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They Privatized Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

When the municipal government of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, opted to privatize and remodel four of its city parks, a community of artisans suffered.

by Annaliese Pope

In the winter of 2005, the municipal government of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, opted to privatize and remodel (turn into parking lots) four of its city parks. This decision was part of a larger “modification program” that was intended to draw more tourism into the downtown area. The destruction of these parks, which met a great deal of resistance from both local and trans-local communities, brought to the foreground questions concerning public and private space and the functions or ways in which material space is able to be utilized by different groups. In particular, a group of travelling artisans, musicians and street performers had established a community in the first park that was destroyed, Parque Hidalgo. Their artwork and crafts brought these individuals together and served as a type of social cohesion, but only so long as a material space was available to support these developments. Ultimately, the destruction of the park, as a space in which to “do craft,” meant the destruction of communal bonds and thus, of the community itself.

I lived in Puerto Vallarta for several months during the winter and spring of 2005 and was able to witness firsthand the destruction of Parque Hidalgo as well as its detrimental repercussions. Before the park was destroyed, Puerto Vallarta boasted “traditional Mexican charm,” something that the modification program greatly compromised, or so it has been argued. Parque Hidalgo was a welcome breath of fresh air from the simulacra that is commodified Mexico. Close enough to the Malecón (or the walkway that during peak tourist seasons resembles the main strip in Vegas) to capture the attention of tourists who were not yet inebriated enough to miss it, but secluded enough from those that were, Parque Hidalgo was situated in an excellent location for many of the town’s vendors. Moreover, it also provided a physical space in which several communities (of vendors and others) were created, developed and sustained.

Zygmunt Bauman claims that two of the epistemological foundations of “community” are stability and security. I believe that two communities of Parque Hidalgo, firstly that of the travelling artisans and musicians who sold their crafts in the park, and secondly, the local residents of the neighborhood surrounding the park, were both detrimentally impacted by its destruction. Both the stability and security of each was, at best, compromised, and at worst, destroyed.

Stability and security manifested in differing ways for each group. For the local residents, the park was a meeting place, a physical space in which to catch up with a friend, grab an elote with a neighbor, go for a walk with a partner, or feed pigeons with a grandchild. The park was unofficially a space “for the locals” and often provided a secure location for neighborhood gatherings and meetings. Few tourists penetrated the boundaries of the park where they came only to flock to vendors’ stalls. The vendors had been there for years, selling their wares on the edge of the park whilst mingling with one another (they often seemed more concerned with the latter).

Parque Hidalgo was a relaxed place. For the local residents it was also a sacred place, the park had been built directly upon a cemetery in which many of their ancestors were buried. Therefore, the physical space itself had a great deal of meaning for the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. They experienced a type of ontological stability in knowing that they shared the park not only with other members of their community, but also with their ancestors who had inhabited the same neighborhood before them. The local residents’ ontological and communal stability, and the security found therein, had been fostered by Parque Hidalgo for years.

Unlike the durable community of local residents that was fostered by Parque Hidalgo, the second community of artisans and musicians was a recent development exclusively located within the physical space that was the park. These travellers, who congregated daily in the space (some even slept there), had each been individually “just passing through” Puerto Vallarta hoping to make a profit off of the spring tourist season. However, when several discovered the park they decided to stay in the city. Parque Hidalgo’s location allowed for a secluded area in which to paint and make other crafts while also was being close enough to the Malecón to catch the gaze of tourists, or their clientele, as they passed by. Over time, more artists arrived and the group grew. The park provided a stable space that few of these individuals had experienced beforehand.

As nomadic artisans and street performers, these individuals were accustomed to life on the road. Many had grown up begging in the streets, and were forced to create livelihoods for themselves in a Mexico that had been, and continues to be, raped by draconian neoliberal economic policies. A lack of structural support, such as educational opportunities (many were illiterate), left these individuals to fend for themselves. They claimed to have sustained themselves by juggling with fire at stoplights, selling homemade jewelry and paintings on the beach, and playing instruments on city busses. However, these were all draining endeavors that meant hours on one’s feet in the sun, and more often than not, harassment by police officers. Contrarily, the park was a type of “safe space”; it was there that they were able to congregate, create, relax and sell their wares. As long as these individuals did not venture onto the Malecón with their crafts, the police simply overlooked their presence in the park.  

Therefore, both stability, in the sense of a durable physical space, and security, from the absence of harassment by police officers and other hazards of life on the road, were available for the creation of a community for this group within the park. These two precursors to community, stability and security, were fostered by the material space that was Parque Hidalgo. It is within this physical space that the creation of a community, or social cohesion, and the sustainability of livelihoods through crafting and artistry was possible.

