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Houses make a town, but citizens make a city.
Perhaps the best definition of the city in its higher aspects is to say that it is a place designed to offer the widest facilities for significant conversation. The dialogue is one of the ultimate expressions of life in the city: the delicate flower of its long vegetative growth.
The Urban Paradigm
An appreciation of the city, the apotheosis of modern civilization to many—and there is no argument to the contrary in this book—demands an understanding of the term "urban." What constitutes an urban aggregation, and what distinguishes the urban from the rural, should be the point of departure for an inquiry into the character and course of the colonial Spanish-American city. As is so often the case, the geographer offers us succinct and meaningful guidance: "Size and administrative status are not essential criteria of true urban character. Function and form are the essentials of the matter." When the U.S. Bureau of the Census declared the country more than 50 percent urban for the first time, it employed the aggregate figure of 2,500 people as the threshold between urban and rural settlement. Later it raised and then raised again the minimum number of dwellers requisite for urban classification. This bureaucratic quantification is mere convenience, but otherwise uninformed and historically meaningless. Function and form are the essentials of what is truly urban and not the number of people living coherently in a settlement. Let us explore this.
Urban centers share a number of similar characteristics, although not necessarily all of them. They are places where people reside all or most of the year. They are places where very few residents produce all or even most of their own food. This means that urbanites are dependent upon other people to produce food for them. In return the urban dwellers produce manufactured goods or acquire cash for exchange. Sometimes the rural inhabitants produce and sell or exchange semifinished or even manufactured goods in the urban nexus. In the urban centers differentiated labor and classes develop. A wide range of crafts and stores (large, small, and medium in capitalization and size of inventory) evolve. People specialize in their economic activities, and this division of labor means that urban dwellers produce goods and services for each other and, when broader markets develop, for export. The urban center is a marketplace in its most defining characteristic. Urban centers commonly contain schools, religious institutions, professionals of various types, and bureaucrats. Urban agglomerations provide social, economic, and geographical opportunities that rarely exist in rural environments.
To put it another way, urban is modern and rural is traditional. Rural societies are commonly referred to as traditional because they are almost always ascriptive, meaning that the son of a peasant will likely become a peasant, the son of the rich agrarian will likely become a rich agrarian, and the son of the local blacksmith will likely become a blacksmith or perhaps a small farmer. Urban centers tend not to be ascriptive, because society is differentiated, with many more occupational opportunities. Here the son of a shoemaker might be apprenticed to a master silversmith, as happened, or might become a clerk in a small retail or wholesale store, with the possibility of upward mobility. Moreover, historically girls were also apprenticed in the urban ecology, even becoming members of guilds. In fact, it was in the urban centers that the middle class arose, ascended, and descended according to its constituents' abilities, familial connections or other patronage (not excluding the benefit of marriage), and the ambiguous rhythms of the marketplace. This was not the case in the rural regions. Urban life was not centered upon and circumscribed by the seasons and the agricultural cycles. Urban dwellers in substantial numbers came to believe that they could manipulate their environment, their destiny, which was essential for the transition from traditional to modern and became one of modernism's abiding characteristics.
This raises the question: how many people does it take to constitute an urban habitat? The question admits of no sure answer. The critical mass of, say, 2,500 residents might be sufficient to initiate and sustain the urban calculus, but this is merely a convenient marker rather than a realistic evaluation. In fact, individual members and sectors of the economy might reach the threshold of activity and mentalité associated with what defines urban at different times. Therefore, dwellers possessed of unequivocal "urban" qualities of thought and activity might easily reside in population centers of, say, 1,000 people or perhaps 500 or fewer people that otherwise were essentially "rural" settlements.
To further our understanding of the urban habitat, it is instructive to know more about what is rural. Essential to the rural settlement, or village, as it is almost always denoted, is that the residents are engaged primarily in agricultural pursuits. Even in high feudal Europe serfs manufactured (in its formal meaning, by hand, which includes use of rudimentary machines such as spinning wheels and looms) household necessities, and some produced a surplus that could be exchanged for goods produced in other households. By the early modern era in Europe such production and exchange, as well as expanded markets, became more intense, layered, and widespread. Nevertheless, the "village" was essentially an agricultural habitat. One would imagine such a village to consist of ten or twenty primitive peasant dwellings or fifty or perhaps a hundred or more. In Mediterranean Europe towns, in contradistinction to smaller villages, frequently devoted part of their energies to agriculture but also to trade, artisanal activities, and other broadly commercial endeavors. An excellent example is the Castilian city of Ciudad Real, where "well over half of the city's householders worked the land on a full-time basis." Thus, although the functional distinction between the agricultural village and the urban town or city is occupation in agriculture, in Iberia the urban process remained vestigial, still heavily rooted in agriculture. Urbanism (meaning the nature of what is urban) did not mature in Spain as early as in northern Europe because trade and industry were less well developed. This is precisely what occurred in Spanish America, where countless villages of a thousand, two thousand, or more inhabitants—which in aggregate would suggest the possibility of palpable urban development—remained overwhelmingly rural in functional character (and in form also, because of the demands of agriculture).
