Friday, July 9, 2010

Plaza San Martin

As part of my visit downtown to watch the soccier match, Pocho and  I wandered a bit in Plaza San Martin.

Plaza San Martin is one of the emblematic spaces of "old" Lima.   It invariably turns up in old -and current- post cards, encyclopedia entries, and in old films about the city (for example, 1937's Glimpses of Peru).  However, the plaza is not particularly old, having been built less than a century ago, in 1921, for the 100th anniversary of Peru's Declaration of Independence from Spain, and the last of its buildings having been completed in the 1940s.

The central feature of the square is an equestrian statue depicting Gen. Jose de San Martin crossing the Andes from Argentina to Chile, leading an expeditionary force toward Lima, the seat of Spanish colonial power in South America.

A curious feature of the monument is that the crests borne on their helms by the odalisks at the north and south ends of the momument's base.   There is an amusing, but no doubt apocryphal story about that:  It seems that the monument's designer, the Spaniard Mariano Benlliure, comissioned Peruvian foundryworkers to execute the bronze elements of his design, who misunderstood him when he asked for a helm with a "llama" as a crest.   Llama, you see, means "flame" but it also refers to a certain Peruvian camelid species...

Plaza San Martin was  the centerpiece of Lima's growth into a modern capital.   Around it there clustered important economic and social institutions: Fenix -in its day one of Peru's largest insurance companies-, the Club Militar, the Colon theatre, the Metro cinema, cafes and restaurants.   Plaza San Martin and its environs also housed what were, in their day, the country's foremost hotels, the Crillon and, on the plaza itself, the Gran Hotel Bolivar.

The Bolivar was inaugurated on December 6th, 1924, to mark the centennial of the Battle of Ayacucho, the decisive battle in the fight for independence.  The hotel is said to have been originally named the Hotel Ayacucho, but when the President was reminded that the Quechua word ayacucho means "corner of the dead", it was decided to change the name to honor Simon Bolivar, another key figure in Independence.

The Bolivar was the country's first modern luxury hotel and as such it attracted it's share of wealthy and famous guests, notably Ava Gardner, who discovered the joys of the pisco sour in the hotel's bar.   Later on, the Rolling Stones were famously expelled from the hotel for overly raucous behaviour - only to be similarly expelled from the Hotel Crillon, a few blocks down Ave. Colmena.

The Bolivar hotel closed in the 1980s and remained so until a few years ago.  It has now been reopened as a three-star hotel and conference center.

In fact, the whole of Plaza San Martin has experienced a revival.    

For many years it was the hub of much cultural and social life. 

Even in the 1970s going to Plaza San Martin was exciting.   The big open space surrounded by imposing facades was thrilling, as was the activity and noise.  It just felt important.

We'd take a bus to the Parque Universitario walk a few blocks to Plaza San Martin.  Along the way, amid the banks, legal offices, and restaurants, we'd pass street vendors selling chunks of iron pyrite crystals, fossilize ammonites, and turquoise.  Booksellers would have the latest titles - Yo visite Ganimedes, and translations of Johnathan Livingston Seagull, von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, and Chris: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic- laid out on cloths upon the sidewalk.

I remember there used to be a famous mime who would, each evening, entertain throngs of passersby with his satirical act at the base of the momunent.   The plaza was also the setting for endless debates between the left-leaning students of San Marcos University and the APRA-oriented ones of the Universidad Federico Villareal, both of which have campuses near the plaza.

Over time, however, white-collar social and economic life shifted away from downtown and toward Miraflores and, later, San Isidro.    At the same time internal migration to the capital put a population pressure on downtown, choking its streets with vendors, beggars, and petty thieves.   In the 1980s the government all but gave up downtown to the street hawkers.   Plaza San Martin became notorious for its prostitution dens and resident glue-huffing juvenile delinquents (pirañas).

In the late 1990s, however, under mayor Alberto Andrade, efforts were made to "recover" Lima's historic center.   Street vendors were cleared from the streets, the facades repainted, sponsorships were found to restore old buildings, and slowly since then, as subsequent mayors have continued the efforts, ait has again become a place that Limeno's often feel proud of.

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