Bogota, a City of Forgotten Histories

Bogota is a city of forgotten histories. I’m not talking about the ghost tales and antiquated streets in the Candelaria or the obvious significance of this barrio as the first piece in a fragmented, zoneless jigsaw that makes up today’s capital city. I want to take the city as a whole, those parts I know a little about, and try and resurrect some recognition of the fascinating stories and characters that are the social fabric of society, albeit through architecture, urban planning, displacement and all of the dynamics required to construct a city of nearly 8 million.

It struck me only this weekend how little I know of the city and then, in turn, how little my peers – Bogotanos all – knew when we discussed a few themes in our weekend course at university. No one for example, knew of the existence of the British Cemetery which lies alongside the Central Cemetery on the Calle 26. It was of interest to me when I started researching the story of Jack Greenwell, the English football coach who more or less laid the foundations for the professional football leagues here in Bogota when he took over the reins at Santa Fe. No one knew this either.

British Cemetery, Bogota

British Cemetery, Bogota

I was shocked to hear that only a small number of my classmates knew anything about the distinctly British architecture in the style of Tudor homes from the 1940s in the barrio of La Merced just by the Parque Nacional. How many could say that they had visited the Voto Nacional Basilica, the Estacion de la Sabana, even the Museum of Bogota or knew how the Calle de Cartucho gained its name? In case you were wondering, this area was originally known as Santa Ines and this was founded in 1727. But more of this later.

In fact, my insistence on the dates and place names and history of all of these areas made me sound a freak. But, on reflection as I walked back home along the Carrera Septima, looking at the graffiti, amazed at the number of cheap dive bars and vallenato haunts designed for the huge student community that congregates between the Calles 45 and 55, I couldn’t help thinking that Bogota needs a greater explanation of her barrios and reasons for her growth.

Nestled away in a backstreet of Chapinero is this colonial home

Nestled away in a backstreet of Chapinero is this colonial home, what’s the history?

It would be so simplistic to say that Bogota has grown exponentially due to the internally displaced people moved by the violence in the countryside from their traditional lands to the city. Sure, this has been a case, but, this cannot be everything and not enough is known about the design of the city and the respective districts.

There are hints of the former glories of Bogota, prior to the Bogotazo in 1948 – when the center was razed to the ground – with the construction of the broad byways of the Avenida Colon (which extended west from the Plaza de Nariño to the exit of the city to Honda) and the Avenida Caracas. These avenues were 20m to 30m wide and well illuminated – better than nowadays it seems -, largely bereft of motor vehicles due to the presence of an effective tram system and of course the relatively small urban population. The Avenida Colon no longer exists and it remnants are around what is now San Victorino and the Avenida 13.

Blink and you'll miss it, there's a neo classical building just off the Avenida Caracas

Blink and you’ll miss it, there’s a neo classical building just off the Avenida Caracas

Speaking of San Victorino, this area alone conjures up thoughts and chills of chaos from my frequent visits down there to find Christmas decorations and other knock off products. There are just so many people there all the time! This area was the new expansionist part of Bogota at the turn of the 20th Century. When you think of San Victorino extending along to the Estacion de la Sabana today, it is a tough stretch of the imagination to think of the wealth and commerce and what this district represented at time. The neo-classical French style façade of the Estacion de la Sabana was the opulence that would greet or bid farewell to people entering and leaving Colombia’s growing capital city. Opposite you can still see the “first skyscraper” in Bogota, the seven storey Edificio Peralta which was also the first hotel in Bogota to have an elevator – inaugurated in 1921. It now stands derelict and abandoned save for the bicycle stores around the ground floor.

Hopefully this area will all be renovated in coming years with the plans afoot to make the Estacion de la Sabana a transport hub once again and regenerate this down at heel part of the city which is so thick with Bogota’s history.

These houses on the Septima were constructed by the same architect who built the famous Hotel del Salto at Tequendama falls - Carlos Arturo Tapia

These houses on the Cra Septima were constructed by the same architect who built the famous Hotel del Salto at Tequendama falls – Carlos Arturo Tapia

There is more history to Bogota than just the Candelaria, but unfortunately, the only part of town with a stencil outline for tourist infrastructure is the Candelaria and so, of course this is the most visited part. And rightly so, but, a barrio does not need to be in the guidebooks for you to visit. Of course, San Victorino is off limits and so are Santa Ines and the Voto Nacional, but, little by little, if the urban regeneration of these areas is undertaken as promised, you will be able to learn about Bogota’s other barrios.

You can of course wander around La Soledad with its tree-lined streets and Parkway, which incidentally was proposed as a satellite town to take the pressure off Bogota. Chapinero still plays home to some fantastic mansions and it was here that people commuted into the center from farms and fincas in the 19th Century. There are suggestions of the regal homes still along the Avenida Caracas, and one can imagine sweeping stairwells, various serving staff and large ornate gardens. These are now offices and university building since no one can possibly afford to maintain such grand homes.

A closer image of one of the famous houses. You can see the architectural similarities:

A closer image of one of the famous houses. You can see the architectural similarities:

The Museum of Bogota on the corner of Calle 10 and Avenida 4 provides a small insight into the various barrios of the city and it is worth noting that sometimes things don’t change. The actual Avenida de los Comuneros (Calle 6 between Cra 3 and Cra 10) is still one of those key division lines that cities always seem to possess. South of this Avenida “Southern Bogota” officially begins and the socioeconomic divide is preposterously extreme. At the turn of the 20th century this was where there were huge outbreaks of disease and indeed the more humble citizens in Bogota and those who were moving in from the countryside would settle here.

