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On the Plaza

On the Plaza
The Politics of Public Space and Culture

How culture acts to shape public spaces and how the physical form of the plaza encodes the social, political, and economic relations within the city.

April 2000
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296 pages | 6 x 9 | 51 b&w photos, 16 maps, 4 tables |

Friendly gossip, political rallies, outdoor concerts, drugs, shoeshines, and sex-for-sale—almost every aspect of Latin American life has its place and time in the public plaza. In this wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary study, Setha M. Low explores the interplay of space and culture in the plaza, showing how culture acts to shape public spaces and how the physical form of the plaza encodes the social and economic relations within its city.

Low centers her study on two plazas in San José, Costa Rica, with comparisons to public plazas in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. She interweaves ethnography, history, literature, and personal narrative to capture the ambiance and meaning of the plaza. She also uncovers the contradictory ethnohistories of the European and indigenous origins of the Latin American plaza and explains why the plaza is often a politically contested space.


Honorable Mention, Victor Turner Award
Society for Humanistic Anthropology

Leeds Prize
Society of Urban, National, and Transnational/Global Anthropology

Robert B. Textor Prize for Excellence in Anticipatory Anthropology
American Anthropological AssociationVictor Turner Award, Honorable MentionSociety for Humanistic Anthropology

  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I: Introduction
    • Chapter One: Notes from the Field: A Personal Account
    • Chapter Two: Public Space and Culture: The Case of the Latin American Plaza
  • Part II: Histories
    • Chapter Three: The History of the Plaza in San José, Costa Rica: The Political Symbolism of Public Space
    • Chapter Four: The European History of the Plaza: Power Relations and Architectural Interpretation
    • Chapter Five: The Indigenous History of the Plaza: The Contested Terrain of Architectural Representations
  • Part III: Ethnographies
    • Chapter Six: Spatializing Culture
    • The Social Production and Social Construction of Public Space
    • Chapter Seven: Constructing Difference: The Social and Spatial Boundaries of Everyday Life
    • Chapter Eight: Public Space and Protest: The Plaza as Art and Commodity
  • Part IV: Conversations
    • Chapter Nine: The Park and the Plaza in Costa Rican Literature Imagined Places
    • Chapter Ten: Conversations on the Plaza: Remembered Places
    • Chapter Eleven: Public Space, Politics, and Democracy
  • Appendix: Recent Costa Rican Presidents and Their Terms
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Setha Low is Professor of Environmental Psychology and Anthropology and Director of the Public Space Research Group at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.


Field Notes from Parque Central


Parque Central, weekday morning, February 20, 1985—First impressions on field trip #1.


The bus stopped at Parque Central. I am struck immediately with how ugly and strange the kiosco [bandstand] is; it is like a Precolumbian Maya incense burner created in a giant form, or a Postclassic temple with cut-out sides. The stairs are so steep and it is so tall that it reminds me of a temple at Tikal [a Maya site in Guatemala]. I start taking photographs as soon as I step out, shooting in a continuous circle and also along the pathways and edges.


The park is full of people. Almost every bench is taken, mostly by men, who stand or sit in groups around a bench or wall ledge; a few are even stretched out full length on a bench. At each entry path there are two to three shoeshine men, a few with customers (see Photograph 2). They look quite established and part of the scene. Most of the men sitting are older, while the younger ones stand. One man is eating an ice cream cone. I look for women and find only two on a bench, and one campesino [country] couple sit silently with straight backs and severe faces. Two women have a flower stall, and one man is selling ice cream. The men's behavior is a public display, full of symbolic posturing, verbal play, and social exchange.


Parque Central, 8.00-10:00 A.M., weekday, May 19, 1986—First day of section observations on field trip #2.


The day starts with waiting for the bus. The traffic is stop and go, and the wait seems forever. The bus creeps along letting everyone get on even if it means that people have to hang out of the doors. A man gets up to give me a seat, which is a stroke of luck, since I am having a hard time standing in the crowd. I arrive at Parque Central on the dot of 8:00 with the cathedral bells ringing. Mobs of people descend from the bus hurrying on their way as I try to find a place to start.


I circle the park once feeling uncomfortable in this male-dominated space. At this time in the morning there are hardly any women here, and those who are, walk through quickly. The park is littered with leaves and paper, ill-kempt and cluttered, looking rather worn and run-down. The benches are full even though there are eighty or more in the area of a square city block; and half of the area is taken up with the monumental kiosk. I circle the park again and notice that in the kiosk basement is a children's library.


