Notes from Nicaragua on balance, utility and sisterhood

I confess. I really don’t understand the concept of sister cities.

Explain to me why Granada is the sister city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, or why Puerto Cabezas ends up paired with Burlington, Vermont. Have they sworn allegiance to defend each other if one falls under attack? If a self-styled William Walker wannabe turns up again in Granada, will folks back home in Waukesha muster a militia to come to their defense? (Given the fact that every red-blooded American town now has at least one firearm for each man, woman, child and family pet, I’m sure there wouldn’t be a lack of firepower.)

I checked into it and found that León is a sister city of both New Haven, Connecticut and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That sort of makes sense because León is bigger than Granada, but my logic quickly ran out of steam when I discovered that diminutive Tipitapa has the Big Apple, New York City as its big sister. Was Tipitapa getting picked on by the other cities and sought New York for protection?

I don’t think I have to explain which city decided that sisterhood would be a good idea. People living in the first world like to think they have some sort of superior knowledge coupled with a can-do spirit and they are always migrating to mostly warmer, poorer countries to bestow said knowledge and to lend a helping hand. Of course there is nothing wrong with helping others, but I just wonder how much of the sisterly love flows in the opposite direction.

People also find that the can-do spirit often falls flat on its face as you get to closer to the equator. Does Montclair, New Jersey derive any benefit from its Nicaraguan sister, Laguna de Perlas? Does anyone back home in Montclair even know they have a Nicaraguan sister?

I like old colonial cities in general, and Granada in particular. I didn’t need to list the reasons it appealed to me when I decided to spend a good bit of time there. But after six years of having to answer inevitable questions back home about why I choose to live nearly half the year in Nicaragua and the rest of the time in the U.S., I’m getting better at coming up with concise, satisfying answers…which I’ll get to in a moment.

I had always assumed that colonial cities drew their vitality from two separate cultures with the resulting hybrid being richer than either of the parents. The Spanish and their Old World culture melded with the indigenous Central American cultures resulted in the wonderful thing we know loosely as Latin America. The town of Granada is part of that rich heritage and is laid out according to the unifying principles of Spanish Colonial cities and urban planning. The architecture of its houses and the design of the city, I thought, came from a set of written principles that were applied nearly 500 years ago. Recently however, I learned that I was wrong about the origins of town planning in Latin America—and my assumption was off by a very wide margin. The guiding force behind why Granada looks the way it does actually goes back much further than five centuries.

When the Spanish began to colonize the New World they developed a set of laws to help govern and regulate the colonies they created. The “Leyes de Indias” were drafted in 1512 and added to and amended many times over the years that followed to include all aspects of life in the colonies. An important part of the Leyes de Indias was devoted to the citing, planning, design and construction of new cities, presidios and pueblos throughout Latin America, which is why such obvious similarities exist to this day. It wasn’t merely the result of a stylistic convention that determined why buildings in Antigua, Guatemala look so similar to those in Granada, Nicaragua or Trinidad, Cuba—to name just a few.

But what is most interesting is that the particular Leyes de Indias that address town planning and design were borrowed (some say plagiarized) nearly in their entirety from another, much older source. As it turns out, The Ten Books of Architecture, the estimable work by Marcus Vitruvius, had already done all the heavy lifting for the Spaniards. Writing around the time when they finally got around to changing over from B.C. to A.D., just over 2,000 years ago, Vitruvius laid out in detail the essential method of how to locate, orient and design towns and cities, taking into considerations issues as varied as prevailing breezes, the benefits of communal pasture land and the location of hospitals dealing with contagious diseases.

You may not have heard of The Ten Books of Architecture, but you probably do know Vitruvius indirectly from that iconic drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of the naked man with two pairs of outstretched arms and legs standing within a circle inscribed within a the square displaying his perfect human proportions. This is also known as “Vitruvian Man” and considered to be analogous to the concept of universal principles of proportion in the universe.

I had only been in Granada about 24 hours before something about the size, scale and layout of the town immediately began to seduce me. I felt comfortable as a pedestrian, which is nice since I come from a place and culture where being a pedestrian is no longer encouraged or even possible anymore. I found my time in Granada to be a revelation. It felt good to be walking everywhere again. The scale of the city was manageable, enjoyable and friendly. The architecture of the houses made sense and fit the climate. The simple fact that houses and stores and food markets had been allowed to mix and blend insured that there was guaranteed vitality without dead pockets and lifeless places that result from modern, first world zoning laws that prohibit mixed use.

After WW2, the landscape of the United States changed dramatically. Suburban sprawl entered our lives and the family car became the new national icon. The suburbs were born and whole towns were built, unrolled nearly overnight just like wall-to-wall carpeting. As a baby boomer myself, it was all I ever knew since all historical associations with cities and older, existing towns were either severed or rendered valueless. Main Street withered and died while strip malls spread like kudzu. Even as a child, I felt alienated in the town I grew up in. There was no town square or commons or any discernible civic spaces of any kind. You were always stuck in the broiling back seat of a car on the way to somewhere that was surrounded by hundreds of acres of asphalt.