The best book on the subject if you are interested is: Atlas Historica de Bogota 1911-1948 by the Corporacion de la Candelaria.

Yes, my desire for knowledge about the city borders on the eccentric, but, when I think about it, this history must not be lost as the migration of the middle class to the north continues. Were I in London I could pinpoint where the Great Fire in 1666 broke out, I could show you where criminals were hung in Hyde Park, the race course at Nottingdale and talk all about the Docklands area. These are important historical artifacts to a city and provide an identity – not just a tourist attraction.

For those who are still curious here’s a nice YouTube clip to watch.

Bogota in the 1940s

I have long believed that Bogota has undergone a major change post 1948 and beyond, not just due to the Bogotazo but due to the unnatural and almost forced growth of the city. And in turn people keep trying to look forward to a better future of secure housing compounds free of graffiti. But, in order to establish the new Bogota and the city’s identity, the past need to be embraced, but more universally than just the Candelaria.

The famous Cartucho flower after which the Calle de Cartucho in Santa Ines is named

The famous Cartucho flower after which the Calle de Cartucho in Santa Ines is named

In case you were wondering the Calle de Cartucho, which is now links into what is known as the “Bronx” – an area synonymous with homeless people and drug dealers was so-called due to the prevalence of cartucho flowers that grew there.

Bogota, my kind of town.

About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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14 Responses to Bogota, a City of Forgotten Histories

  1. Mike Hower says:

    Great article. I spent a year living and teaching in Colombia in 2011 and lived in several different neighborhoods in Bogota- Usme, Ciudad Kennedy, and La Candelaria. Thanks for shedding some light on the history of one of the world's least appreciated cities.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you Mike, I imagine you got to know all about Kennedy and Usme. I went and visited the pre-Columbian burial site that they dug up there in Usme by chance a couple of years ago when they were about to build a slew of houses. Bogota has so much to offer.

  2. Kevin H says:

    Richard, fascinating and important read. Perhaps you should right "A biography of Bogotá". I´d be the first in the queue for a signed copy.

  3. Toby de Lys says:

    Awesome reportage! Congratulations!

    After having lived in mnay important cities such as (my native) New York, Paris, London, Viena, etc., I have made Bogota my adpoted home. As an architect and historian, I cannot tell you how refreshing it is for me to find substantive reportages such as yours. I have felt as amazed walking throughout Bogota, as alone (and even angry that this city has still been so unchartered by foreigners), in this extraprdianry city; so full of culture, and amazing hsitory.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you Toby, I find myself gawping at derelict art deco buildings and wondering why they were built where they are, I want to know about the communities that have populated various parts of the city and to learn of the decay as well. Out of 24 people – all professionals – on my university course, the lack of knowledge of Bogota was truly shocking. I am thinking of doing small pieces of research every few weeks.

  4. Richard says:

    As another note, the other day I hailed a taxi to get to the Alcaldia or Palacio Lievano for a meeting. The driver was adamant that what is the Palacio de Justicia was the Alcaldia. I had to correct him! I don't think it was simply a case of the taxi driver hurrying to get me out of his vehicle for another fare, he genuinely did not know.

  5. sfoswald says:

    Hey this is pretty much the best post on the subject. Awesome work and thanks for making this post. I will be sure to spend more time around these forgotten places and might even research further into their history once I'm back in Bogota.

  6. Erika Pierotti says:

    Fascinating article! You have capture the essence of the Bogota of my fascination with it’s architecture and even the chills of thinking of San Victorino.I will be visiting Bogota from a self imposed exhile with my 3 younger children 2,5 and 6. After 20 years of absence I’m excited but a little concern about what to do with them.I will be staying in Chapinero with you have any decisions on what is a must do in Bogota?

    • Richard says:

      Thank you Erika, Chapinero is a very central and very safe area of the city. Your children are quite young and Bogota, while possessing may places to visit, may be too much for them. But your relatives will love the visit. For eating, the Zona G and Usaquen, since I have no children of my own I have yet to find the answers to your question!

  7. Adrian Zuur says:

    Richard, I met you briefly yesterday at a meeting, and I decided to check out your website. I really liked this article!

    I share your preocupation with the lack of awareness of this city’s history. It’s very reassuring to find that someone else recognizes this fact. I also feel that Bogota has grown in an incredibly rapid, disorganized, and little understood process. So much of Bogotano – and Colombian – cultural heritage has been created by this process, or transformed by it, but my impression is that this history remains a subtext in daily life as opposed to being explicitly recognized and appropriated by its citizens. As a half Bogotano, with ancestors on my mother’s side born in this city from at least three generations back, I appreciate stories like this one!

    Have you heard about the history of Barrio Policarpa, in the south east of the city, behind Hospital San Juan de Dios? Although it might not be the typical story of the growth of Bogota, it sure is an interesting one.


    • Richard says:

      Yes Adrian, you are right, I am investigating the history of the Policarpa barrio, I know something of it and it's importance, but I need to do further investigations so as to ensure that I get the facts right. Thank you for stopping by.

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