In early March of 2005, both communities, as well as other groups within Puerto Vallarta, mobilized and organized against rumors that the park would be privatized and turned into a parking lot. City officials promised that, during this process, all trees would be salvaged and replanted, vendors would be given new spaces of equal value, and importantly, all remains from the underlying cemetery would be respectfully transported to another location. Moreover, on a larger scale, the privatization and transformation of the space into a parking lot would improve the lives of all residents in the city, more tourism would mean increased economic flows into the area, which, as was argued, would increase the standard of living.

Regardless of the above promises, the public remained unconvinced and opposed to the park’s destruction. The threat of the destruction of the physical space of the park was really a threat to the meaning that the space of the park held and fostered for these communities. In reality, the security and stability that both groups found within the space of the park was at stake. For local residents, the destruction of the park would mean a destruction of their meeting space and the solidarity that was created therein. The threat to the memory of their ancestors was understood as a threat to the respect for their lineage, and thus to themselves as human members of said lineage. For the artisans and musicians, the destruction of the park would mean a return to the insecure streets, and thus, a destruction of the community that they had created exclusively within the physical space of Parque Hidalgo.

By 1 AM on the morning of March 10, 2005, Parque Hidalgo was encircled with a mesh wire fence. The proceedings were swift and violent. Trees were cut down with chainsaws while bulldozers excavated the pavilion and brick walkways. The police had infiltrated the crowd of protesters both in uniform and dressed as civilians, they were ruthless in their repression of any expression of dissent. Many protesters were injured, several were hospitalized. The vendors who were unable to remove their carts before the fence was constructed witnessed the destruction of their livelihoods, unable to intervene. Those who were unwilling to sit in front of bulldozers stood on the side with tear-filled eyes, candles, and pictures of their ancestors who were being indiscreetly excavated in front of the crowd. By dawn the destruction was complete and a feeling of incredible sorrow was thick among those who remained.

The destruction of the park was expected, but its aftermath manifested in a number of unanticipated ways. The wire fence remained for the duration of the demolition over the next several months providing little visual obstruction of the excavation of the underlying cemetery. Piles of remains waiting to be discarded were not hidden from view and were certainly not respectfully unearthed nor relocated as promised. The streets between the park and the surroundings neighborhoods remained untraveled; residents took a different route to work.

Vendors who had been able to salvage their carts were relocated to several areas crowded with already established vendors where the competition was high. The move significantly weakened the communal bonds they had shared in the park and their ability to support their families with significantly decreased incomes.

Many of the artisans who no longer had the shelter and safe space of the park simply left to resume their nomadic lifestyles of walking up and down the beach in the heat selling their wares or juggling fire at stoplights. The determined few who attempted to sell their goods or paint on the Malecón faced verbal and physical intimidation by police, which often resulted in large fines or the confiscation of their crafts. Ultimately, the necessity to make a living meant that many individuals moved on to find other cities to “just pass through,” to do so as a large group was impractical. Without a physical space to meet (and no cell phones or communication devices), many members of the artisan community of Parque Hidalgo went their separate ways and were unable to remain in contact with one another. The determined few who remained attempted to maintain a type of social cohesion, to continue creating together, but eventually, most were forced to leave in search of spaces that supported their ability to make a living.

In the summer of 2010 I returned to Vallarta and to the cement slab that is still called “Parque Hidalgo.” The resulting “modification” looks out of place with the welcoming neighborhoods that surround it. This new “park” is a block of cement with sparsely placed palm trees (nothing like the lush, towering, green trees that had been there previously) covering an underground parking lot. As I wandered around the “park” what struck me most was the absence. There were no birds, no shade, and remarkably, no people. Unsurprisingly no one wanted to sit in the middle of so much cement under the hot Mexican sun. Instead of neighbors and friends meeting under the shade of large trees and the chirping of birds there was the incessant noise and smell that accompanies a constant flow of traffic, the flow which was entering and exiting the underground parking lot. The only familiar sight was a statue of Miguel Hidalgo that had been salvaged and replaced after the destruction.

Most know Miguel Hidalgo as one of the leaders of the Mexican revolution. However, Hidalgo was also an advocate for the subordinate classes of Mexico, aboriginal groups, and the arts. Rumor has it that he housed several aboriginal families on his property where he encouraged them to practice their crafts in order to provide for themselves. 