During the last twenty years a worldwide movement called New Urbanism has been steadily gaining strength and attracting adherents. The movement is composed of a diverse group of architects and urban planners, government officials, real estate developers and public policy experts, and it is beginning to address the reasons why so much of the modern built environment today is failing miserably on a civic level. Entire communities are being built according to principles that answer the basic human needs of community and the town as a shared human resource.

Quoting one of the founders of the New Urbanism movement, Leon Krier, “The function of architecture is not, and never has been, to take one’s breath away: it exists to create a built environment which is habitable, agreeable, beautiful, elegant and solid.” This is a slightly expanded definition of what Vitruvius left us with 2,000 years ago—that architecture must provide us with three basic qualities; firmness, economy and delight (Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas).

Back in Granada, I found a city that satisfied my need to live in a place that made it feel good to be a pedestrian again instead of a consumer or a motorist. The simple pleasure of being able to satisfy nearly all my daily needs by walking around town is a significant factor for me. Instead of the isolation I felt while driving between one megastore complex to another over great dreary expanses of highway, surrounded entirely by strangers doing exactly the same thing, I have an endless stream of small-scale, reaffirming social interactions along my daily path. People greet me. I nod to familiar faces and chat with the money changer on the corner who I see every morning. I ask him how he’s doing and he does the same. The one-legged stranger in the wheelchair gives me a big wave every time our paths cross and I am happy to return the gesture with equal enthusiasm. Motorists in the first world tend to interact using simple gestures too, like flipping each other the bird.

I often wonder how many of the local Granadinos and their colonial cousins realize how special the towns that they call home are, and how lucky they are to live here. I also wonder if the folks who decided that Granada and other similar colonial cities needed their sisterhood saw it as a two-way street. Could St. Paul or Houston or Trenton learn something about civitas and social fabric from a poor relation to the south? Even with the unforeseen proliferation of automobiles, Granada remains true to its strong Vitruvian roots and hasn’t bowed obediently before the altar to the all mighty automobile. The roads and sidewalks are there but they are shared with a crazy array of pedestrians, market stalls, relojeria, cyclists, carretons, horse-drawn carriages and street dogs.

So now when people ask me what I find so appealing about Granada, I refer them back to Vitruvius and the oldest and still best handbook ever written on building a livable city, one that invariably leads to a rich civic life for all its inhabitants of which I am delighted to say finally includes me.

But I still don’t have a good answer for the sister city thing.


Robert Skydell is a retired architect and restaurateur. He lives in Granada and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

  • Orlando J. Moncada

    Dear Robert, interesting piece of writing. Sister cities in Nicaragua go back to the early 70s. The first experience was La Habra, CA, and Estelí. The heart of the idea is cooperation from a big sister in the first world to a smaller sister in the third world, so the notion mutual defense is just a funny consideration and I know you know it. In the 1980s the concept grew in such a way that there were government officials strictly in charge of promoting sisterhood. There is a lot to tell about this but I must go to work. Enjoy Nicaragua!

    • robert Skydell

      Thanks Orlando for the comments and an additional thanks for not taking every word too literally.
      I hope that Dispatch readers understand that the real point of the piece has to do with the perennially lopsided relationship between north and south.
      Nicaragua has much to offer and be proud of besides surf and sun and the empire to the north needs to look beyond its own hubris when dealing with Latin America and other similar, smaller nations.

      I actually worked with Leon Krier briefly in London over thirty years ago. When I saw that he was behind the Cayala project in Guatemala the idea behind the piece was born.

      • daddy-yo

        “The Cayala project in Guatemala” – isn’t that the mega-gated-community for the rich aimed at applying so much pressure on the poor that they are rendered completely faceless?

        What art most wants is integrity.

    • MHWE

      1970´s?! How about the Partners of the Americas? Wisconsin Nicaraguan Partners (WNP) !

  • David Gullette

    Robert, our experience in Newton MA with our 24-year sistership with San Juan del Sur ( is that solidarity is indeed a two-way street. Our friendship with our colleagues in the 250-square-mile township (not just the beach) has transformed lives both north and south. True, we have skills in rounding up resources, but our sanjuanen~o brothers and sisters are old hands at identifying community needs and organizing folks to match their energies with whatever we can add to the mix. We’ve had three marriages between our gringas and their Nicas, we’ve been there for burials and christenings and anniversaries. And the visits come and go in both directions. A Sister City can become part of your extended family. That’s been our experience. Regards, El Gringo Pinolero

  • AWD
  • jimmycoffee

    Bob, great piece and I felt very much the same when I lived in Granada also.
    A walk around town was always a great thing, you pass the time of day with people, make time for them, always got something to talk about with someone you may end up knowing better. Always a smile and a laugh to find with somebody. I live in Munich, Germany these days and for all its beauty and flawless city planning, that is the one thing I really miss (and the sun, obviously). Regards, James

