San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Urban renewal

Barrio Chino aims to be San José's next big food spot

Following the success of popular shopping and nightlife destinations Avenida Escazú to the west and Barrio Escalante’s “La Luz” to the east, downtown San José’s Barrio Chino is looking to become the metro region’s next hot neighborhood.

City council leaders passed a proposal at the end of April that would turn Paseo de Los Estudiantes, the downtown walkway also known as Barrio Chino that runs south of Avenida 2 on Calle 9, into a sought-after gastronomic and art destination.

Downtown San José’s narrow streets and crowded commercial areas can make it a difficult place for a stroll but municipal leaders like Citizen Action Party Councilwoman Eugenia Bermúdez see potential in Paseo de Los Estudiantes. Bermúdez, who is in charge of the project, said that downtown is in desperate need of more open spaces that can offer people great restaurants, museums and other activities.

“We have to attract people with a space that’s beautiful and attractive, giving them a reason to want to be there,” the councilwoman said. “The downtown area doesn’t really have anything like that to offer people right now.”

Bermúdez stressed that giving the downtown walkway more green spaces, like her plans for tropical gardens that would line each side of the pedestrian lane, could make the area more aesthetically pleasing.

One challenge for the area is getting there, Bermúdez said. A lack of parking and other concerns must be addressed going forward.

The project comes on the heels of the enormous success of Barrio Escalante’s strip of restaurants and bars known as “La Luz” on Calle 33, which has hosted several recent outdoor festivals that attracted thousands of patrons. However, Bermúdez said the project is not intended to be a copycat of that successful strip of restaurants and bars.

“Copies of the real thing always end up worse,” Bermúdez said. “This is a completely different strip that has its own character. The neighborhood has a unique history and we want to honor that.”

Pedestrians walk on the sidewalks and bike paths of Paseo de Los Estudiantes in San José

Lindsay Fendt/The Tico Times

Silvia Rodríguez, the president of the Paseo Gastronómico La Luz Association, told The Tico Times that Barrio Escalante’s rise stemmed from private businesspeople working together without the government. She cautioned officials like Mayor Johnny Araya to take a hands-off approach to the development of Paseo de Los Estudiantes.

Rodríguez recently talked to the municipal council about the strip’s potential to attract people on a consistent basis. She said that if it wants to oversee a public area downtown that centers around food and drink, then the council needs to ensure that it remains true to Costa Rican tradition while reigniting the gastronomy of San José.

“The problem with Costa Rican culture is the shame we sometimes have with parts of our identity, like food,” Rodríguez said. “If this honors traditional Costa Rican cooking in a new way, it could give Costa Ricans a chance to be proud of their food.”

Bermúdez said council members have started reaching out to area businesses and contractors to coordinate design plans for the proposed facelift. She said no budget has yet been set for the project but that the council expects to have concrete financial details within the next three months.

The John Lennon statue in Paseo de Los Estudiantes in downtown San José.

Lindsay Fendt/The Tico Times

In 2012, before Araya left the mayorship to make an unsuccessful run for the presidency, the municipality tried to carry out a similar initiative that would attract more foot traffic to Paseo de Los Estudiantes. Bermúdez said the municipality was unable to make the neighborhood come alive before Araya’s successor, Sandra García, came into office in 2013 and showed little interest in the project.

Now with Araya back in office, she said the mayor is completely on board to revamp the historic district and hopefully provide economic and social momentum for an area of downtown in need of a makeover.

“The idea is to resurrect this place’s history,” she said. “We’ve talked with people who are very excited to give life to Paseo de Los Estudiantes again. It’s a diverse space and it has a beautiful culture, and it can show off what true San José culture is.”

Contact Michael Krumholtz at mkrumholtz@ticotimes.net

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Ken Morris

Will someone please shoot Eugenia Bermúdez, or at least send her to a class on urban studies?

This woman makes the fundamental amateur mistake of confusing cities with suburbs. No, cities don’t usually need more green space, and they almost never need more parking. These are suburban amenities.

Plus, cities need a lot more than restaurants and bars interspersed with a few trendy shops. They need places for people live and work too–and more practical places like hardware stores than fancy restaurants. Bermúdez wants to turn the neighborhood into a suburban-style mall to which people can drive during their leisure time rather than a functioning urban neighborhood.

Add that she overemphasizes the role of government in city building. Government does of course have a role, chiefly in planning transportation routes and setting tax rates, but in the main cities are one thing that is usually best left to the private market.

Indeed, unmentioned in this article is that a main reason Barrio Chino is on the upswing is because gays are moving in. Gays aren’t the only cultural vanguard, but as a rule, wherever gays settle, the neighborhoods improve.

But the government had nothing to do with this, and in fact Barrio Chino is on the upswing despite the intention of the government to make it into a Chinatown. Yeah, government officials ignorantly assumed that they could build a Chinatown by decree. The only thing they forgot was to tell the Chinese.

Barrio Chino has tons of potential, but if people like Bermúdez get their dainty bureaucratic hands on it, that potential will be traded for parking lots flanked by a little shrubbery and interspersed among a smattering of upscale restaurants where the few remaining residents can’t afford to eat.

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Mauricio P. Jiménez

It is a good news

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Cheryl Barnett

What R U talking about? Ashamed of Costa Rican food? Why? Whenever I come there to visit, I go where the Locals go to eat! Excellent food! You have NOTHING to be ashamed of, your food is great!

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Soares Gilda

Porque darle esta oportunidad a los chinos ? Siendo una cultura muy cerrada y solo entre ellos se ayudan, para mí esto es irónico !!! Donde ellos llegan toman b pose y no colaboran con nadie !!! //: denle oportunidad a los ricos y a sus tradiciones … ! que terrible que somos los ticos !!! Nunca le damos crédito a nuestra gente !!!! Siempre apreciamos otras costumbres y otras tradiciones … No apreciamos lo nuestro … No estoy de acuerdo en que este bello lugar se lleguen apoderar los chinos !!! Quizás estos interesados en llevar este proyecto acabo se estén ganando una buena suma de $ !!! Paremos esto ahora . Ya basta ! No a la corrupcion.!!!

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