Destination Uruguay

Goes: Recovering a Neighborhood

During the first half of the twentieth century, the people of Montevideo were proud of the Goes neighborhood, an economic and cultural epicenter. The current restoration project includes renovating the old market and sixteen city blocks, which became run down and crime-ridden in the 1990’s.

Text and Photos: Gloria Algorta


I made three visits to the remodeled Montevideo Farmers Market (MAM) in the Goes neighborhood. The first time, I visited in the throes of the momentum that takes hold of Montevideans like me on National Heritage Day. I had sniffed around the building about six or seven years earlier, attracted by a morbid curiosity awakened by abandonment and destruction, but I was saddened by the ruinous state of the market and found the neighborhood a little scary.

That Heritage Sunday was dedicated to the tango; I took a few pictures of the neighborhood and agreed that the venture was worthwhile. I returned the next day to take pictures in daylight and then, one weekday around noon, I went back to interview the director, Beatriz Silva, and take a walk around the neighborhood.

Beatriz told me that she had quit her job three times before deciding to risk everything on the project, which city officials had entrusted to her in 2007. It was not an easy task: it involved recovering the old market building as well as sixteen city blocks in the Goes neighborhood, which had fallen into ruin and become dangerous due to the illegal drugs being trafficked there, and the presence of Tumanes gang members in the 1990s —nostalgically remembered by a local resident as stealing “according to codes.”

In the first half of the twentieth century, however, Goes was a thriving working and middle-class neighborhood and its residents were proud of the closely linked economic and cultural activities that took place there. A neighborhood with history, and two tramlines that connected it to the city center, it was not left behind when the welfare state arose. Construction on the Farmers Market began in 1906 and it  became the center of neighborhood life. The MAM’s iron structure was brought from Europe after being used in a livestock exhibition in Brussels, which accounts for the cow heads adorning the entrances.

The Medical School moved onto Avenida General Flores in 1908 and a few years later, the first branch of the Republic Bank opened in the neighborhood. A milestone in the history of the area was the 1925 inauguration of the imposing Legislative Palace building, which houses the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

Although it was not the only coffee house, Café Vaccaro on Avenida General Flores was a neighborhood icon. Tango music accompanied the intense nightlife in its heyday and it was common to discover tango stars like Juan D’Arienzo, Enrique Rodríguez, and Alberto Castillo in the crowd. The dances held at the IASA (the South American Athletic Institution soccer club) were famous. In the 1960s, dances included stage shows and the club had the best sound anywhere; different rooms offered tango, cumbia, or “modern” music for dancing. Visitors included a very young Leonardo Favio and the famed tango singer, Julio Sosa.

The IASA soccer team, known as Sudamérica, recently returned to the First Division after seventeen years in the Second Division. After finishing 10th place in the closing championship, they prepare to celebrate the club’s 100th anniversary in the Big Leagues.  Forlán’s maternal grandfather played for, and later coached, Sudamérica, and Alcides Ghiggia —the only survivor of the Uruguayan national team that won the 1950 World Cup at the Maracana— debuted there.

It is impossible to speak of Goes without mentioning the Fábrica Uruguaya de Alpargatas (Uruguayan Sandal Factory), known simply as Alpargatas, built around 1890. At its peak, the factory employed 2,600 workers. Located across from the MAM, it is now being turned into a 300-unit apartment complex.

In the 1950s and 60s, Uruguay gradually fell into an economic, social, and political crisis that led to the progressive deterioration of its democracy and a military dictatorship that lasted thirteen years. The economy bottomed out in 2002 before slowly starting to grow again.

Goes was among the neighborhoods that suffered most during the crisis, with many residents leaving the country or settling in informal peripheral fringe communities. The population decreased by almost 20% over a 30-year period. Coca paste, known in other countries as “basuco” or “crack,” proliferated, bringing violence with it.

A century after its founding, the picturesque MAM building reopened in 2013 as a tourist destination, cultural center, and shopping mall, featuring the best that Uruguay has to offer. There are standard fruits and vegetables, traditional meats, fish, bread, leather crafts, rattan and wood, and the most varied cuisine. Its many fruit and vegetable stalls make it a regular stop for local residents and a feast for the senses. In fact, in addition to Goes residents, the market also attracts people from other parts of Montevideo and Uruguay, and international tourists find the MAM well worth a visit as well.

