Take a walk on Puerto Rico’s hipster side

Puerto Rico Santurce

New York City has several neighbourhoods that could be classified as Little Puerto Rico, many located in Brooklyn, so it’s only fair that San Juan, Puerto Rico, has a few areas that could be called Little Brooklyn, most of which are located in Santurce.

The barrio has 44 neighbourhoods inside it and is home to 90,000 Puerto ricans. In the 1940s and ’50s it was hopping, a hub of cultural vibrancy and home to, among other things, the city’s salsa community. In the ’70s and ’80s, people started vacating for the suburbs, and vacancies and crime went up. but the 2000s have seen reinvestment in the area, with leadership and financing coming from multiple levels of government. A priority was placed on mixed-income housing, cultural reinvestment and neighbourhood initiatives, which could only mean one thing: Hipsters moved in.

They are in La Placita, Calle Loíza and Barrada 23, among other places. And with them delectable restaurants, craft cocktail bars, vibrant street art and creative fashion. I got a taste when born-and-bred, flag-waving Santurce resident Melanie Daniels, who recently launched tour company Puerto Rico & Co., pointed out Barrada 23’s Libros AC, an edi- torial imprint turned bookshop, bar and bistro, then led me across Ponce de Leon Avenue to get a closer look at some street art, a twentysomething hipster skateboarded by, pushing and kicking with neon pink and pastel blue high-tops.

Santurce’s renaissance, led by the 20-, 30-, and 40-somethings who want to show off their home turf, is exciting and still relatively new. As I killed time between leaving my name at the door and taking a seat for my reservation at José Enrique, the eponymous and ridiculously delicious restaurant of local chef and James beard Foundation semifinalist, I strolled La Placita. In the convivial square in front of the farmers’ market, families ate, drank and socialized. A few blocks away, there was fresh evidence of car windows being smashed. Full-scale gentrification is a way off, but the signs are there.

On Calle Loíza, for instance, within about eight blocks, there are vintage shops (electro Shock, Len.T.juela); a shipping container turned taco stand (Tresbe), an empty lot turned outdoor cinema (Cinema Paradiso), plus juice bars, food trucks and other foodie signs on revitalization.

Calle Carre, about three kilometres to the west, is dotted with small, independent art galleries, and the street itself is an open-air exhibit of urban art. On the corner of Carre and Calle Aurora, a former parklet turned ad hoc garbage dump has been transformed for the better thanks to street art. Sundays and Mondays it’s a ghost town, albeit a colourful, graffitied one, but the area draws a crowd during the rest of the week. The hub: El Departamento de la Comida, a farmers’ market/craft fair/food stand gathering. Daniels told me that the transformation in this particular part of town has happened over four years. before then, people were scared to come to the neighbourhood; now, it’s a destination.

The best part about this urban revival: Based at the San Juan Marriott in Condado, a well-to-do part of Santurce that’s home to a handful of beachfront hotels, I was able to reach all of these areas on foot — Calle Loíza is 15 minutes away, La Placita 20 minutes. And the hotel has bikes available for those who’d rather be on two wheels.

It’s a wondrous thing to see a city while it’s in the midst of reinventing itself. To be able to see it by walking only a couple kilometres from your beach lounger? That’s lucky.

This story ran in the National Post (Feb 21, 2015)