Bogota hails improvements as it marks anniversary

BOGOTA, Colombia, AP

It is both a gloomy, sprawling city with huge traffic jams and burgeoning slums and a classy metropolis boasting parks, museums and kilometers (miles) of bike paths. As Bogota celebrates the anniversary of its founding Tuesday, the centuries-old city of 7 million straddles the extremes.

Colombia’s capital was called the “Athens of Latin America” for its thriving cultural life — but that was in the 19th century. Late in the 20th, the city on an 2550-meter (8,500-foot) Andean plateau fell victim to rampant, uncontrolled growth and neglect.

Now, a string of mayors has cleaned up the city’s finances, reduced violent crime and seeded public parks and other projects with stepped-up investment. The city is undergoing an unprecedented makeover, although resistance from groups that fear they stand to lose out has sometimes been sharp.

Coinciding with Bogota’s celebrations of its 463rd anniversary this week — which include outdoor concerts, sports contests and a kite festival — is a strike by taxi and bus drivers, who are protesting rush-hour restrictions on their vehicles. Last week, the drivers blocked roads and paralyzed sections of the city, and they have threatened to resume their actions.

City officials say the restrictions, similar to those imposed on private cars, are needed to untangle Bogota’s rush-hour traffic, which can turn a crosstown trip into an hours-long ordeal.

The strike also tests Mayor Antanas Mockus’ drive to improve Bogota. Mockus is trying to build on the advances of recent years with an ambitious investment plan encompassing everything from more police to flower beds.

“There is a new sense of belonging in our city — it is the pride of being a Bogotano,” Mockus crowed in an interview.

“A growing collective identity is spreading its roots in the city,” the city’s biggest newspaper, El Tiempo, echoed in an editorial Monday.

But there is still plenty of inequality. Some 300,000 Colombians displaced by war and poverty have come to Bogota since 1985, swelling the slums on its southern perimeter and straining the government’s capacity to provide water and other basic services.

Along with the slums, the city ranges from luxury malls and well-groomed residential areas in the north to the quaint, cobblestoned Candelaria district near downtown, with its colonial-style buildings, to a drab mishmash of concrete and brick buildings on the outskirts.

The makeover has seen a surge of construction of libraries, museums, parks and bike paths in recent years. Pitted, uneven sidewalks are being rebuilt. Trees are being planted in grassy medians.

“It’s a better place to live today,” said Monica Gonzalez, a 21-year old Bogota native who attended an outdoor concert in Parque Simon Bolivar, the city’s biggest park, in drizzly weather Sunday. “Now only if the rain would stop.”

The weather in Bogota, which gets more rain annually than London or Seattle, seems to reflect its split personality. When it rains, pedestrians hunch over and grimly hustle to their destinations. But when the skies are sunny, the green mountains surrounding the city shimmer in the clear air and Bogotanos flock to a growing number of sidewalk cafes.

The city — isolated from the rest of the country by the mountains — has remained relatively shielded from the violence of Colombia’s decades-old war between the government and leftist guerrillas.