The Plaza del Mercado in Santurce, better known as La Placita, is a slice of Puerto Rican life not to be missed when visiting the city.
Once a bustling commercial center, this charming farmers market enclosed within a working class neighborhood oozes the flavor of Old Puerto Rico as merchants ply their goods on a daily basis -- vegetables and produce, tourist trinkets, panama hats, and Puerto Rico cigars – much as they have over the past century.
While La Placita and its surrounding area is a living reminder of a Puerto Rico’s more pastoral past, it is also undergoing a remarkable transformation in which restaurants and bars are the new magnet drawing people to the plaza every day of the week, but particularly on weekends.
“From Thursday onward, it’s always packed here,” said Miguel Horta, who works for San Juan’s Municipal Enterprises, the market’s overseer. “The scene is extraordinary, safe and genuine.”
The weekend night scene is like one grand, open-air block party with people of all ages, but primarily young people and professionals, crowding the square and nearby streets, mingling, talking, drinking, and listening to music. The vibe is fun and laid back. All around, restaurants beckon with a wide menu selection.
La Placita’s transformation marks a new chapter in the life of a market that, built in the first decade of the 20th century, went on to become the heartbeat of Santurce, a large swath of San Juan that was and continues to be home to blue-collar workers.
The story behind the building is an interesting one and even includes a few elements of mystery tied to the ownership of the land on which it was built and the design of the structure which, according to one myth, is attributed to no less than Gustave Eiffel.
In the early years of the 1900s, the only market in the city was the one in Old San Juan and people in Santurce, which was beginning to urbanize, asked the city government to build a market place in their area.
Early in 1909 the plot for the future market came up for sale. It belonged to a Puerto Rican widow living in New York, Doña Isabel Latimer y Fernandez, and was part of a much larger piece of land she inherited from her mother. The plot her local representative offered to sell to the city measured 2,555.12 square meters. The asking price was $2,555.12. The city bought it.
The purchase was not without controversy. In his recently published book, “The Market of Santurce: The Passions of the Heart and Memory in the Barrio de San Mateo de Cangrejos,”
Author Edison Viera Calderon pointed out that while the land was registered in the widow’s name, there were reports at the time that it actually belonged to the family of a former slave in the widow’s household (Slavery in Puerto Rico was abolished in March 1873).
Unfortunately, the family was unable to establish a claim because it was missing the title to the property.
By the time La Placita began construction on July 1, 1909, President William Howard Taft had been in office for five months and Puerto Rico was still undergoing enormous changes as a new territory of the U.S. The island population was around 1 million inhabitants although the first census to be held the following year would provide a more exact count: 1,118,012 people, of whom 50.15 percent were women and 49.85 percent, were men.
It took eight months for contractor Don Jose Lago to deliver the structure which was built out of reinforced concrete with a steel roof covered with red asbestos tiling. The interior featured 16 concrete “tall and wide” slab tables for merchants to display produce and vegetables and four large, comfortable retail spaces with room outside, under the building’s eaves, for additional merchants to sell their goods. Total cost of the project: $26,372.74.
The new market drew a favorable reception.
“It’s a building with a beautiful presentation,” penned a writer in the April 15, 1910, edition of Revista Cervantes. “Market plazas are the big table of each town; and this table must be handsome, must be spacious, and must be well presented. Such is the one in Santurce.”
Architect Emilio Martinez, who worked on the last renovation of the market in 2000, describes it as a well-proportioned, neoclassical building that meets its purpose as a civic structure but doesn’t break any ground in terms of design. Among the details to be admired, he noted, are the arches, the decorative elements on the exterior walls, and the clerestory roof with a row of windows between the two sloping sides to let sunlight in and allow air to circulate for better ventilation.
There is a myth, said Martinez that Gustave Eiffel may have had a hand in designing the building but, he added, this is not true. Interestingly, Wikipedia lists the public market in Mayaguez among the public works carried out by Eiffel’s engineering company, having provided the steel frame for the building.
The construction of the market, according to Viera, encouraged many merchants to set up shop or buy land in the area because of the long term opportunities they foresaw. For one, the electric trolley that ferried people around town ran close to the market and in fact, Stop 19 became one of the most popular stops for the public transportation system that operated until September 1946.
But clients also came to the market on foot all the way from the trolley station at Parque Borinquen in Condado (now Parque del Indio), walking along Loiza street, which was then a dirt road, and swinging up Canals until they reached the market where, he notes in his book, they would stop for a refreshment, to buy vegetables. or to gossip and talk with people. (Later, the area would teem with bars and even become a red light district frequented by U.S. navy men.)
Food sold at the market made its way to consumers in a dual distribution system. Farmers grew the vegetables and fruits and the merchants, after buying directly from the farmers, sold these goods to the public.
Data on food prices in early 20th century Puerto Rico is hard to come by but a look at stateside prices, courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, offers an idea of what the cost of living was like at the time.
In 1910, the average American wage was 22 cents per hour. A dozen eggs cost 33.7 cents; a pound of butter was 35.9 cents; sugar, 6 cents per pound; half a gallon of milk, 16.8 cents; and a five pound bag of flour cost 16 cents.
The way people shopped then wasn’t all that different from today. Viera, who teaches social psychology at the University of Sacred Heart, said in an interview with BIENVENDIOS that it was customary for well-to-do families to contact a Placita merchant and place an order which would then be filled and delivered by way of a bike-riding messenger. This is common even today in cities like New York where busy professionals arrange with supermarkets and restaurants to have food delivered to their homes. The only difference is that orders are placed via internet instead of by phone, or in person.
Through the years, Placita has undergone several revamps, none quite as dramatic as the one that took place in 1975 when an annex was built right in front of the building’s entrance on Dos Hermanos street completely blocking the full view of the structure. The revamp also added a second floor mezzanine which, in time, was occupied by businesses not necessarily related to food, said Martinez.
The year 2000 overhaul, carried out during the mayoralty of Sila Calderon, restored the market’s original layout by scrapping both mezzanine and the annex. A separate annex with design features echoing the main building was built on Orbeta Street, a narrow lane that runs along a lateral side of the market. The project cost $3 million.
Carlos Bernardy Aponte, who hails from Cayey (he calls himself “el cayeyano”) and runs Tato’s Meat Market in the annex building, has plied his trade at the market for the past 25 years. He is among 24 merchants who work out of the market, including three vegetable and produce stands, an herbal store, a juice shop and, a recent addition, another butcher shop named Caborojo that sells meat from livestock raised in a Cabo Rojo ranch and processed in a plant in Arecibo. Cuts sold by the store include ossobuco, brisket, filet mignon, churrasco, and T-bone steak.
Today’s hectic pace makes regular visits to a farmer’s market a quaint activity to be indulged in on rare occasions when one has the time and inclination for this kind of shopping. Still, despite reduced daytime traffic, the Santurce market perseveres and hedges its bets on the area’s restaurants and bars to continue to draw people, residents, and tourists, to this beloved corner of San Juan.
Above all, La Placita has been throughout its history a place for community, a gathering spot for food shopping, socialization, and entertainment. And it remains so. In the end, it’s still all about food and people coming together in one place to seize the joy of life.
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