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A Caribbean Cinderella: St. Domingo’s Colonial Zone

Jon Anderson

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Dec 30 2010 (IPS) - Santo Domingo de Guzmán was the New World’s first colonial city, the Spanish Empire’s capital, the Catholic Church’s Rome in the West Indies, and Francis Drake’s most coveted prize.

"Casa de Pudin" in Santo Domingo. Credit: Jon Anderson/IPS

"Casa de Pudin" in Santo Domingo. Credit: Jon Anderson/IPS

“I never heard of it,” says Nicolle Sebastian from France, “until the cruise ship dropped us off here.”

Unlike her spruced up sister cities, this Cinderella is back among the ashes and no one is looking for her slippers.

Old San Juan is known for its port, its brightly painted restored colonial homes, and its famous balconies. Similarly, Old Havana is widely associated with Hemingway, mojitos, and a facelift that is the pride of the international architectural community.

Listed by the World Heritage Society as part of the Cultural Patrimony of Mankind, Santo Domingo is a rough diamond in need of polishing, but its distinguished designation has not protected its precious monuments or provided for a focused renovation effort.

Ramon Ortega, owner of the “La Cibaeña” metal workshop in Santo Domingo, recalls the past grandeur of his neighborhood, now a warren of small workshops in crumbling buildings.

“This was the main business district, all the big companies and banks had their headquarters here.” The problem nowadays, according to Ortega, is that “the wealthy class has no vision. There is no support for the residents and no assistance. There is potential but no decisive action.”

Adela Salórzano Ortega, owner of Tikal, specializing in Mexican artisanal products, explains how it once was: “Before the decline that arrived around the 80s, El Conde, the main boulevard, was a street of intellectuals – the cream of society socialised here. And it had all the best stores.”

But after the city expanded westward, “the Duarte arrived at the Conde,” she added with rueful wit. The Duarte is the chaotic low-rent shopping district just north of the zone.

A mere block south of that central thoroughfare, Salórzono’s store sees little traffic, and she locks her door to keep out the riff raff. She is quick to name possible improvements: “better clean-up, more security, and restoration of the colonial facades.”

Nonetheless, Salórzono continues to conduct business here because, “it is still a jewel. I have faith in its future.”

In the 90s, the colonial city had become a ghost town, its unlit streets at night populated by prostitutes and thugs. During daytime it wasn’t much better, with shady moneychangers and “guides” pimping for the tacky souvenir shops or the brothels.

Things turned around somewhat with President Balaguer’s decision to celebrate the quincentennial anniversary of Columbus’s discovery by building the Faro Colon and demolishing the slums hugging the Ozama river.

The project refocused attention on the colonial city and spurred intrepid individuals, mostly foreigners, to renovate bits of its cultural heritage.

But development of the colonial zone has been left to private interests, so its renovation remains piecemeal and largely unsupervised.

“Santo Domingo cannot imitate the success of Old Havana, because its government functions differently and there is no single body in charge of the zone,” observes Nikauly Vargas, secretary general of the Dominican National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Was Vargas aware that the Catholic Church, in a recent renovation of the Regina Angelorum church on Padre Billini, saw fit to replace floor tiles that had been paced by the likes of Pizarro and Cortez?

“No, I think not, but in fact the States are sovereign. Supervision is not part of our organisation, nor its objective,” Vargas said.

Félix Manuel Pimentel, a real estate salesman whose calling card identifies him as a “Beach Front Specialist,” also remembers the zone’s golden age: “Oh yes, this was once like New York’s Fifth Avenue.” But he is sceptical about recent improvements since the intermittent decline: “Real estate here is moving, but it’s mostly foreigners, just private investment.”

Private enterprise hasn’t managed to turn things around completely. There is little support provided to the entrepreneur, who is beset by problems.

Susanna Pleines owns the bed and breakfast style Atarazana Hotel, near the Plaza España. In the mid-nineties, conditions favoured the small entrepreneur: “The place immediately fascinated me, there were many houses for sale, and there were no other such hotels.”

Not that it has been all that easy. “Things take time. For two years we have been trying to establish a café, but the bureaucracy is just incredible.”

So are the taxes. On top of the exorbitant 18 percent ITBIS, city hall imposes a service tax based on the number of rooms at full occupancy – so the business pays the same rate every year regardless of actual traffic.

John Ritthaler also took advantage of circumstances back in 2000 to purchase a colonial building and open up the well-regarded restaurant, Caribbean Blue, which lasted two years before succumbing to problems that still plague the zone.

“I’d have two or three days fully booked, and then three or four dead days, because wealthy Dominicans don’t want to leave Piantini,” Ritthaler said, adding that “the tourist traffic is insufficient.”

And then there was the exorbitant five thousand dollar monthly electric bill, an absurdity of this nation’s famously inept electric sector that outsiders find hard to believe.

Meanwhile, prices have soared and greedy speculators are asking up to a million dollars for empty lots. A three bedroom colonial house on La Catolica, a noisy, smoggy avenue, is being let for more than two thousand dollars. Interested parties with only pesos in their billfolds need not apply.

Few people would invest their money given this unnaturally inflated market, and the only other game in town is tourism.

Hisaung Nafissa, a twenty-four year old tourist from Mauritius, arrived in Santo Domingo on a cruise which spent most of its time visiting resorts on the East Coast. Inside the hushed and gilded space of Santa Maria de la Encarnación, billed as the first cathedral in the New World, he is visibly impressed by a remarkable stained glass window depicting St. John the Baptist.

“It’s all so interesting, all this history, but it is difficult without any real guidance, he says. “I have no idea where to go after this.”

Meanwhile a passel of tourist guides wait just outside to shepherd lost souls along the Conde, where they have arrangements with the trinket shops to bring in customers.

Dominican business people sympathise. Mariano Rodriguez, owner of Tourist Gift Shop, observes, “We sell sun and sand and blue water. We don’t promote our history.” The all-inclusive beach resorts have inadvertently eclipsed what ought to be a major attraction for travellers of all types.

The pathos and mystery and discrete beauty of the colonial zone have yet to be recognised by the outside world. Santo Domingo has appeared in many films, but almost always as a stand-in for the more famous Havana, as in Godfather II, and Robert Redford’s Havana. It is to be hoped that one day, with better direction, it will achieve the star billing it deserves.

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