Guatemala City—The Young Capital

Guatemala City in 1875, view from Cerrito del Carmen (Eadweard Muybridge, Fototeca Guatemala Cirma)

Guatemala City in 1875, view from Cerrito del Carmen (Eadweard Muybridge, Fototeca Guatemala Cirma)

A late bloomer of Latin America

written by David Jickling

Among Latin American capitals, Guatemala City is a later comer. Most of the major cities of Spanish America were founded in the 16th century, within a hundred years after the arrival of the Spanish. In contrast, Guatemala City was established at the end of the 18th century after the destruction of what is now called La Antigua Guatemala.

Nueva Guatemala a la Asunción grew slowly during its first century. Hard times provided few funds for public and private building. It did not reach a level of amenities enjoyed by the earlier citizens of La Antigua until after 1850. Only with the income from coffee exports after 1880 did Guatemala have the resource base to build a modern city.

Old timers alive today remember when the city virtually stopped at 18th street. To venture out to Tivoli or Santa Clara (today’s zone 9 and zone 10) was to take an excursion into the countryside. It took nearly 20 years for the city to recover from the devastating earthquakes of 1917-18.

After the revolution of 1944, the city began to grow dramatically. Industrial expansion created jobs which drew people to the city. The failure of land reform denied opportunities for many people in the countryside. The earthquake of 1976 and subsequent violence in the Highlands encouraged people to move to the capital.

Now “vegetative growth”—as the demographers call it—promises to duplicate the size of the city every generation. The current population of greater Guatemala City is over two million and is projected to reach four million by 2020.

With urban growth have come the problems of modern cities: traffic, crime, water supplies and pollution. Marginal barrios, street children and the proliferation of informal street markets add to the list. But at the same time, growth has brought energy to the city, dramatic vertical and horizontal expansion, new commercial centers and wider entertainment and cultural opportunities.

What will it lead to? What will the city look like in the next 20-30 years? What will it be like for its citizens? Will it recreate the fabled tacita de plata of yesteryear? A center of creativity, or a new urban jungle reminiscent of the New York of “West Side Story,” the London of Dickens or the Paris of “Les Miserables”?

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