I decide that it is impossible to describe the plaza all at once, so I start on the northeastern corner where there is the most action. The northeast corner is what I call the shoeshine men's corner. Each bench has one or two men who are either cleaning a customer's shoes or waiting, talking and joking nearby. The shoeshine men use the benches as props for all of their activities, work as well as recreation, and they circulate from one bench to another to exchange information, jokes, money, and stolen goods or drugs. If one bench becomes too full, they move again.


There is an "in-crowd" of five or six men with long hair, beards, and short-sleeved dirty tee shirts. They appear to be in their late thirties or early forties, and they move as a group. Other shoeshine men are more conservatively dressed and do not look very different from the people who are having their shoes cleaned. A couple of men carry plastic "suitcases" and unpack there in the park. The in-group men, however, carry their equipment in plastic coffee bags, which they hang on the backs of the benches. Some shoeshine men hang around a lot, talking and relaxing, while others aggressively try to get customers by inviting them to sit down so they can clean their dirty shoes. One common technique is for the shoeshine man to point to your shoes and tell you that he can make them look much better—even if you are wearing tennis shoes!


After about half an hour I move counterclockwise to the northwest corner, which is much sunnier and less crowded, with the majority of people walking through. The benches here are full of men reading newspapers or sitting and staring at the passersby (see Photograph 3). I see a street sweeper and his friends, who follow him as he works, talking and smoking cigarettes.


I move to the southwest corner, where everyone is meeting someone, with someone, or holding someone, and a lot of people are walking through on the diagonal. At this corner there are two couples and a woman—the largest number of women anywhere in the park except for the women who sell flowers. I notice the vendors, small boys walking through selling ice cream, candy, or bread. The pace of the walking is quickening as the day moves on.


The last half hour is spent at the southeast corner, back facing the cathedral. I am getting tired, but there is nowhere to sit because all the benches are taken. Everyone there seems to be waiting and looking at their watches before going back to reading their newspapers. The most frequent activity is reading the newspaper, staring into space, or talking to the person who is next to you. I see a family—father, mother, and four children—sit down on a bench, squeezing in next to a man they do not know. A young man comes over, offers me his seat, and then sits down next to me. He asks the time and then returns to reading his newspaper. He looks at me over his paper from time to time and notices if I glance back at him.


Parque Central, 10:30-11:30 A.M., Sunday, June 15, 1986—Sunday in the park during field trip #2.


The band sets up slowly: first a truck pulls up and unloads the chairs, then the conductor's stand is arranged in the center, surrounded by a wider semicircle of the players' chairs. It looks like a full orchestra, and the sound is lovely. They play five different pieces of music on this sunny morning. Interestingly, most of the spectators stand on the platform of the kiosk in a circle surrounding the musicians (see Photograph 4).


I descended from the kiosk to take pictures of the people watching from the lower levels. The park is full of children running and playing, women talking, and older men looking on. There are many older Ticos [local slang for Costa Rican men] dressed up in their Sunday best, but I assume that this is because it is Father's Day!


I start to take a picture of three older men (over seventy years of age) who are talking (see Photograph 5); they smile and invite me to sit down. They also have come to hear the music, having gone to mass very early that morning. They ask me where I am from, if I am married, and whether I have children. I answer, "No, I do not have any children, but want to." They reply, "Then take your husband to Puntarenas. It is hotter there, and it will stick." They go on to talk about hot Ticas [Costa Rican women] and sex, chuckling that it is hard to get it up any more. They watch the girls walking by and add: "We watch more now than we did." I thank them for the seat and leave as another very old and quite feeble man with a cane comes up to join them.


As I walk around to the other side of the plaza an older woman, eighty-three years of age she says, hails me by waving her hand. She is putting everything that is in her purse on the bench beside her. She complains, "A woman robbed me of a 1,000 colón bill [Costa Rican money, about $7.38 if calculated at the exchange rate of 135.65 colones per U.S. dollar in January 1992] that was in my purse while she was helping to clean off... A drunk had come up and thrown up on me, and the woman had been nice enough to help, but now you can not trust even someone who helps you." I tell her that it would be better to put the things back in her purse. She replies not to worry, that I was a big, strong girl who would protect her while she checked everything. I smile and wait for her to finish.


