San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

As barrio changes, crime looms

From the print edition

On July 11, at 11 p.m. Sophia Granberg left the British pub Hoxton’s, in the San José neighborhood of Barrio Escalante, and started her walk home.

She lives only a few hundred meters from the area’s district of bars, restaurants and art galleries. A few blocks away, Barrio Escalante looks dim and deserted at night.

As Granberg walked, two skinny men in baggy clothes appeared in front of her. When she moved to the other side of the street, they followed her. The men, who appeared to be in their mid-20s, approached Granberg and asked if she had a lighter.

She told them no. Then, the one wearing a jacket pulled out a gun. 

Granberg ran. If they had asked for her purse, she would’ve given it to them, she said. But they didn’t. Granberg, a native of Sweden, feared they would kidnap her. The assailants gave chase, and Granberg heard two shots fired behind her. She’s not sure if the gunmen shot in the air or at her. 

Seconds later, she arrived unharmed at Keidas, a bar and lounge on the northern end of Barrio Escalante’s small but bustling main strip. Customers stood outside, wondering about the two loud bangs they had heard.

“I couldn’t speak for like five minutes,” Granberg, 26, said. “I was just breathing and crying.”

The police came, asked a few questions and left. They did not take Granberg’s contact information. 

Since then, at least three more attempted robberies have been reported in the same area. The incidents have occurred at various times of the day, including one on Monday at 5:30 a.m. and another at sunset. 

What makes the crimes frustrating for residents and business owners is that the suspects seem to be the same two people in each case. The assaults and lack of arrests, they say, call up a larger issue: Can this unique barrio survive its own grand ambitions? 

In 2010, the Barrio Escalante Neighbors Association crafted a five-year renovation plan with a local firm, LDA Architecture. The design, reported to cost $800,000 with half of it paid by the San José Municipality, includes recycling and beautification plans, including a garden around railroad tracks cutting through the barrio, as well as commercial hubs and gastronomic corridors. 

Many of the homes in Barrio Escalante, located just east of downtown San José in a historic quarter, were built decades ago. The old Santa Teresita Church and the Antigua Aduana – the former customs building, a place that now houses expos and cultural events – define some of the landmarks in the region.   

Near the food and bar district, the biggest landmark used to be the Intensa Language School. The school is still there, but the neighborhood has transformed into a trendy commercial district that features a variety of establishments unique to the capital. A stroll around the area shows off popular ethnic restaurants, bars with local DJs and bands, and art galleries. The country’s oldest movie theater is a short distance away. 

As more people are drawn to neighborhood locales, business owners and community members are becoming increasingly at odds about how to keep residents and patrons safe. There is also division among some local business owners about the area’s highly popular bars. 

On Barrio Escalante’s Facebook page, managed by neighborhood association vice president Sabrina Vargas, posts on cooking classes and art exhibitions have been splintered by comments on the recent assaults. 

Tom Dalby, co-owner of Hoxton’s Pub, posts crime reports on the page. He wants to organize a meeting about security. But he said the neighborhood association seems to blame the bars for the recent assaults, an argument he said is unfair. The rivalry with the association, Dalby said, is distracting from the security issue.

Brightened by street lamps and guarded by “huachimanes” (parking guards), the heart of the dining district appears to be one of the safest places in Barrio Escalante at night. Hoxton’s hires its own security guard. Dalby said the problem is that Barrio Escalante lacks enough police presence, and the rest of the neighborhood is not well-lit. He added that bars can’t be to blame when crimes don’t just occur at night.

Another victim, Jessica Song, said she was robbed last week around 6 p.m. while walking to classes at Barrio Escalante’s International University of the Americas. Two males, fitting the same description as those who attacked Granberg, accosted Song near Parque Francia. An assailant pulled a revolver on the student, and thieves made off with items valued at ₡500,000 ($1,000), including an iPhone and iPod. 

When Song filed a police report, an official at the Judicial Investigation Police told her she was the second person that day to report a mugging in the area. 

“I skipped going to my next classes there,” Song said.

Vargas, of the neighborhood association, said the area’s renovation plan calls for adding six cameras to deter crime. At a price of $6,000 each, the cameras should be installed in a year, she said. However, Vargas considers the booming nightlife part of the problem. She said police have told her that Barrio Escalante is the new Calle de la Amargura, a raucous zone of bars near the University of Costa Rica’s main campus. 

Vargas said she’s fine with local bars like Un Lugar and Keidas, where customers remain inside, unlike Monolokorock and Hoxton’s, where clients spend time outside. The association pressured another bar, El Fin del Mundo, to close because of rowdy clients, and she hopes public demand can close other locales that make too much noise at night. She said the clamor is not fair to older residents who have lived in the barrio their entire lives. 

Dalby said he finds it hard not to take Vargas’ efforts personally since he hasn’t been allowed to attend a meeting with the association, where he would like to discuss the issues of nightlife and security.

He said Hoxton’s paid its dues to be association members, yet the bar’s co-owners were asked to leave a recent association meeting. Vargas said they haven’t been approved yet.

The neighborhood seems to be at a juncture midway through the renovation plan. Vargas said she doesn’t mind describing her vision of Barrio Escalante as “elitist,” and she would rather keep the bars out. That version of the neighborhood has many supporters. But so does the other side, and many fans of the district hope the gap can be bridged. 

One resident, a local artist named Pablo Murillo, hopes to provide a new voice on the situation. After seeing the bickering over safety on the Barrio Escalante Facebook page, Murillo decided to volunteer for Barrio Escalante’s security committee.  

Murillo, 31, has lived in the neighborhood for more than three years. He enjoys the nightlife that has popped up around his home, and he frequents the bars with friends. He said it’s strange to keep hearing association members assume bar patrons are hooligans. 

Murillo belongs to an art collective called NoisNois, which held an exhibit at El Farolito, Spain’s Cultural Center, last year. Art remains a popular theme in many facets of the neighborhood’s renovation plan. Vargas, an artist, curates local exhibitions, and Hoxton’s and Monolokorock showcase Costa Rican art exhibits. NoisNois’ show included a performance art portion that played to a packed house. After the show, Murillo and the rest of the collective celebrated their success with food and drink at Barrio Escalante’s popular Turkish restaurant, Aya Sofía.

In the past year, the barrio has continued to develop. But it’s the proximity of these many activities that make the neighborhood so attractive, patrons and business owners said. 

For Murillo, there’s not much anyone can do to stop urban development. 

Like Granberg and Song, Murillo had his own run-in with an armed robber on the street two years ago. While he acknowledges that criminals prey on victims in numerous neighborhoods in the capital – many attacks are more frequent elsewhere -– Murillo agrees the barrio has felt less-safe lately.

For that reason, he wants to see more of an emphasis in the neighborhood on crime prevention and less on the bars.

 As Barrio Escalante grows, the neighborhood has a chance to reduce local crime, he said. What Murillo wants to see is simple, he said: All those aspects that make Barrio Escalante enjoyable to live – the history, the nightlife and the community – need to come together to make the neighborhood safe.

“You have everything close at walking distance, galleries, bars and other pretty cool places,” Murillo said. “It used to be safe enough to walk around. But not anymore. That’s the only concern.”

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