GUATEMALA CITY – Renowned for its gangs, high crime rate and traffic congestion, Guatemala City isn’t at the top of most travelers’ bucket lists. However, the Guatemalan capital’s municipal government is working on ways to improve the city, recently initiating a project to conserve and revitalize the city’s heritage – starting with Sexta Avenida in Zona 1, the backbone of el centro histórico.
Historically, 6th Avenue was the fashion capital of Guatemala – the place to see and be seen – with shops selling luxury goods and the latest European trends. After decades of neglect it endured a long downward spiral and became a chaotic jumble filled with street vendors, oversized billboards and traffic.
But things finally are swinging back around.
After encouraging several businesses to invest in a recuperation project, the municipality has transformed the crowded mess into a vibrant avenue that is safe for pedestrians to wander down.
A restoration team began by relocating dozens of street vendors who had cluttered the sidewalks selling pirated DVDs and designer knock-offs. Next, they spent a year cleaning and widening the pavement, putting up new artwork and taking down old signs that covered every inch of every building. The emphasis on orderliness is now so strict that even presidential candidates are not allowed to decorate the avenue with campaign propaganda.
Today the street, which has been renamed Paseo de la Sexta, runs from Plaza de la Constitución (the Central Park) to Calle 18 and is mainly pedestrianized with only Transmetro buses and a handful of cars. Regularly patrolled by uniformed police officers on bicycles, it’s a safe haven for Guatemalans to shop, get together in coffee shops or admire the public art that adorns each side of the walkway.
The avenue has fast become a popular place to socialize during the day and night. Some city dwellers have even described the transformation as “another world” and say the radical changes have injected life into the capital and given people access to a cleaner and safer place to visit.
However, despite the marked improvements, a small number of locals lament the changes and believe the municipality has stripped la Sexta of its identity. Once a symbol of fighting between the army and the people during the country’s brutal 36-year civil war, these poignant reminders of clashes 30 years ago have been removed and, some say, the important years of yesterday now lie forgotten.
Nevertheless, municipal officials plan to restore more than 100 historic monuments around the city, and they have more ideas for la Sexta, including opening art galleries and book stores and restoring an old movie theater.
The changes may be simple for such a small avenue in a city filled with problems, but it’s an overwhelmingly positive start for improving the quality of life for the more than one million people who live in the nation’s sprawling capital.