MANAGUA — Most people will advise you, on touching down in Managua, to rent a car and drive as fast out of the Nicaraguan capital as you can. The city is a sprawl of low-rise, indistinct buildings with no definable center — not exactly the best place to spend your precious vacation time.
It wasn’t always that way, though. Managua had a vibrant downtown until 1972, when a devastating earthquake destroyed its colorful charm. Besides killing up to 10,000 people and displacing 250,000 more, it flattened five square miles of the historic city — a parcel of land equivalent to all Manhattan below 23rd street. Crippled again by the ensuing wars of the 1970s and ’80s, the city never fully recovered.
Managua’s former glory was a fading memory until last July, when the government unveiled a unique public art project just a stone’s throw from the old downtown area. Located near Puerto Salvador Allende, Paseo Xolotlán re-creates, in miniature, how the city’s main thoroughfare looked before the earthquake. Visitors can walk through 13 blocks of old Managua, towering like giants above realistically rendered scale models of the department stores, hotels, theaters, and travel agencies that no longer exist.
Architects relied on photographs and film from the time period to fill the scaled-down street with subtle details like product advertisements, rooftop antennas, and even Christmas decorations. In the late afternoon light, tiny telephone poles cast Edward Hopper-esque shadows, making the whole scene appear startlingly lifelike.
The memorial is part of the current Sandinista government‘s laudable efforts to revive Managua’s old center and reestablish a recognizable urban identity. Until now, the party had mostly done so in a tactlessly dictatorial way. Public spaces were branded with the mindlessly happy pinks and purples that make up the Sandinista party’s signature color wheel, while architecturally valuable monuments built by political predecessors were ruthlessly destroyed.
But the recreation of Roosevelt Avenue (renamed Sandino Avenue after the 1979 revolution) is a powerful memory project that feels refreshingly unburdened by politics, revisiting as it does a time before the Sandinistas gained power. It introduces younger Nicaraguans to a forgotten era in their history, brings it back to life for those old enough to remember it, and gives tourists a contextual glimpse into the city’s complex past. It’s not uncommon to see elderly visitors leave in tears. “Here I am, reliving those moments from when I was 14 to 35 years old,” 73-year-old visitor Miguel Lira said when the project opened in July. “For those of us who lived in this epoch, it’s emotional to remember.”