I go to see some children chasing pigeons and sit on the shoeshine corner with a tired-looking shoeshine man. The "gambler" comes over and says that he will show me the "cap game" [the "shell game" in the United States]. I had tried to watch the other day, but he had told me that I could not watch without playing. He spits on a tiny bit of paper, rolls it into a ball, and puts it under a Coca-Cola bottle cap. He then moves the bottle cap with the spit ball under it around, changing places with two other similar bottle caps. He moves the bottle caps slowly so that it is very clear where the spit ball is located. I choose the right one. Then he asks if I would bet 1,000 colones. I say that I do not have any cash on me. He tells me that I can bet my watch. Horrified, I react: "No, it was a gift from my boyfriend!" He smiles, says "OK," and walks off.


The tired-looking shoeshine man next to me asks me to bring him shoe wax from the United States when I return on my next trip. He has asked me out to dance or have a drink a couple of times, and wants to know if I do those kinds of things. I reply that I am "promised" [engaged to be married], and thank him for his invitation.


Parque Central, 6:00-9:00 P.M., Saturday, June 28, 1986—Saturday night in the park during field trip #2.


It is very difficult to do fieldwork in Parque Central at night. It is cold and damp on the benches, and I feel quite uncomfortable as a woman alone. The same observations that I have made before seem confirmed: couples meet and fill the benches at 6:00 P.M. and slowly drift off between 7:00 P.M. and 7:30 P.M. Some go into the movie theaters that surround the park, and others finally catch a bus home. By 7:30 P.M. the park is occupied mainly by single adult men, some in pairs, but mostly alone.


The only new activity that I can now clearly pick out is a group of young women who are hanging around under the arbor, giggling and talking. They seem young, about fifteen to eighteen years of age, and most are wearing tight-fitting jeans. The older women who walk by wear even tighter, more provocative clothing; their style is tough and playful.


The young women get a man's attention by bumming a cigarette, teasing him, or planting a kiss on his cheek. The clearest pick-up is by a brunette woman in a floral dress and a sweatshirt. She goes over to a thin man, shakes his hand, and sits down. At first I wonder if he is her pimp. [I have since learned that in 1986 there were very few prostitutes with pimps, but that by 1997 prostitution had become more organized and dangerous, both to the sex worker and the client—see the short story in Chapter 3.] She bums a cigarette and smokes it dramatically, taking long, slow puffs. Two other men start to walk by, do a double-take, stop, and join them. She talks and flirts, commenting on the pleated pants of the well-dressed man of the pair, and the next time I look up they are walking off together. She swaggers and rotates her hips, and he smiles as they wave good-bye.


The most popular pick-up spot is the arbor. Everything is done pretty cautiously, as the Guardia Civil [local police] are everywhere, walking around and around the kiosk, so contacts are often in the form of shaking hands. Some women, however, are more direct: I see one jump on a man's lap and start kissing him before they walk off together.


Parque Central, 2:30 P.M., Tuesday, January 6, 1987—First impressions on field trip #3.


The evangelical preachers who hold a prayer meeting every day under the arbor are just finishing as I arrive; I can hear their clapping all the way across the park (see Photograph 6). There is more business for the shoeshine men, and more women than during the last visit in the rainy season. One woman seems drugged, yet no one seems concerned. A policeman stops me and asks me if I am with the newspaper. I say no, and hurry on. All of the policemen are standing with girls; some were talking to prostitutes as they passed the time while on duty.


The same group of older pensioners are sitting on their bench. They salute me and invite me to sit down. I do not have time, so I smile and wave. Tourists wander by and sit on the steps of the kiosk. Policemen and groups of older men perch on the kiosk walls. The air is warm, not hot, and there is a breeze. It feels dry and very pleasant. Lots of children are playing on the kiosk, trying to slide down the curved, descending cement supports.


Parque Central, 1:30-4:30 P.M., Saturday, January 10, 1987—Saturday afternoon during field trip #3.


Many more families, women, and couples are here; even the shoeshine men have their wives and children with them. Most people are sitting in the shade because the sunlight is so intense, except for one gringo [derogatory nickname for male North American] who is reading in the sun. The southwest-corner pensioners are still on their bench, but there are fewer on Saturday than during the week or on Sunday. And there are fewer shoeshine men. The one business that increases on Saturday is prostitution, and I notice one of my gringo friends wander off with a girl.


