SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Sandwiched between the pristine cobblestone streets and bright houses of Old San Juan and the ritzy, high-rise condos of coastal Condado lies the neighborhood of Puerta de Tierra. A thin strip of real estate, once part of colonial San Juan but situated just outside the walled city, this neighborhood was historically the first attacked by various invading armies. Perhaps it’s the neighborhood’s history as an expendable outcast that lead to Puerta de Tierra’s present rough and less than picturesque appearance. Today the neighborhood is mostly known as the easiest way to get to and from Old San Juan, and that’s exactly how I discovered it on a recent trip to Puerto Rico. After spending an overcast day in San Juan, I was leaving full of lunch and with a carefully wrapped Vejigante mask, when I found myself driving through an industrial neighborhood, searching for the highway leading back toward my coastal hotel.
Puerta de Tierra reminds me of what Williamsburg probably looked like once, more industrial and full of abandoned warehouses — what many parts of Bushwick look like currently. Driving through a housing project on the south side of the neighborhood — passing by dilapidated buildings, abandoned storefronts, broken windows, peeling paint, empty and overgrown parking lots and a Salvation Army— I discovered that Puerta de Tierra should be known for its fantastic street art. Happening upon mural after mural, I spent the next hour or so in a state of childlike excitement, running from one rundown building to the next, wishing I had more time and a better camera. As it was, this street art delay forced me to drive for hours in a terrifying rainstorm. Looking around the streets of Puerta de Tierra, where lone groups of children played or biked but few pedestrians walked, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a few other couples were wandering the busy, car-heavy thoroughfares in an effort to see the artwork. While parked down a side street to best explore a fertile stretch of abandoned buildings, a man called down from an upstairs window to inform me that he was the artist of one of the pieces I’d already photographed. An artist and a musician living in the neighborhood, he was pleased to see appreciative tourists taking interest in the local artwork.
The street art ranged from elaborate graffiti tags, names or watchwords written in cleverly illegible fonts full of scrolling flourishes, to simple stenciled symbols like a clenched fist, peace sign or flag. There were also a few impressive, multi-walled murals by street artists with careful signatures and a noticeable online presence. Street art is so compelling at times because it isn’t just there to beautify or entertain, as we sometimes might think when a Shepard Fairey decorates a wall in lower Manhattan, but because it takes painting back to a fundamental level. The Puerta de Tierra’s murals feel more like windows into another place than most contemporary painting I’ve seen recently. Art has always been about, on some level, transporting its viewers elsewhere or making them see something they wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise observe. These murals, in all their varying degrees of conceptual intent, technical range, and artistic prowess, felt like much more than opportunistic experiments. The artwork seemed to be collectively suggesting a different future façade for the neighborhood while offering a look at the sentiments of the people who currently live there. On the highway again and hotel bound, I was very glad to have been waylaid in Puerta de Tierra.