Ezra Fieser is a freelance journalist based in the Caribbean since 2010. His work has appeared in Time, the Miami Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, and elsewhere. He lives in Santo Domingo with his wife and daughter.
Santo Domingo has the worst rate of traffic fatalities in the world, but Maribel Villalona is remaking the capital for pedestrians.
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic—When this city was the seat of Spanish rule in the New World, colonial noblewomen strolled the Calle de las Damas for their afternoon walks. Cobblestones were sailed across the Atlantic to build it, making the aptly named Street of the Ladies the first street paved by Europeans in the Americas.
Today, the half-mile stretch looks much the same as it did in 1502: flanked by grand 16th-century buildings. But little semblance of the bygone era's tranquility remains. Pedestrians squeeze past each other on narrow sidewalks while lines of automobiles rumble past.
The street's evolution reflects Santo Domingo's transition into a bustling seaside metropolis in which, like most cities, the car rules. SUVs barrel down small streets. Sidewalks are in disrepair. Pedestrians sprint across highways in a mad dash to catch a bus or shared taxi.
As the architect in charge of a $31.2 million project to revitalize the colonial zone, her aim is twofold. She wants to attract more of the country's roughly 5 million annual visitors, most of whom know the country more for its beaches than its history. And she is trying to build an example for how the city can become more pedestrian friendly.
"She's the most important person in the city right now," says Luis Brocker, a colonial zone resident and general manager of Pat'e Palo, a restaurant located in the building that was the first tavern in the Americas.
Throughout the zone, streets are being torn up. Workers are burying power and phone lines, building streets with few parking spaces and wide sidewalks, instituting a strict 30 kilometers-per-hour (19 miles-per-hour) speed limit, and trying to return the city to its European roots.
There's nothing particularly novel about the approach—similar work has been done in other colonial districts in Latin America—but Villalona sees the project as a test ground for a city that could strike a better balance for the automobile and pedestrian, while paying homage to its history.
"The city has developed with a lot of American influence, in which the automobile dominates. If we can follow a European model, where you can walk to everything you need, I believe we can start to change the culture here," she says.
To help change the culture, the government has launched a massive road safety campaign, plastering billboards with messages like, "If you don’t wear a helmet, you'll die," aimed at the thousands of motorcycle and scooter drivers who weave in and out of traffic and often fly down one-way streets going the wrong way.
"If we can create a space that respects the pedestrian, that gives preference to the pedestrian, it will be a start," Villalona says.
The colonial zone may be the ideal place to start. Covering less than two square miles, it hosts an impressive array of attractions: the first Catholic cathedral, first university, and first monastery in the Americas, and a palace once inhabited by Christopher Columbus's son are all within 10 minutes of each other by foot.
For more than four centuries after Spanish explorers settled there in 1502, the colonial zone was more than just a historic attraction. With the central business district, the principal residential zone, and the center of government, it was where the money was.
That changed during a civil war in the 1960s, following the assassination of one of Latin America's most ruthless dictators, Rafael Trujillo. When Juan Bosch won the presidency in the first election following Trujillo's death, the United States feared the Dominican Republic was on the verge of becoming the next Cuba.
The idea of two communist strongholds in the Caribbean led the U.S. to send Marines to the country in 1965. Bosch supporters chose the colonial zone as their stronghold. Moneyed Dominicans pulled their interests from the area, relocated their businesses, and largely abandoned the area for the rapidly expanding neighborhoods popping up along the Caribbean west of the colonial zone.
Villalona— who is officially the Coordinator General of the Program to Promote Tourism in the Colonial City—fell in love with the pace and livability of European cities as a graduate student in Barcelona. When she returned to the Dominican Republic in 1999, she saw Santo Domingo as a city with unfilled potential. Abandoned homes shared streets with some of the most historically significant buildings in the Americas.
"What I lived [in Barcelona] was what Santo Domingo could become," she says.
The zone's renovation includes 41 projects, only one of which is remaking the streets. Crews are repainting homes. Officials are providing loans for small businesses to renovate and expand. Curators are modernizing a handful of the zone's most visited museums. And the private sector is already responding, opening more hotels, bars, and restaurants.
Villalona emphasizes that the project is aimed as much at Dominicans as it is international tourists. "We don't want it to be Disneyland for tourists," she says. "We want it to be a place where people live, with everything readily available."