Young people lounge on the kiosk, girls and boys separately watching each other. Couples with children wrapped up as sleepy bundles walk by. The police also wander across the kiosk surveying the passersby.


The evangelists are preaching in the arbor, the sermon and the time of day are the same as during the week. Saturday just draws a larger crowd. I think the weather slows the movement and increases the sense of well-being for both me and other park users. More people are out enjoying the dry weather of January than during the rainy days of May, June, July, and August.


I sit with an eighty-eight-year-old man with whom I have become friendly. He comes every day and stays until late afternoon. I am greeted by another of my old friends, a pensioner, who is unshaven and dirty, wearing worn clothes, although he is smiling. I ask him what is wrong, as he is usually more well dressed; he points out that it is Saturday. During the week he comes every morning and afternoon before he goes to work at a hotel on 4th Avenue. He is proud that he still works, and he lives downtown so that he can go home for lunch, see his wife, and then return.


I map the slightly different sitting positions of groups on a Saturday. Families, couples, and singles all sit in different areas. People from out of town come here to rest before catching the bus home. The tempo of the traffic has increased on the edges of the park, but inside the pace has slowed to a standstill. The shoeshine men with their families are now having a picnic. One shoeshine man tells me that he is hopelessly in love with me. Another comes by to ask me how I am and where I have been for the past few months. They are funny and welcoming, and though I had felt some apprehension about talking with them last July, now they are part of my social world.


The strollers are languid in their movements, and girls smile on the arms of their boyfriends. People talk, look around, and then go back to reading. Children play everywhere, and only mothers and children walk through; everyone else is staying. There is a warm breeze that cools the hot sun. As the shadows deepen, the shoeshine men pack their bags and people stroll to the buses to go home. As it becomes too dark to photograph, couples begin to arrive, vendors set up for the evening crowd, and the tempo again picks up.


As I leave the park, I recognize two North American pensioners sitting on the inner circle of benches near the northwest corner. I walk over and say that I am surprised to see them here, as they usually go to the other plaza. Across the grass, in front of the Boruca Bar, are four more North Americans on their way to have a beer. I join them as they are getting ready to leave.


Both men are retired: the first, wearing a cap over his silver hair, worked for Standard Oil, and the second, for the Ford Motor Company. They love sport fishing and come here for four months each year to fish in Puntarenas [a city on the Pacific coast] or Río Colorado [an area on the Atlantic coast famous for game fishing]. They learned about Costa Rica from sport-fishing magazines and from friends. I walk on and then return to ask them a question: "Is it true that the gringos used to spend time over by the telephones in the park?" The man in the cap replied, "Yes, but then they moved to the Plaza de la Cultura." They get up to leave, saying that they want to go home for a nap before dinner.


Parque Central, 2:00 P.M., weekday, December 16,1993—Interview with Rudolfo Sancho, the engineer in charge of the redesign of the park, during field trip #4.


[Parque Central was closed and under construction.]


I begin by explaining that I am interested in the remodeling and reconstruction of Parque Central. Rudolfo Sancho responds by saying that he got the original plans of the park from someone who came forth during the initial uproar about tearing down or preserving the kiosk:


It was very interesting. It was quite a fight about the kiosk. If it were mine, I would get rid of it, but we should not throw it out, as it is part of our patrimony. And since they moved the fountain to the University [Universidad de Costa Rica, located in an eastern suburb of the city], and the University will not give it back, we will make a small copy of the original fountain to put in the park.


He continues:


In 1889 we were the first city with lights in Central America. We were the first to have water. But by the 1940s the city decided that it was complete. There was no maintenance of the parks, and many beautiful details were lost.


I ask about the new design for the park, to which he replies:


The idea is to raise the level of the plaza and just keep the lower part green where the pensioners and shoeshine men are located. Because of the monumentality of the kiosk, we are going to raise the entire level of the park, that way the kiosk will not look so out of scale. Since we see the park not as a place for sitting but [as] a ceremonial center, we made it "harder," covering more of the surface with cement to create a kind of paseo [walkway]. It should be a celebration of the city.


Parque Central, 11:30 A.M.-1:30 P.M., Wednesday, January 22, 1997—A visit during field trip #5.


[The park has been redesigned since my last visit.]


I enter the park about 11:30 A.M. It is a bright, sunny day; the benches and ledges of the planters are full (see Photograph 7). The groups are more dispersed because of the new pattern of small benches. Benches now hold only two people, so there are often two seated with a third standing. The corners still provide a way to describe the park, even though the new design is more circular in orientation.


