Walking Around

Yesteryear or Yesterday? Scenes from San José

Cities tout new buildings, new neighborhoods, and new modes of transportation. Dynamic urban agglomerations hold themselves as paragons of progress and development. Artists, musicians, designers, thinkers, and coattail riders flock to the city center to be a part of whatever’s the next big thing. Cities are change writ large in glass, steel, and concrete.

Walking around San José offers all the trappings of a city on the move. Old buildings become parking lots, parking lots become condo towers, condo towers fill with young professionals. The city’s face evolves.

Except when it doesn’t.

adobe house and vw bus in san jose costa rica
A street scene in San Jose, Costa Rica, that looks like it comes from a different era.

Rounding a corner in Barrio Escalante, the past looks firmly entrenched in the urban fabric. Just two blocks to the east, there is a burgeoning culinary district that has crept into stately homes and transformed a sleepy bedroom community into a vibrant destination for foodies, beer connoisseurs, and mild-mannered revelers. A block south, a 30-story condo tower is rising out of the dust. All around horns honk, hipsters stare at their phones, and the masses skitter from one appointment to the next.

And yet this adobe house still stands as it did over a century ago. The Volkswagen bus parked in front looks just like it would have 45 years ago. The entire scene feels like a time warp into a different era. For a moment I hear no reggaeton, see no satellite dishes, and smell no fast food. If I close my eyes, I can imagine a woman in an apron, slowly stirring a pot of beans simmering on a wood-burning stove, the soft sounds of Chavela Vargas coming from the transistor radio. And if I really try, I can hear horses clomping down the street, pulling the day’s harvest closer to market.

My reverie is snapped by a honking dump truck from the nearby condo project. The driver is looking at his phone, and a Jennifer Lopez song spills out of the cab. Past, meet present. We’ll see what the future holds. Until then, I’ll keep walking.

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