Listening to Beatriz Silva, seeing the work being done on the old Alpargata factory and the new housing cooperatives, where residents from demolished squatter huts have been resettled, and witnessing the activity on the streets, it seems that many of the project’s objectives have already been accomplished. All it really takes is one look at the old ladies walking down the street without looking over their shoulders for fear of being robbed. Many of them now attend cooking classes at the Market and the popular MAM Facebook page lists a variety of cultural events:

I return to the neighborhood a few months later, after realizing I’d neglected to speak with the most important players in the recovery project: the neighbors. When I arrived, I ran into a woman stepping out of her house. Marta Tossi is seventy years old and has lived in Goes for twelve years now. She tells me that the neighborhood has improved in every way; before the recovery project she was constantly wary when she went out for a walk and was once assaulted by a Tuman gang member. Before the restoration, she hadn’t been to the market for years because she’d had her purse stolen there. She remembers the train station and especially the heyday of the Alpargatas factory, a block from her house. Marta is a retired professor of haute couture who worked in the French Fashion Center and used to return home from work at about ten o’clock at night, around the same time as the workers on the factory’s night shift.

She shows me how to get to the section of Alpargatas still being renovated and I head in that direction. From inside the immense central courtyard, I see that half of the apartments are finished and the rest of the building still houses some of the old dilapidated factory modules and construction tools. I leave the courtyard and walk over to the sales office, saying I’m interested in buying. There is just one single-bedroom apartment left in this first stage and the manager shows it to me. The apartment is small, cute, and not at all cheap.

On my way out, I meet a man in a wheelchair. I offer to push his chair along the cobblestones, hoping to start a conversation; he looks old enough to have memories of the old days in Goes.

He turns down my offer of help but starts the conversation I was hoping for: “Have you heard of the picadas?” he asks. His leg was amputated after a motorcycle accident. Nevertheless, he claims to be the inventor of the picadas, or motorcycle drag races, and ensures me they aren’t dangerous. In the 1980s, Julio César ran his own motorcycle shop and had a large customer base. He loved performing motorcycle tricks. He tells me that one day a friend challenged him to a drag race that included spins, handstands, and other tricks that he is familiar with, even if I am not. According to him, that was the beginning of the picadas in Uruguay, which included trophies for the winners. “We needed to do something,” he says, and I suspect he is referring to the military dictatorship in Uruguay at the time. “My eyesight keeps me from riding now, but if I could, I’d still be on my bike,” he says, as if he weren’t missing a leg.

I say goodbye to Julio, who proudly wheels his chair along the cobblestones. I take a walk around the co-ops on the other side of the MAM; I walk into one of the courtyards and find children playing and laundry hanging on the balconies. In one corner, I spy a group of scavengers recycling loot from a container. I ask if they live in the neighborhood and they say no; I don’t stop to chat and instead take a few photos. I stop at a kiosk and the owner, Franco, tells me he’s been in Goes for seventeen years. I mention my project and he offers to tell me some anecdotes. We sit out on the sidewalk with the traditional Uruguayan thermos and mate, and our chat is interrupted every time he stands to wait on a customer, and by Martina, the daughter of the barber next door, a mischievous little blonde-haired girl who shows us how her plant swells when she waters it.

Franco shares some historical anecdotes that I’ve already heard. Then I ask how the reopening of the MAM and the Alpargatas renovation has changed the neighborhood. On the one hand, he says, it’s been bad for many of the small businesses. On the other, it’s attracted new people, including international tourists, who bring more activity into the neighborhood and make it safer. I say goodbye, promising to send the pictures I took of him and Martina, the little blonde girl. I am convinced that thanks to the many people who took a risk by working on this project, and funding from the IDB and the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development, not to mention the tenacity of Beatriz Silva, who never flinched, even when they put a gun to her head, and most of all thanks to the massive response from neighbors, Goes is once again what it used to be: a neighborhood its residents can be proud of.