That having been said, what fundamentally distinguishes the urban settlement is that the economy is centered in nonagricultural activities. While some residents of the rural village or town of mixed economy might develop an urban or modern worldview, this is not the case in the majority. The vexing problem, again, is that we do not know at what point in the growth of a population settlement this transition begins to take hold. When the activities associated with urban life "occur in some kind of combination, in a permanent and compact settlement with some measure of community organization, the place assumes the character of a town. A city is simply a king among towns, enjoying leadership over its neighbors. A fundamental trait of both town and city, in all ages, has been that they serve as institutional centers (commercial, cultural and administrative) for a surrounding territory."
Thus, the functional definition of the urban habitat. Form is a less complicated matter. By the middle of the twelfth century in western Europe, the long-used term civitas came to mean "a compact settlement that enjoyed a special law, that was walled, and that was usually a market and a seat of industry and commerce." The Spanish ciudad (city) evolved from this term. Sometimes, as we shall see shortly, form followed function, and other times function followed form. One way or another, the form of an urban habitat had to serve the needs of an urban society. Requisite were residential structures capable of housing large numbers of people in reasonably close proximity to markets, stores, churches, and public administrative buildings. When the topography permitted, the physical form could be radial (flowing out from a central market and administrative center); geometric grid (the pattern so prevalent in Spanish America); or linear (when buildings were constructed alongside a single route axis, such as the royal highway). When the topography was uncooperative, as in the instance of mountainous regions, the urban form could be more eclectic. Whatever the structural form, for the urban settlement to be large enough in population to deserve the title of city, ordinarily it had to be proximate to good water or land transportation routes; and if it were to grow to the size of what came to be called a "primate" city, it needed a productive hinterland to supply food and materials for manufacture and a market to accommodate surplus production. The exceptions were the mountainous mining cities, whose production was so valuable that it could be sent through otherwise uneconomical trade routes and whose exchange value was so great that goods would be imported through those same onerous trade routes.
When function and form coincide, an urban habitat comes into existence. Fundamentally, "town and city are merely aspects of the same thing, and the small country town with some 1,000 inhabitants has all the same elementary functions, with their corresponding structures, that the large town or city possesses . . ." This is the working generalization for this book, but it is important to bear in mind that there were many variations along the trajectory toward mature urbanization. The larger the town or city, the greater the possibility for expanded trade and manufacturing—and therefore economic specialization distant from agriculture. In this case, the habitat could nucleate around a business (and administrative) core, with areal artisanal, commercial, and manufacturing concentration. Nevertheless, "there was, and still is, no real difference in essential functions between the urban settlement in the country with 1,000 inhabitants and the urban agglomeration with several millions." This view underpins the logic of my central argument in this book.
Spain, however, embraced urban development from an almost entirely different perspective. Urban settlements during the long Reconquest against the Moors were conceived politically rather than economically. They were mandated or succored as corporate entities to the degree that they served the political and defensive purposes of the Spanish kings. Their privileges generally depended upon the size of their populations, their capacity to secure reconquered lands, and their potential for wealth that could be expropriated by the Crown. To differentiate among settlements, according to this rationale, specific names were applied to habitats of varying size. These terms were later transferred to the empire in the New World, but they were not always deployed systematically. As a general rule of thumb, the following typology is employed in this book to convey municipal organization:
- Town (pueblo): 500 to 2,000 inhabitants
- Villa (does not translate well as village): 2,000 to 4,000 inhabitants
- City (ciudad): 4,000 or more inhabitants
- Municipality (municipalidad): generally the largest city of the realm
- Municipal: a term that describes all urban settlements
This urban typology has exceptions. For instance, Juan de Oñate's contract to colonize the province of New Mexico allowed him to categorize settlements as ciudad, villa, or pueblo, in descending order of privilege and status. In some colonies villas were larger and more important than pueblos, and in others the reverse obtained. In New Mexico the term pueblo was not normally used since the village Indians in the province were called Pueblos, and a dual usage could have occasioned much confusion. Elsewhere, however, Indian towns were generally referred to as pueblos, regardless of size. In southern Chile, where defense against both pirates and the defiantly successful Araucanian Indians was essential, villas were established that were essentially presidios (frontier military posts), and, in clear recognition of their military etiology, they were uniquely referred to as tercios. Among them were Arauco, which would be known throughout the colonial period as a tercio, and Nascimiento, which we shall visit in Chapter 3. Furthermore, the term villa could be conferred to acknowledge prodigious wealth, size, and population, as in the case of the great mining city, the Villa Imperial de Potosí.
