Artistic “Septimazo”

A stretch of Bogotá’s Carrera Séptima, the city’s principal avenue, will soon be made pedestrian-only, turning it into an axis of cohabitation, peace, and sustainable development. This avenue, which crosses the city from north to south, has been a privileged witness to historical events from colonial times to the present.

Text and photos: Javier A. Pinzón

Bogotá’s Carrera Séptima is much more than a vital artery in the great living, breathing organism that is this South American city. The avenue, once known as the Calle Real, has witnessed the city’s transformation from a village of straw huts to a teeming metropolis. The modern era arrived in Bogotá via the Carrera Séptima, which in 1910 witnessed the change from the mule and oxen-drawn trams of the nineteenth century to sophisticated electric trains, heralding the nation’s future as an avant-garde city. A mayoral decree banned ponchos and espadrilles along the somber, austere Carrera Séptima in the hope that imported British cloth coats and top hats would dominate. And along this important thoroughfare, the colonial architecture was slowly surrounded, first by sober Republican-style buildings and then by the grandiloquent concrete and glass structures of today. The peace and quiet of La Séptima was lost on April 9, 1948 when Liberal leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated and the city filled with smoke and corpses, and again in 1985 when the Palace of Justice was consumed by the flames caused by an eruption of army tanks.

I now stand in the middle of this main artery through the troubled, misunderstood, mistreated, and chaotic city, in the Plaza de Bolívar, directly opposite the new Palace of Justice. All I see on this January morning are happy people having fun, children running around and feeding the pigeons, and hundreds of pedestrians and cyclists on their way under a blazing summer sun. It has always been my belief that the best time for walking in Bogotá is the first week of the year, but my 2016 “Septimazo” (the name given to the traditional stroll along La Séptima) went especially far in reconciling me to the land where I was born and that I later left in the grip of unimaginable fears.

I search the newspapers for the story of the avenue’s transformation into a pedestrian promenade. Until recently, this center of formal and, mainly, informal commerce was the retreat of the many “pelafustanes” (a euphemism for the city’s street urchins), who were born and raised on it. But my research reveals that the promenade was actually a dream promised to the city by a succession of mayors. A look at the El Tiempo timeline shows that, as early as 1936, the controversial Gaitán signed a decree to make it pedestrian-friendly. Decade after decade, the same promise was made but never fulfilled. Even the former mayor, now newly reappointed, Enrique Peñalosa, speculated on the idea in 1999.

Finally, Mayor Gustavo Petro made the project a reality. In 2012, he set aside fifteen city blocks (from 10th Street, where I am now standing, to 26th Street) for pedestrians and began restoring the area. He finished the first section all the way to Avenida Jimenez, furnishing it with benches and a sophisticated irrigation system, helping to maintain the tradition of playing chess on the street. And so today, bootblacks and “street people” (another Bogotá euphemism) challenge college students to animated matches in the newly renovated space; executives in suits and ties ride along the avenue on bikes, mindful of staying in their own lane, and office workers take a break on the benches, slipping out of their shoes while savoring an ice cream. Honestly, I hardly recognize my Bogotá.

Moving slowly north, I suddenly notice the absence of street vendors. I only see street performers, who explain that when informal commerce on the street was regulated, they were able to reach an agreement with the city that allowed them to stay. They are now one of the biggest draws to the new Séptima so I take time out to talk to them.

Undoubtedly, La Séptima brings together many of the bits and pieces of what constitutes this troubled country. Perhaps it was Ciro Guerra, the young filmmaker and current Oscar nominee, who was most successful in making art out of the avenue’s misfortune. In his directorial debut, La sombra del caminante, he explores the history behind the characters that inhabit La Séptima. People from all over the country and all sides of the conflict come here and create strong bonds of solidarity. But there is little point in asking about the past here; the present is all that matters, and the magic of the hands that transform ordinary objects into unique works of art in order to earn a living.

Jesús, for example, learned to extract form and beauty from wood under the guidance of a cabinetmaker. He went on to invent his own art, using coins and keys to fashion the amazing pendants he offers to pedestrians.

Washington Valencia came from the faraway province of Nariño, via Cali and then on to Bogotá, and at the age of twelve became an expert in creating paintings from photo paper.

Edgardo Díaz, stoically monosyllabic, barely responds to my questions but shows me the wire works of art he has been making for the past seven years.

Indeed, the artists along La Séptima —with their own names, their own art, and stories that sometimes cannot be told— have a promising present in the midst of this newly acquired public space, which the people of Bogotá have only just begun to explore.

Gerardo is a painter who uses a unique brush and canvas: a circle filled with graphite and oil that rotates rapidly to create surreal landscapes, which according to him represent the theory of fractals.

Elquímenes’ craft runs in the blood: his family’s tradition of woodworking has made it possible for him to earn a decent living and inspires admiration in passersby.

Hooray for the benches, the plants, and the sustainable drainage system! Hooray for the bicycles! But most of all, hooray for the artistic touch that Bogotá’s Septima brings to the city, offering a cosmopolitan, bohemian atmosphere that not many cities have achieved.

Nearby is Javier Riviera with his huge jigsaw, sculpting romantic plaques for strolling sweethearts. A corner devoted to love in Bogotá? How nice it would be…

Meanwhile, Oscar spends each day seated on a tiny chair, transforming ordinary colored soap into decorative figurines. He tells us that he learned the art of sculpting from his cellmates while in jail. We make no further inquiries. Today, he makes a living from this trade.

Fabiano, a Bogotá native, learned to mix rocks, wire, and leather while traveling around South America. In his opinion “street art is the nicest and most artistic.”

The avenue truly does look different, kinder. Hopefully the cafes will begin to bring out tables and umbrellas, the emblematic facades will be restored, and cultural activity will increase. There’s still much to be done; the citizens of Bogotá must learn to love their city again, to stop littering and take care of the new furnishings so that everyone can enjoy the gift of the new pedestrian Séptima.

While I daydream about how nice it would be to see the project continue, I meet Margarita. She belongs to the indigenous Emberá Chamí community from Risaralda. Her world was once made up of rivers and forests, but the armed conflict forced her to flee to Bogotá. Today, she shares her ancestral art with city dwellers who otherwise might never even know it is Colombian.

Javier Henao is an example of living art: every morning he stands in front of the mirror to choose one of the seven suits he uses as a human statue.

Luz Marina Ortiz is from Caldas. She came to Bogotá over twenty years ago. She overcame many obstacles and was forced to sell candy on the corner where the cartoonists worked. There, she slowly began working to put into practice the lessons she learned from her father, a frustrated painter who schooled her harshly, hoping that she might extract art from his old brushes. On that street corner she courageously began making portraits, working her way to Parque de las Nieves, where the best cartoonists congregate.

I decide to end my tour here, posing for a portrait to take back with me into exile, a reminder of this pleasant reunion with a Bogotá that is, perhaps, now a bit more human.