepped all over by those in a rush. People stop for a variety of morning snacks before work, for an early morning chat about the weather, the latest headline, or to grab a quick take-away and proceed with their busy lives. Thus it is also an outdoor breakfast lounge that meets the needs of early commuters and of a section of the population who might otherwise be unemployed.

It functions as a space for socialising, between people from all walks of life. In fact, if you sit and observe this particular space you’ll realise that class, gender and racial structures are momentarily dissolved through conversation.

Try it out if you can. Compare a similar space with a café, restaurant or bar. Don’t you ever feel observed when walking into a coffee shop? People tend to check you out, either because you have the fortune of being particularly attractive or because they are checking to see whether you look clean enough or are wearing the right clothes. Whenever I walk into a coffee shop or restaurant, my relationship with the door through which I step, the waiter that takes my ‘orders’ and my neighbour who is eating his breakfast at the next table is shadowed by a series of social barriers. In this space, on clle 100 with cra 18, there is no door, there is no waiter, there is no other table (I’m just sayin’).

But wait, there is a catch. Jhonatan along with many other vendors are wondering what is going to happen with the upcoming mayoral elections (October 25th). There are rumours that they, street vendors, are going to be ‘cleared out’. This is a serious concern considering the number of vendors there are in the city and the function that vending not only fulfils in terms of their employability, but also in relation to those pedestrians who pass by and can enjoy a quick breakfast and casual conversation with familiar or unfamiliar faces, every morning.

This way of using public space is criticised, I’ll give you that, but I ask myself if there’s a possibility of contemplating an alternative to simply clearing ‘them out’? When there are sectors of the population who are organised and abiding by a ‘secondary’ or ‘underground’ judicial system, meeting not only their needs but also those of other sectors of the population and making up some of the dynamics that we enjoy about urban life (such as random social encounters that bring smiles or frowns to our faces); is the only option, to ‘clear them out’?

Could we consider articulating formal urban policies with organised strategies that city dwellers are already taking part in? From previous experiences in Bogotá (for example the clearing of the Cartucho and more recently the Bronx), it is evident that clearing people out of a particular space does not necessarily solve the so called ‘problem’. It just moves it around. These activities will continue to happen whether or not they are allowed, so why not attempt to collaborate with these organised groups and integrate their activities in to the design of the city?

The Interview:

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