On the northeast corner there is only one shoeshine man left; he is using a stand instead of a bench. Across the street there are four to five more on a sliver of sidewalk in front of the construction fence that is around the cathedral. The corner is only lightly populated, and it is quite warm there. I ask "What happened?" to the remaining shoeshine man, and he replies that they are no longer allowed in the park, that they have been banned by the municipality since the remodeling. I ask, "Where is everyone, then?" and he responds, "In front of the Post Office and on the 'Boulevard.'"


Moving clockwise, there is a large group of older men along the planter wall and on the small benches. The men are deep in conversation. I ask them about the changes in the park. One man comments that it is remodeled and prettier now. Overall, they have a mixed reaction to the design changes; they say that it is softer and more open, but less comfortable and green. The southern edge is also full of people waiting for buses. Even though buses no longer stop here, people still wait, and when they see buses arrive, then walk to nearby bus stops. There are more women now. The sense of "places" such as the arbor or the shoeshine corner has been lost and replaced with a series of self-contained locations and isolated spaces. The southwest corner, however, still has quite a few elderly men talking, and on the western edge there are forty people waiting to use the twenty-four newly installed telephone booths.


On the northwest corner, instead of praying and healing, there is a man called "Tango" doing acrobatic tricks with a soccer ball in front of a large crowd. I ask about the shoeshine men and vendors who used to be there, and everyone I ask confirms that they are now gone. A new security force is also very visible on the kiosk and on the park perimeter in their black uniforms. My photographer had counted four different uniforms yesterday when he was working, but I have seen only three: all black, all green, and the blue or khaki of the Guardia Civil. The men in the all-black uniforms must be the new municipal police placed throughout the center city to protect residents and tourists from the increased crime.


Parque Central, 10:00-11:00 A.M., Thursday, January 23, 1997—The last visit 0n field trip #5.


I move clockwise around the kiosk to talk to some of the Costa Rican pensioners. I feel hesitant, but everyone is very friendly. I join a group of three men: the two older men are sitting and the younger one is standing. One seated man has a camera and a briefcase, the second has some kind of photograph viewer or Polaroid camera (see Photograph 8). I ask the man with the camera if he is a photographer, and he answers, "Yes, I take pictures of people in the park—particularly the Nicaraguans." As he speaks, he takes out a set of his pictures to show me. I ask what he thinks of the changes in the park. He replies that it is fine, but that he likes it greener. The two other men agree that there is too much cement and not enough grass and flowers. They comment that there are no longer any vendors, but it keeps it cleaner, and without the shoeshine men, there are fewer illegal activities.


"Do you feel safer?" I ask.


"But you must be careful still because of the chapulines [members of young gangs]," he replies.


"Where are they?" I respond.


"Everywhere, there is one over there," he says, pointing to a young man in baggy pants sitting by himself, looking around. "They congregate here at 5:00 each evening."


I ask where the other pensioners are. The standing man replies that they are at the beach for the holiday. "Are they still there?" I ask, pointing to the southwest corner. "Yes," he replies, "they still come. One has died, but the rest come as before."


I move on and ask another older man why he comes here each day. He smiles and responds:


Because it is agreeable, I can see and greet my friends every day. I see people I know to talk to. I used to come when there was a ramada [the arbor] and when there were dances in the kiosk on New Year's Eve, where those who could not afford to go somewhere expensive could go. The most important part, however, is to see your friends and family who you otherwise would not see. It is very agreeable.


Field Notes from the Plaza de la Cultura


Plaza de la Cultura, weekday, February 20, 1985—First impressions on field trip #1.


At first I am shocked that the new plaza is so modern. It has a sunken fountain and is an expansive open space paved with cement tiles, lined with benches made of large metal pipes, and punctuated with small cement seats under a double row of fig trees. The space appears quite barren, denuded of greenery, and instead of plants, yellow and silver pipes stick up like periscopes from an underground submarine.


The plaza is multilayered, with offices below ground level where the Institute of Tourism's central office and a large marble exhibition space are located. The downstairs is closed, but the guard goes to get me a brochure that describes the plaza and its construction. The Gold Museum will eventually go into this subterranean space when there is adequate funding for guards. [In 1987 it was opened as Los Museos del Banco Central de Costa Rica (Museums of the Costa Rican Central Bank) and included the Precolumbian gold collection, stamp collection, and painting and sculpture collection.]


