QUITO

Back to life, back to prosperity

by Victoria James

Ecuador was built on bananas. Then, in the 1970s, this tiny South American country struck oil. Forward thinkers, though, are looking to tourism to keep Ecuador’s economy afloat when the oil dries up — as it is expected to do an estimated 15 years from now.

Today, oil revenue amounts for approximately $2,061 million per year, accounting for almost 40 percent of the country’s exports. Bananas and tourism generate $969 million and $569 million, respectively. Clearly Ecuador will require either a lot more tourists or a whole mountain of bananas to keep itself going when the wells are exhausted.

Those thinkers, though, have been planning for decades, and this year a showcase redevelopment scheme has come to fruition. Named “Project Q” and funded with a $41 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, it has focused on the restoration and regeneration of Ecuador’s capital, Quito.

This has been more than just another city cleanup. On Sept. 8, 1978, Quito shared with Krakow, Poland, the distinction of being the first city in the world designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The citation described Quito’s colonial-era Old Town as “the best preserved and least modified historic center in Latin America.”

But the intervening quarter-century hasn’t always been kind to this capital city of a developing nation.

As early as 1967, experts attending a pan-American conference in Quito warned that “a great many Latin American cities . . . have suffered such mutilation and degradation of their architectural contours that they are unrecognizable. All of this has been done in the name of a misconceived and even more mismanaged urban progress.”

Even after the UNESCO designation, Quito seemed in danger of sharing the fate of such cities.

As residential sprawl crept south and commercial development took off in the north, the city’s colonial-era center became a bottleneck for the 300,000 people who walked, biked or drove through the city daily. Residents moved out and landlords compensated by partitioning the colorful, 16th- to 18th-century buildings into ever smaller, low-rent tenements. The streets were clogged with street vendors, estimated to number between 5,000 and 10,000 as recently as five years ago; petty crime was rife.

The centro historico became a no-go area for the tourist or casual visitor. And that’s how it might have stayed, were it not for Project Q.

“The challenge was not just getting people off the street, but getting them somewhere to live and somewhere to do business,” said Quito’s mayor, Paco Moncayo, in an interview with The Japan Times.

Similar initiatives in Mexico City, and in Lima, Peru, encountered violent local opposition when they sought to relocate street vendors, a few at a time, to newly built commercial centers. Quito caught the attention of its Latin American neighbors three months ago, when it managed the transition peacefully. “We weren’t going to move anyone,” said Moncayo, “until we could move everyone.”

And so, during June and July of this year, the Old Town’s street traders relocated en masse into newly constructed comercial complexes in and around the historic district. “Quito isn’t exporting its problems elsewhere,” said Moncayo, “it’s helping people right here to get established.”

Other initiatives aimed at doing just that include housing projects — the municipality has created new residential developments and puts local people seeking to buy or build a home in touch with reliable loan sources — and an ambitious scheme to provide health insurance for all.

It’s not just the locals who are reaping the benefits. For tourists, the Old Town, restored to its former glory, is captivating. Many houses have been preserved and freshly painted. Most of the churches are still undergoing repair, but the interior of La Campania de Jesus, which boasts some 7 tons of gold-leaf gilding on its interior walls and ceiling, hints at the magnificence that will be unveiled when the restorers have finished their work.

Still other buildings — such as the Cultural Center, which was once a Jesuit college and then in 1767 became a public university — have been renovated for modern use. The center houses a public library and galleries for the display of contemporary art.

Indeed, the restored centro historico seems to be spreading ripples of rejuvenation throughout Quito. In the Bellavista district in the north of the city, La Capilla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man), the brainchild of Ecuador’s most renowned contemporary artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin (1919-99), opened its doors in November 2002. This huge modern space houses Guayasamin’s work.

And if all this redevelopment really does draw the hoped-for flocks of visitors, they’ll soon be flying into a brand-new international airport. Presently most international travelers are routed via the United States, as the runways at Quito can’t accomodate the largest class of commercial jet liners. When the new airport opens in three years time, air travel to Ecuador will become both cheaper and more convenient.

When, on Sept. 8, Quito clocked up its quarter-century as a patrimonie de la humanidad, the city fathers threw a party. A brass band struck up outside the Campania de Jesus and gaily dressed Quitenos were dancing in the street as a fiesta wove through the narrow, cobbled alleys of the Old Town. They had plenty to celebrate.