The Old San Juan Experience

by Rajeev Atha and Jane O’Malley

Friday evening brought us on a walking tour of the old streets of San Juan. The tour was led by professor Jorge Lizardi, a trained historian currently based in the School of Architecture at UPR San Juan. The peninsular city is a microcosm of many things, strongly influenced by the Spanish conquistadors who first arrived to the city in the early 16th century. Initially, the Spanish empire classified Puerto Rico from a military standpoint with retired officials resorting at this elevated island. Later with the decline of the Spanish empire, San Juan became a strategic location for fortification and protection for the island asset of the empire. These military influences are still highly prevalent, felt most notably while walking on the esplanade at El Morro or looking toward the Ballajá barracks from the center plaza. The city has since repurposed these places into community and social institutions. Progressing towards the sea, the esplanade revealed itself as a recreation space, extending itself to the sky with kites. The barracks have been converted to a multipurpose cultural space and several other military buildings which previously acted as places of asylum now serve as educational institutions.

Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico, Old San Juan.

Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico, Old San Juan.

Following Jorge into a time portal to the past, we moved into the inner streets and alleyways of the old city. These were defined by an endless facade of houses divided by characteristic elements of each family. Behind the facade, an unimaginable introvert courtyard lies shared between the neighboring houses. Environmental sensitivity was achieved passively through high ceilings and ventilators over the doors. We passed Casa Blanca, a home which was intended to serve as the governor’s residence but now acts as a museum of developmental history of San Juan. Recent restorations revealed the stages of construction of the building for visitors to see. However, the conflict between federal and state government jurisdiction over the old city has restricted historians to record and trace the events of the past for this process of restoration. The old city serves as a reminder of the country’s colonial roots yet a testament to how the Puerto Rican people have shaped their own heritage and culture. A cemetery adjacent to El Morro is representative of the people’s honor of those who have largely contributed to it.

In present times, the Old San Juan area has presented the citizens of San Juan with a space for rejuvenation and recreation from their busy lives. Ending the day with a high of San Juan history, sipping on ice cold Medalla at an historic institutionalized bar, glancing onto the various aspects of research trip lying ahead of us. Shifting our lenses from the modernist San Juan city, a historic portal is generated by old San Juan which portrays a strong sense of community, charity and pride of their heritage. A historic existence of the city since the last 5 centuries will continue to live on and preserve itself by the city and its citizens.

Alleyways of Old San Juan.

Alleyways of Old San Juan.

Alleyways of Old San Juan.

Alleyways of Old San Juan.