Exciting times for Bogotá’s Sabana Train Station, potentially, should plans be approved for an inclusive, cultural, educational and recreational space in what was the Puerto Seco of the Colombian capital.
If you are not familiar with the columns of the neoclassical facade of the Sabana Train Station (built in 1917 by the Englishman William Lidstone), you’ll be excused this oversight since visiting this part of town in Los Mártires is not actively encouraged. You can of course get in and sniff around if you are taking a trip out to Zipaquirá and beyond on the Turistren steam train which departs on weekends for tourists or should you have some interest in the restoration work being carried out by the Escuela de Taller. Aside from these options you’ll be limited to wandering aimlessly beyond the wrought-iron railings amongst the sea of motorcycle repair workshops and displaced indigents from the Bronx.
Anyway, the Sabana Train Station occupies a special place in my imagination and it is around this wonderful edifice that I am constructing my PhD dissertation. You could say that I am becoming a bore although my Uber driver was happy to receive a de facto history lesson about his home city as we navigated rutted back streets and ominous-looking exteriors of pay-by-the-night residences occupied by people in severely unfortunate situations.
The journey down to Los Mártires is always interesting, glimpses at the unloved yet phenomenal Teatro San Jorge were bookended with my craned neck making efforts to spot potential items of architectural heritage, abandoned or forgotten in the area. And there’s plenty. Back in the day, in the 1920s and so on, high-ranking military officers lived down here, in addition to Senators, bankers, international delegates and more. How different it must have been.
The plans are exciting for the immense space which the Sabana Train Station occupies. Since there are heritage buildings, these will be protected and not demolished as some developers may want. But as the architect in charge of the plan said to me, “in this depressed, overlooked, polluted area of Bogotá there are no green spaces and not one tree. A green space is worth so much more than further constructions.”
And so there are all sorts of statutes in place. The property, which extends from the Calle 13 to the Calle 19 (and some sections have been illegally sold or stolen) cannot be divided and portioned into parcels to sell to developers. Walls cannot be built. This needs to be kept as one place and the plans show cycle lanes, parks, open spaces, flexible spaces for work hubs and beyond. In short, Bogotá does not have anything of this nature as yet. If it is done correctly, and the traditional local communities – and there are surviving communities in Los Mártires – are consulted and involved in the process, then it will work. If not….we are looking at another Parque del Tercer Milenio, an open space that is militarised on the one side by the police and run by street gangs on the other and is a place where only the reckless dare to enter.
I will be back in the barrio this following week to scour around the Sabana Train Station some more to find out more about the prices of rents in the area and what might happen if a gentrification takes place. Does any intervention here mean a New Urban Crisis of which Richard Florida has written in an excellent new book now available? Will it mean further segregation in the area? What I can see is that if the area of the Sabana Train Station is opened up along the sides running along the Carreras to the North and to the South it will permit a certain population flow through a sector which has been completely isolated. This is a good thing in my mind.
As a final consideration, it is worth remembering that uneven geographical development begins with a disparity of natural conditions in different regions. The capitulation of local politicians and urban planners to the demands of investors and developers who press for more business-friendly conditions will not deliver what is needed here. We need to be reminded at times that market forces are not the only forces at play and that there is also a responsibility to society as a whole rather than to the accumulation of capital.
We need to start thinking through the city as a space for accommodating difference and disorder. One could say, that there are potentially exciting times ahead for this area of Bogotá.