Spanish-American urban habitats were founded by the conquistadors, later by natural occurrence near water or land routes for the exchange of goods and services, or by official decree. In the latter instance, these urban habitats could be quite artificial and fragile, and many failed, perhaps most egregiously in the colony of Hispaniola. During the sixteenth century several northern and western towns on the island had become centers of cattle ranching and smuggling. Furthermore, the colony's capital, Santo Domingo, was not being sufficiently supplied with beef. The governor proposed the depopulation of those towns and the relocation of the residents along with their cattle to new towns created for the purpose in the south near Santo Domingo. In 1603 the Council of the Indies approved the plan, and in 1605 a new governor physically depopulated the selected towns, burning buildings, including churches, as a means of insuring the plan's success. These devastaciones were an abject failure. Few of the cattle arrived in the south, the new towns erected to support the northern and western emigrants had a difficult time sustaining themselves, and the island's economy was shattered.
Towns that did thrive and perhaps grow in size and regional influence throughout the colonies, however, all shared a similar origin in the commercial revolution that began in Europe several hundred years before Spain's imperium in the New World got under way. This requires some elaboration. Prior to the slow and sporadic revival of trade in Europe during the tenth century, small urban centers began to evolve around the walled episcopal and administrative (initially fortress) cities, none of which were urban in nature. As European international trade expanded to the East, but also throughout the continent, these urban centers and capital cities expanded in response and in turn furthered urbanization. Cities such as Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, and Barcelona, to name only a scant few, were symbolic of the new economy and growth in urbanization. In Spain, however, the situation was quite different, because in political and economic reality there existed several Spains until 1469 and the marriage of Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón and because what became known as Spain had carried out a war of Reconquest against the Moors since their invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in A.D. 711. Isabel of Castile famously created a "national" army that reduced her dependence on the feudal nobility, which she proceeded to dispossess of privileges and power. For centuries kings, and later Isabel, mandated the founding of towns of various size to hold and defend newly reconquered lands. But the war effort could lead to an unexpected urban need, and a perfect example of this again is Ciudad Real, in La Mancha, kingdom of Castile.
Ciudad Real was founded by King Alfonso X of Castile not as a stronghold against the Moors in a frontier region where scores of others had been founded as fortified towns in service to Crown and God but as a stronghold against one of the powerful crusading orders that arose during the Reconquest and had been granted large tracts of land to defend and in recompense for its glorious successes. In his attempt to strengthen royal prerogative, Alfonso created Ciudad Real (Royal City), and the name was not a casual elaboration, directly in the middle of lands held by the military order of Calatrava as a counterpoise to its power. Ciudad Real did not arise as the result of economic forces, which might have underwritten future growth, and in fact it did not grow and fare well except to the extent that the Crown granted it special privileges.
Nevertheless, royal political and defense requirements as well as an expanding agro-pastoral and commercial economy animated widespread urbanization. By the end of the fifteenth century, in the south Seville and Valencia each held populations of about 75,000 people; Córdoba, 35,000; and Jerez, also 35,000. Several smaller cities reached population levels of 25,000, 20,000, or 15,000, to say nothing about the smaller cities and towns. At the same time, four cities in the north, including Toledo and Valladolid, had reached populations of between 20,000 and 25,000. Several smaller Castilian cities were important economically, even with populations of only about 10,000, such as Burgos, Segovia, and Madrid. These were urban habitats with differentiated social and economic hierarchies. They were nurtured largely by the natural forces of commerce and industry rather than by royal bestowments of special privilege, although each city had its charter, its foro, which did indeed elucidate its privileges and responsibilities.
In fact, although Spain's economy was not as urbanized or commercially and industrially advanced as many countries in northern Europe, it was more so than the overburdened metaphor of Don Quixote of La Mancha manages to suggest to new generations of readers. It is true and well known that by the fourteenth century Castile was the premier producer of merino sheep and Europe's leading exporter of wool, but such pastoral and commercial activity can never be a one-way street. Castile's main market was Flanders, which in turn sent back luxury goods. But Castile also exported items to France, the Hanseatic League, and Catalonia, including iron, alum, salt, wine, olive oil, lemons, almonds, fruit, rice, and cloth.3 And this is to leave aside the great Catalan-Aragonese trading empire, which had become a powerful trading presence in the Mediterranean.