There are two distinct parts to the plaza: (1) the section between the National Theater (see Photograph 9; the edge of this turn-of-the-century building is visible on the right) and the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, which is for tourists and is full of vendors selling hammocks and other souvenirs (see Photograph 10), and (2) the plaza proper, which is a large, multilevel open space that extends along the side of the National Theater all the way to Avenida Central (see Photograph 9).


Plaza de la Cultura, weekday, May 26, 1986—First impressions on field trip #2.


The first day at the Plaza de la Cultura is so slow that I decide to observe it by sections: the tourist plaza in front of the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, the shopping arcade and shaded tree-lined walkway of the upper plaza, the sunny open section of the upper plaza, the lower plaza areas, the section below the fountain, and the entrance to the tourist office.


The plaza is full of young people—even the shoeshine men are boys; it seems to be the domain of the adolescent and the tourist. There is an equal distribution of males and females here, lots of couples, and couples with children (see Photograph 11). Children love this plaza, especially the fountain and the open areas where they can run and chase the pigeons (see Photograph 12). Furthermore, the low benches seem quite comfortable for them, and there is the attraction of the juggler/clown who entertains during midday. The children adore his jokes and tricks and clowning with his assistant/wife. Children of all social classes, from little boys who sell crafts or shine shoes to children in private school uniforms, come to see and listen to the juggler/clown. They all crowd forward to see while the adults line up behind them.


Another major activity is that of older gringos and other foreigners as well as some Ticos, who pick up young women, even girls, on Saturday and Sunday afternoon (see Photograph 13). A friend's brother-in-law said that Plaza de la Cultura is actually more dangerous than Parque Central because there are more drugs being sold and more male prostitution. So far I have only seen one clandestine activity on the plaza and at least three or four in Parque Central; however, it could be I have not been here at the right time.


Plaza de la Cultura, 12:00 Noon-3:00 P.M., Thursday, June 12, 1986—Sex in the afternoon during field trip #2.


1 need to change a roll of film so I sit down on the shady pipe bench next to three gringos who are looking at and talking about girls (see Photograph 14). Finally I say something, and the smaller guy says, "I wondered when you were going to admit that you speak English." I then met "Jim," "the Canadian," and "the small man." Most of the conversation focuses on their interest in the young Ticas.


We like them younger—the older ones are not as nice. We come to the plaza because that is where the girls are—before we met them in the street. Now the plaza is the place—in the afternoon. ...If you do not have one by evening, it is too late.


The men I interviewed think that there are about 1,000-2,000 older North American men in Costa Rica looking for girls during the dry season, and that most of them have been living here for years. They get bored, leave, and then come back because of the beautiful young women. They say [to me] that North American women are awful in bed, and Ticas [Costa Rican females] know how to love. The conversation moves from sexual activity to "peckers," penis implants, and trouble with girlfriends. There is some joking and embarrassment that I would be shocked, but the conversation continues. It seems that young women and sex, or talking about it, are their main diversions.


Plaza de la Cultura, 5:00-7:30 P.M., Friday, June 13, 1986—The great chain robbery during field trip #2.


Beautiful late afternoon, clear and cool. Tomás offers me a coffee, but by 5:00 P.M. I want to be back on my metal pipe bench. As I return, there is a lot of confusion and looking around. When I got off the bus I had seen three young men running down the street, and people shouting. I asked as many people as possible, "¿Qué pasó?" [What happened?]. The answers range from "a robbery" to a more precise description of "a girl's gold chain was torn off her neck." I have heard many stories about chain stealing, but this is the first case at which I am present. It happened under the trees of the shopping arcade. One man said that the robbers look for chains that they like, and then one stands in front and the other behind, working together to distract the unfortunate victim.


The plaza is filling up with high school students wearing uniforms and carrying musical instruments and banners. It seems that there is going to be a parade of high school marching bands along Avenida Central to celebrate the centennial of a private boys' school.


There are two groups of teenagers, both leaning along the fountain rail. Usually just one group is there and the other is on the planter seat with a portable radio. One group is predominantly male and Black—the leader wears a "do-rag" with tails. He speaks Spanish and English and something that I can not understand [probably a form of street slang]. The other group is mixed male and female with a rotating leader. The young male who looks like the rock star Prince, from Purple Rain [a rock music album by Prince], often takes the lead, but so does a kid in khaki pants or a small, dark-haired girl. It is hard to tell; they move around a lot, and the group composition constantly changes.