Beyond the historical irony behind the legacy of Hidalgo the individual in contrast with the reality of the space that was named after him, the destruction of Parque Hidalgo raised several other important inquiries. Mainly, how are communities, as social spaces, created, sustained and held together (in this case by craft), and what is the importance the actual physical space in which this occurs? Who gains and who loses when space is privatized and how does privatization impact the access to space and how that space is used? Importantly, if as claimed by Henri Lefebvre, social relations are always spatial, then what impact does privatization have on the formation, maintenance and durability of community as a stable and secure social space? Also, what role does tourism play in the privatization of spaces (and thus communities) upon which it imposes itself?

I do not have any fixed or absolute answers to these questions, but I do have several observations. Firstly, land is just land. There is an inter-reactive and inter-dependent relationship between physical space and the social space in which social relations take place. Physical spaces and social spaces simultaneously impact one another, and in so doing, create meaning.

When we privatize space and privilege its exchange value over its use value (in this case, the ability to foster community), we make access to spaces exclusive. By changing the nature of the social relations that take place in a physical space and who may partake in them, the physical space itself is also changed. When I returned to “Parque Hidalgo” the physical space was no longer involved in a dialectical relationship with social forces to foster community. The space, for all intents and purposes, was just land.

If physical space is required for the creation of and interaction with social space, then exclusion must be taken very seriously. The maintenance of community must occur somewhere. The location itself is not important inasmuch as there is a location within which groups may enter into relationships with one another.

These are important issues, especially when we examine the eviction of Occupy activists from privately owned Zuccotti Park. Although this event (as well as many other similar proceedings) was destructive to the sustainability of community, virtual space has been utilized to support the maintenance of said communities in the absence of physical space. But what happens when those who do not have access to the virtual world (due to illiteracy, lack of technological access, etc.) are excluded from physical space? In what space may they then create and maintain communities that are harmonious with their lifestyles? It would seem as though spatial exclusion results in social exclusion, which is a serious claim when we examine the increased privatization required by neoliberal policies in Latin America (and other areas), and thus of the increased exclusion of subordinate groups. If our communities are under attack by privatization we must protect them.

When spaces are privatized and no longer belong to the public, an individual or group of individuals is given the right to decide whom to include and exclude. The privatization of Parque Hidalgo meant that the exchange value accumulated by the inclusion of automobiles was given precedence over the inclusion of the use value, or creation and preservation of community possible within the park. Thus, the latter was effectively excluded. These decisions have real impacts for our social spheres and what activities are “allowed” (parking) and “not allowed” (craft) within them. How these decisions are made and who makes them is often overlooked in the midst of promises of modifications “for the greater good,” such as increased traffic, tourism and economic flows into the downtown area of Puerto Vallarta. Five years later, whether or not this specific outcome has been achieved is debatable. The real question is, who has benefitted?

I have written this piece because I believe it is an important narrative to tell. In remembering Parque Hidalgo I performed a great deal of online research to examine other views of the events and ramifications of March 10, 2005. The destruction of the park has gone largely unreported. Photos of the event are scarce. The existence of a cemetery under the park (and its excavation) was mentioned in passing in one article. From what I observed, the destruction impacted a great deal of people. Inconsistent with this observation is the lack of available knowledge concerning the reality of what happened. I believe it is important to tell the story, it is better to speak.

In doing so, however, I also realize my position. As a contributor to flows of tourism, I was also responsible for the destruction of the park (in the very least, my travels contributed to an alibi for said “modifications”). As much as I was distraught by the destruction of the park and the destruction of our artisan community (to which I belonged, albeit only for several months), I was able to return to my home in Michigan and was not forced to sell bracelets on the beach or sleep on park benches. I was not subjected to police harassment. In this regard, I have taken the liberty of telling a story that, in many respects, is not mine to tell.

When I have returned to Mexico and encountered a member of our former artisan community of Parque Hidalgo during my travels, they each have the same story—they continue to create and sell their wares, but they have not yet found another safe social space such as Parque Hidalgo in which to do so. The stability and security we found in the interaction between physical space and the social space of our community has been destroyed. We did not lose land, we lost our community. This community (among others) has the potential to be fostered in any number of physical spaces, but it does require some type of space. The more these spaces are privatized so as to support arbitrary (and often profit-driven) exclusion and inclusion, the less likely this opportunity becomes.

Annaliese Pope is an American graduate student at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. She will be returning to Mexico this year to perform fieldwork with traveling Mexican artisans and street performers. She vehemently denies any collaboration with NAFTA.

Pictures courtesy of Vallarta Blog.