Guayaquil, the Comeback Kid

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Can Guayaquil reinvent itself once again in the 21st century? Ilán Greenfield sets off to find out, charting the trials, tribulations, conflagrations and unique spirit of the “Pearl of the Pacific”

The clock tower that overlooks the city’s riverside Malecón, as well as a statue of Vicente Rocafuerte, the Ecuadorian president who brought the relic from London in the 1840s, were among the few things left standing after the citywide fire of 1896. Guayaquil would be leveled by flames twice more (in 1901 and 1902), setting over 1,200 homes ablaze. So, when in 1906 plans were mooted to erect a second metropolis around the Durán railroad station, in the green wilds located across the river, it didn’t seem that preposterous. For some, the project beat rebuilding a city from its own ashes before a new fire came along to burn it all down again.

It wouldn’t have been the first time Guayaquil picked up its bags and moved on. The first Colonial settlement was relocated variously until finally alighting at the foot of the Cerro Santa Ana hill in 1547. As early as 1692, there was already a “new” and an “old” Guayaquil, when the official city center was transported from Santa Ana to the area of the Cathedral. What sprawled out from here was forever known as “La Nueva Guayaquil” – which meant that the 1906 project would have to go by a different name. “La New Guayaquil” somehow seemed apt.

French architect André Bérard envisioned a progressive, orderly urban grid with new churches, administrative centers, ports, designated areas for luxury and working-class neighborhoods… And although this transformation into an idyllic wonder-world never transpired, many of its citizens never quite let go of the idea, seeking rivers to cross and new land to colonize, a fact borne out by a neighborhood like Puntilla, or the enclosed condos of Samborondón, both located (incidentally) across the river, not far from where La New Guayaquil would have risen.

All cities undergo regeneration processes. It’s part of their evolutionary nature. But Guayaquil – its very history – seems to be marked by dramatic change

The city we experience today is a world apart from the Guayaquil of fifteen years back, which, according to historian Jenny Estrada, already had very little to do with the city of the 1950s. Estrada claims the speed and nature of change was such that “Guayaquil became unrecognizable” to her. In the period between the 1980s and 2000, from the lush, tropical port city dominated by its healthy river, Guayaquil turned in on itself, into a muggy concrete jungle with few of the vestiges or qualities of its pleasant past. Even the proudest Guayaquileño would agree the period was not the city’s finest hour.

Alcaldía de Guayaquil.

How to explain this wrong-turn into urban decadence? Perhaps it’s another facet of the city’s nature: things here seem more extreme, larger and more difficult to handle than anywhere else in the country. The act of moving the city’s port to the south coincided with unprecedented development, which in turn coincided with the incoming migration of unprecedented numbers of people, the largest rural-urban exodus in the country’s history. Impromptu neighborhoods sprung up from nowhere, sprouting like weeds. “Some say Guayaquil means Nuestra Casa Grande (Our Large House),” explains Estrada, “which somehow points to the fact that we are a welcoming, generous city. It was conceived this way, even for the Spaniards who founded it, who were ‘allowed’ to settle here thanks to the willingness of the native tribes to befriend them and develop commercial ties. It wasn’t like in the Andes, where the Spaniards had to dominate and manipulate society. Here, society was, essentially, subject to the river’s navigability. The area was a pre-Columbian trading post and the Colonial city was caught in the middle.” Co-existence and co-habiting meant survival. Another clue to the city’s character.

The swiftness of Guayaquil’s growth (from 300,000 in the 1950s to close to 2 million in the 1990s) overtook the ability of the municipal authorities to deal with all the problems they faced. There was precious little time to look up and reevaluate. Guayaquil became a grey, over-populated, dismal, unbearably muggy place; an image many still retain. What was once the “Pearl of the Pacific” looked decidedly tarnished, and anyone who knew the city before 2000 would find it difficult to believe what we are set to prove in our present issue, that things have changed for the better in a dramatic way. A new city seems to push up against the old pavement.

The Point.

Joseph Garzozi, a long-time defender of Guayaquil’s tourism potential, is adamant in claiming the city has undergone one of the most important regeneration processes of the past 50 years. At its core lies the Malecón 2000, which began Guayaquil’s better-late-than-never surge into the Age of Tourism. “The ambitious and emblematic project made Guayaquileños remember the tropical paradise we live in,” he explains, “It was a revelation to many and a reaffirmation to others.”

“Guayaquil feels lighter, now,” continues Garzozi, “and our newfound access to the river, as well as places like Puerto Hondo or Parque Histórico, which highlight our amazing natural assets, have together forced us to reinterpret our city and ourselves.”

The “Pearl of the Pacific” looked decidedly tarnished. But it has changed.

Nothing compares to perfumed mango trees, parakeets, egrets and iguanas sharing the same living space with well-crafted, respectful and elegant promenades and parks.

Saving the city from the fate of many-a-similar misguided modern Latin American megalopolis and transforming it into an urban hub where the power of nature blooms in all her vivid colors has been nothing short of miraculous. After all, nothing compares to perfumed mango trees, parakeets, herons and iguanas sharing the same living space with well-crafted, respectful and elegant promenades, parks, squares, sidewalks and state-of-the-art new constructions.

Many doubted the city could be saved from its chaotic fate. Yet the results are undeniably real and resoundingly striking, testament to the final element of the city’s nature which we should highlight: its resilience. In a matter of hours after the flames were doused following the disastrous fire of 1896, Guayaquileños had stumped up the funding for the city’s reconstruction. This city has and always will have the drive to bounce back, like a lizard’s tail, like a blooming ceiba tree, like a veritable tropical paradise. And it has and always will happen before you know it.

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