Knowing who carried out the domestic and international trade is important to an understanding of the future colonization of Spanish America. It is often said, and it is undeniable, that by about 1500 the commercial development of Spain had not produced a bourgeoisie as large or as mature as the bourgeoisies to the north, but this beclouds rather than clarifies the Spanish urban reality. In fact, the widespread trade in wool, wheat and other grains, manufactured cloth, and the export items noted above, as well as the imports to pay for them, did call into being an expanding bourgeoisie to which Spanish kings resorted for taxation and political support as they attempted to compromise the powers of the traditional nobility in their quest for monarchical status, and this was especially so, perhaps, with Isabel. To understand the term "bourgeoisie" in its broadest and most instructive meaning, one should include import/export merchants, bankers, smaller wholesalers, a whole range of retailers, and sometimes even artisans. By 1500 there were tens of thousands of these people of the [urban] bourgeoisie in Spain, even if most Spaniards lived on the land or in agricultural villages.
The urbanization that had occurred in Spain during the last decades prior to the discovery of the New World was not subject to what is generally referred to as "urban" or "town" planning. Throughout much of western Europe, town planning had become widespread during the later fifteenth century, but not in Spain. Spaniards were aware of these developments, but their interests lay elsewhere—in the Reconquest. Military encampments were established for both offensive and defensive purposes, and some of these were formed on a geometric grid pattern. Sometimes these grid encampments evolved into towns, but the impetus for the design was military need. The most famous of the military grid encampments was Santa Fe, which Ferdinand and Isabel established in two and a half months in 1491 just outside the gates of Granada as a military base for the final thrust against the last Moorish stronghold, at which they were successful the following year. The origin of this military grid pattern is not clear, but it had its own logic and required little historical instruction. Thus, whatever its conceptual provenance, Santa Fe was a hastily constructed geometrically designed rectangular encampment, crisscrossed by two central axes leading to four cardinal gates.
Be that as it may, the Spanish kings had no formal policy toward the physical side of town planning. Several of Spain's most important cities (such as Seville) had a deeply rooted Moorish character, and the Moors were heterodox regarding town planning, allowing urban habitats to evolve more or less spontaneously. The ancient Roman cities served as no model; nor did the demands of the military encampment. However, there is another dimension to town and city planning, the institutional one. In this realm the Spanish kings had evolved a rational and precise scheme for the administrative apparatus of urban habitats. From the municipal council to the organization of the local economy, those who would establish a town or city had very clear and, one might say, restricting guidelines to follow.
In 1492 Spain was in many ways uniquely well suited to carry out a large-scale conquest and colonization. It was highly experienced in doing exactly this. Many of the institutions of Reconquest, such as the adelantado (a private contractor empowered by the kings to carry out the reconquest of a specific region largely at his own expense in return for land and other perquisites) and even Isabel's revived Inquisition, were amenable to transfer to the empire. But, as it turned out, the most fundamental institution of the colonization was the urban habitat. It was the town and city upon which Spanish Crown and colonizers alike depended for establishing juridical legitimation, organization of the economy, and perhaps most importantly defense of trading routes, commercial exchange, and protection of frontier regions. For this urban colonization Ferdinand and Isabel possessed a clear and precise administrative program, but not a physical one. In a fundamental way, the early conquest and colonization of the New World was undertaken without a plan for physically setting out the towns and cities that were central to the effort.
Santo Domingo and New World Urbanization
Spain's first attempts at town building in the New World occurred on the island of Hispaniola. Christopher Columbus founded Isabella on his second voyage, but this town quickly failed. Other attempts to establish towns on the island during the first decade of colonization also were unsuccessful. The first true Spanish city in the New World was Santo Domingo, whose construction began in 1496. Like so many later towns and cities in the Spanish Empire, this one had to be moved. Sometimes it was a hurricane which caused the relocation of a city (as in the case of the first Santo Domingo), or an earthquake (as in the case of Guatemala City), or poor site location with regard to transportation networks (like Buenos Aires), or a pestilential climate (as with Vera Cruz). And there are many other examples. Construction of the second Santo Domingo began in 1502, and it was the first Spanish-American city to have a rectilinear grid pattern. How this came about is of importance.
