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