  • Gerd

    The article has a lot of non serious remarks, but okay, that is Robert’s kind of humour. We in Nueva Guinea have a sistership with Sint Truiden, Belgium, and our overall motto (¿? “lema” pues) is “The money is not the soul of sisterhood”, “La plata no es el alma del hermanamiento.” We do a lot of things, Belgians need (like organic cocoa, organic coffee, improving world climate by planting thousands and thousands of trees and changing agriculture in the humid tropics to agroforestery, and more), we also give some people the chance to lighten their “remordimientos de conciencia” (their bleeding hearts, I heard in tghe US) by helping “the poor Southern brothers and sisters”, but mainly it is trying to get wiser and more sustainable on both sides. And just KNOW each other, with so different culture, languages, food, music, politics etc. The Nueva Guinea part is not the beggar, who jumps around by the music the richer Europeans play …

    Moreover we have quite some political problems in this country, if you are aware of that … And brothers and sisters here, under election fraud and following oppressive methods, may need some helping hand from Europe or other continents also in that situation … (The sister from Belgium for example was already involved in improving the inhuman police prison in Nueva Guinea, RAAS, to make it look a little bit more like a HumanRights place …).

    But we would like to get more sisters! Maybe some of you estadounidenses (aka gringos) has a little city or town at home interested in becoming our sister? Must not be LA or Chicago, but maybe Twisp/Wa. or Richland Center, Wi., or Meteor City, Ar (although this last one has only 9 inhabitants, as far as I know), better: Flagstaff, Arizona …

  • Gerd

    Municipalities in the USA, interested to contact us, please write to – the president of this civil society foundation, which runs the sisterhood thing, is Daniel Dávila, the fiscal is Elba Rivera Urbina, the executiive director is Mauricio Soza. Thanks for reading this and maybe doing something?

  • daddy-yo

    Hey Sr. Skydell, it’s a pleasure to see your graceful pen again on this site, teaching us a thing or two and entertaining us the while. Thanks.

    Before diving into sisterhood, let me raise a question or two on the Krier’s functions of architecture: habitable & agreeable – well, yes, of course, someone’s expected to live there, no? – and “beautiful & elegant” – that’s what leaves me in limbo – and solid (thud!). “Beauty” is in the eye, ear, touch &c. of beholder, buyer. passer-by, . . . So who do you aim to please, commissioned artist, ye? (“All, all the time”, we know, is disallowed.) The buyer? Posterity? The city council? The common citizen? Yourself? I like Vitruvius’ word “Venustas” – it brings to mind Botticelli’s Venus, who was his wife, right?

    I see Granada as morphing architecturally into a city whose prime aim is to please the new foreign visitor, the tourist, yourself, with its prettified preserved past. That you also delight in its living presence, Nicas born & raised somewhat outside of that “defined environment”, makes me happy to read. Are architects building for them there now, something a tad less than ‘elegant’, closer to the beauty they know and the utility they need?

    And Vitruvius’ “Utilitas” is better translated usefulness or utility, IMO, cause the word ‘economy’ can take a reader from one of Thoreau’s life principles to today’s global money-mad quagmire.

    Sister cities: I checked Wiki, Leon’s got nine, including some heavies. I guess you can’t have too many Big sisters, though I’m sure there’s more than one little brother out there that’d argue. I couldn’t find Waukesha on Wiki’s site for “Granada” when I did a go-find-“sister”-search on it, but Leon came up twice. Googling “Leon sister city” turns up New Haven, CT, first. A glance at their opening web page showed mostly women, thus some clarity on sisterhoodness. I worked near New Haven at the beginning of the Iraq War. Since it’s been 10 years, I’m mostly over it, but then I had a nearly uncontrollable urge to go piss on the Yale building that houses the “Skull & Bones” Society, a Scrooge-McDuck-like vault structure that deserved such recognition. But I thought it might be electrified. And I wasn’t ready to kiss my job good-bye.

  • Ken

    Well, I liked this and it’s interesting to me that so many others did too.

    A point of correction is that you’re a little bit wrong about the history of US suburbanization. Post-WW2 is the big phase, but I think the roots go more to the 1890s or thereabouts. Rome also had suburbs. It’s a bit more complex.

    A point of equivocation, especially since you mention the New Urbanism, is that I fear this is good for building neighborhoods and towns but so far has failed at building cities. I further fear that Granada is the darling of many so motivated in part because it is so small.

    You can make an argument for the small, but I’m not sure it’s persuasive. You end up in reality with Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities, and frankly in some economically-developed future all Granada will be is an exurb of Managua.

    I fear that Granada is a romantic myth, a pleasant exurb, with the challenge (and frankly opportunity) being that of making Managua work (and Granada fitting into the larger metro area).

    Focusing on Granada strikes me as Suburbanism Lite, a garden city idea.

    • Fred

      One can only hope that the distance from Managua is sufficient for Granada to maintain it’s small town ambiance. From an economic standpoint Granada does need more employment and commercial opportunities. Room on the North side away from Colonial Heart to accommodate that?