The new Santo Domingo was constructed on the bank of the Ozama River under the direct supervision of Governor Nicolás de Ovando. Ferdinand and Isabel were obviously familiar with the geometric grid pattern, sometimes called the checkerboard pattern (sistema de demero), which they had imposed on Santa Fe and other towns and cities of the Reconquest, but the royal instructions to Governor Ovando in 1501 do not suggest this:
As it is necessary in the island of Española to make settlements and from here it is not possible to give precise instructions, investigate the possible sites, and in conformity with the quality of the land and sites as well as with the present population outside present settlements establish settlements in the numbers and in the places that seem proper to you.
Clearly, nearly ten years after the discovery of the New World and the establishment of the Spanish Empire in America, the Catholic kings maintained no formal plan for the physical organization of urban settlements, which they must have understood would be the political, social, and economic matrix of colonial life as well as the locus of defense. Nevertheless, Ovando proceeded to elaborate a grid pattern for Santo Domingo, whose provenance is unclear. Certainly he had as a guide similarly patterned Reconquest cities, but it would be only a small speculation to presume that someone with his court experience would have been aware of the French bastides (fortified towns) and perhaps the English planned towns. In any event, Santo Domingo earned a formidable reputation as a planned grid city. In 1526 the Spaniard Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo wrote admiringly of it, comparing it favorably to Spanish cities, including Barcelona, which he had seen many times:
The streets are much more level and much broader and incomparably straighter . . . it was laid out by rule and compass with the streets all of the same size, in which respect it is far ahead of all the towns I have seen.
Toward the end of the sixteenth century Juan de Castellanos wrote of his visit to Santo Domingo in 1535:
Está su población tan compasada
Que ninguna sé yo mejor trazada
(The layout of the town is such
That I know of none so well devised)
Ninguna cosa por menor que sea
Hay en cualquier parte de la vía
Que desde un cabo a otro no se vea
Según la rectitud con que se guía
(No thing regardless of its size
Wherever it may lie along the course
From end to end can it be seen
Owing to the way the streets have been designed)
The Urban Protocol
The vagueness imparted in Ovando's instructions as to site selection and physical form became essentially a passive guideline for town creation over the course of the following decade. For instance, Columbus' son, Diego Colón, was instructed in 1509 to "establish settlements where it seems best to you." But there was soon to be a dramatic change in the Crown's policy toward urban planning in its American empire. It began with the royal instructions given to Pedrarias Dávila in 1513:
One of the most important things to observe is that . . . the places chosen for settlement . . . be healthy and not swampy, good for unloading goods [if ports]; if inland to be on a river if possible, . . . good water and air, close to arable land . . .
In view of these things necessary for settlements, and seeking the best site in these terms for the town, then divide the plots for houses, these to be according to the status of the persons and from the beginning it should be according to a definite arrangement; for the manner of setting up the solares will determine the pattern of the town, both in the position of the plaza and the church and in the pattern of the streets, for towns being newly founded may be established according to plan without difficulty. If not started with form, they will never attain it.
The Spanish Empire in America now had a protocol for town and city planning, although it would be refined and clarified during the following decades. Implicit was the Crown's desire that urban habitats be laid out according to a grid pattern with parallel or right-angled streets. Explicit was its command that towns and cities be established in ecologies suitable for the health of their residents and the carrying out of trade. Dávila was also instructed to subdivide towns into lots (solares) for house building, given to the residents according to their status. Thus, the Crown both recognized and instituted a socio/economic hierarchy, a fundamental urban characteristic in any event. The more important residents would receive the best building lots and, implicitly, those closest to the central plaza, where the governmental buildings and the church would be located.
Dávila first employed these instructions in the founding of Panama City in 1519, and they were conveyed to other early conquistadors. With Dávila was Alonso García Bravo, who later would be with Hernán Cortés at the founding of the first but short-lived Spanish village in Mexico, the Villa Rica de Vera Cruz in 1519, and who would later elaborate the famous traza (grid pattern) around the main plaza of Mexico City in 1523-1524. Cortés described him as "a good geometer." Many of the towns established during the colonial period were founded by clergy, explicitly for the purpose of converting Indians and supervising their new religious lives. Thus, the basic ideas of the Dávila instructions were repeated by the king to the Jeronymite friars for the establishment of towns. Similar instructions were given to Francisco de Garay in 1521 for the founding of towns in the province of Amichel in Mexico, and the same instructions were prepared as a guide for all those who might establish towns (always including cities and even villages, of course) on the mainland and also for Cortés.
Before proceeding to the founding of towns and cities on the mainland, tierra firme, a brief consideration of pre-Columbian urbanization is in order.