There are, by the way, a lot of police around everywhere, either because of the parade or because it is Friday night. The khaki-pants kid, with a bottle in a brown paper bag, signals the main group of six guys to "move over." They quickly go to the lower plaza in front of the entrance to the tourist office. It is darker and quieter there, and I follow. I am just wondering if they realize how many police are around when two Guardia Civil come up, take the bag, frisk two of the teenagers, take their identity cards, and line all six up along the National Theater wall. I go up to ask what was wrong, and the police curtly tell me to "move along." I move back and watch with a growing crowd.


Plaza de la Cultura, 8:00-9:00 A.M., Monday, June 16, 1986—Morning during field trip #2.


Early morning seems to be a time when people sit on the benches to rest and then move on. They sit for two or three minutes, then stand, straighten their clothes, and move on. Some read or study, but most just sit and stare. I would call it waiting, but maybe this is what Tomás calls meditar [to meditate, reflect, think] (see Photograph 15). A couple of women begin to talk, but in general there is little interaction. Morning does not seem to be a social time, but rather a passage to work or an early break in the day. The most active group are the sweepers who are cleaning the plaza. They talk and call back and forth to one another. The food sellers and jewelry sellers are not out. The first gringo shows up, sitting alone on the benches under the trees. One comes over and sits on the pipe bench. There is so little activity that it is hard to be a participant observer, and I am so sleepy that I treat myself to coffee at the hotel café.


Plaza de la Cultura, 9:00 A.M.-3:30 P.M., Tuesday, January 6, 1987—First impressions on field trip #3.


The plaza is not filled up yet. There are very few people who talk or even walk by. The old woman who begs from tourists is sitting on the steps of the hotel café (see Photograph 16), and a few single men are reading the newspaper along the tree-lined edge. The hammock and whistle men begin to set up. Most of the tourists are still in the hotel restaurant (see Photograph 17), and the group of gringo men have not yet appeared. This morning is not very different from my previous early-morning observations.


By noon the plaza is packed with people. Early in the morning it was slow and sleepy, but now that I am back there is an apparently drunk man playing with a soccer ball and a long line of teenagers watching. There are a lot of young people, mostly males but some females, in groups and a few in pairs. This is a dramatic change because of the school vacation. When school is in session, teenagers usually do not come to the plaza until late afternoon or evening (see Photograph 18). By 1:45 P.M. the plaza is no longer loaded with people; there are fewer teenagers, but the gringos are now in full swing. Other things have changed but not the pick-ups. There is a group of Peruvian singers performing for tourists at the edge of the planter (see Photograph 19).


All of the gringos are sitting beside me on the center pipe bench trying to pick up three girls near us. One guy with a tattoo even speaks to the girls in Spanish. He seems to be doing pretty well; his conversation moves from Vesco [a well-known North American financier who fled to Costa Rica to escape prosecution in the United States] to chefs, restaurants, and then to girls.


I ask why they have come. A man in his fifties replies that they all have different reasons. He is a disabled veteran who had a "nervous breakdown." He has had the same girlfriend for over eight months. He says that most of the men are concerned about the Costa Rican women lying to them. Most have been divorced or widowed and are bitter and disillusioned about American women. He goes on: "They are looking for real love and trust, not just sex, even though they say that they are interested only in sex."


Just then two women and four small children who sell chicles [chewing gum] walk into the middle of the plaza. The youngest boy drops his tray of chewing gum, and one of the women beats him as he tries to pick it up. The gringos tell me that this mother sends her children out to beg every day and beats them if they do not sell enough. One man comments: "She is a hard woman." The men drift off to home and dinner. The plaza is quiet and dark.


Plaza de la Cultura, 3:30-9:30 P.M., Saturday, January 10, 1987—Saturday afternoon and evening during field trip #3.


The tourist stalls are set up in front of the hotel for the Saturday handicraft market. Ceramics, leather, hammocks, blouses, and paintings predominate. The whistle boy begins to wrap up his merchandise.


There are only a few people here, especially compared to Parque Central. Lots of girls, groups of women, and a few gringos are sitting in the sun. Single men sit under the trees. The only excitement is the approach of two cute girls, who are greeted with howls and calls such as "Morena [brunette], come here" by a group of teenagers.


I greet the Gran Hotel bouncer, who is standing at the edge of the hotel café, as I go in for a soda. He says that he works every day from 3:00 P.M. until 10:00 P.M. I ask if there are people on the plaza at night. He answers: "Yes, after 7:00 P.M. people come out, particularly the teenagers."


I am making a sun-and-shade map and overhear a gringo talking about his most recent conquest. The air is clear, birds are singing as I sit in the afternoon shade. The mountains look as if you can touch them. A couple eating Pops ice cream [a popular Costa Rican brand of ice cream sold at the edge of the plaza] joins me. They murmur between bites. He keeps his hand on her shoulder. A mass of families walk through, everyone eating ice cream. I can hear children behind me screaming at the pigeons. Even campesinos [people from the countryside] come here to sit and stare at the sky.


"Vicky," a middle-aged performer I have seen before, is here playing his tiny guitar and telling lewd jokes to a large crowd. The rest of the area is quiet. I sit next to a gringo who visits Costa Rica with his wife. He tells me about his wife being mugged four years ago by a guy on a motorcycle who grabbed her purse and dragged her away. He was mugged on a bus during his first few days here.


I return later, about 9:30 P.M., to see if what the Gran Hotel bouncer had told me was right. As he had said, the plaza was full of people, too many to count, and many more than I expected. I could see and identify the teenagers, some single men, but no specific activities from that distance.


Plaza de la Cultura, December 13, 1993—Interview with Renato Cajas, the head of tourism, during field trip #4.


I ask Mr. Cajas why the Plaza de la Cultura was originally designed and built. He responds:


San José started without a plan, so it developed in response to commercial and industrial needs. More than half the population of Costa Rica lives here, over a million people. The transportation is terrible, you can not walk or breathe. This administration decided that it was necessary to reform the city government and to use 10 percent of the sales tax for the municipality. In 1990, Oscar Arias reformed the city governance so that we could create new policies for urban development....

We want to humanize the city. Something that we can do quickly and easily. The Plaza de la Cultura was the first project to attract tourism, and President Carazo got credit, even though President Oduber started it.


Plaza de la Cultura, December 16, 1993—Interview with Rudolfo Sancho during field trip #4.


I ask Mr. Sancho what he thinks is going on with all the vendors totally covering the plaza (see Photograph 20). He answers:


The 1974 design of the plaza was what was in style. The objective was to save the National Theater. Now what has happened is that the Guatemalan and Honduran vendors have a good lawyer to fight for them, arguing that foreigners have the same rights as Costa Ricans. We have had a year of this; there are at least four or five groups that are still fighting based on the "Bill of Rights." The result is that the Plaza de la Cultura is full of vendors and is no longer a plaza at all.


Plaza de la Cultura, January 22, 1997—Interview with Ibo Bonilla during field trip #5.

[The Plaza de la Cultura was closed for renovation during the last field trip.]


The plaza was entirely fenced off and full of rubble. The architect, Ibo Bonilla, greets me with a smile and offers to show me around. I am very disappointed that it is closed and concerned that it is being redesigned so soon after opening. He explains that he will not change the basic design, but wants to incorporate the observations that he has made concerning how people use the plaza. His objectives are to add color, redesign the pattern of groupings, that is, the way that people gather, and to correct some technical elements.


He feels that the first plaza was not a park but a "cultural space," and that the public was timid about entering at first. He felt that it looked like any internationally designed space and had little to do with Costa Rica. But now the public have claimed the space and are upset that it is closed. He has put windows in the construction fencing so that passersby can see the work going on and the changes he is making.


Later in the interview he comments that he is thinking about people coming from outside the city to meet and trying to give separate groups their own space:


I want it to be a more closed space, but the openness of the plaza allows a sense of security because it provides many visual axes. When surrounded by high buildings, people feel less secure. The most dangerous place is the passageway by the National Theater.


I conclude the interview by asking why there are so many stories about the plaza being dangerous and unpleasant, to which he replies: "There are many myths about the plaza. The majority of people who talk about it do not use it, and negative information always travels fast."



“This is one of the best accounts of a place’s history and meaning I have ever read. Low's book should be widely read and used in courses in architecture, urban design, planning, landscape architecture, and historic preservation, as well as Latin American studies and anthropology. What a wonderful book!”
Dolores Hayden, Professor of Architecture, Urbanism, and American Studies, Yale University


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