The young child reached up to take the hand of her prim, high-heeled grandmother. It was lunchtime when the pair strolled through the Mexican-style plaza at the heart of El Paso, Texas. The girl was captivated by the looming trees and ornate, wrought-iron benches. People in all stages of life surrounded them, chatting animatedly and admiring the pool at the center of the park.
That same girl, now in the last third of her life, recently strolled through a new plaza. This time, it was a South American-styled, modern marketplace in the historic El Centro of Cuenca, Ecuador.
The years between the two experiences melted away.
As the same one who enjoyed both central public squares, I was thrilled when our neighborhood San Francisco Plaza was reopened Jan. 29. Despite the consistent, unrelenting rain, several hundred Cuencanos and a few expats turned out for the dedication.
The president of Ecuador was rumored to attend, but instead sent an emissary to brave the torrents of rain. Cuenca Mayor Marcelo Cabrera was there, presiding proudly over his newly completed project.
The spacious, clean plaza is about three blocks from our apartment complex. It is bounded by Calles Padre Aguirre, Presidente Cordova, General Torres and San Francisco.
The rain wasn’t about to let up, so it was on with the show. Luckily we got there early enough to snag two seats under the giant canvas covering erected for the event. Still, hundreds pressed in around the edges, trying to escape the constant drizzle.
Reconstruction began on the plaza about three months before we moved to Ecuador, in August 2017. The central gathering spot, believed to be more than 450 years old, was reconstructed for about $1.4 million. Other renovations to nearby streets and buildings, and the addition of benches and plants, increased the project to about $4 million.
One section of the reconstructed Padre Aguirre Street, between Juan Jaramillo and Sucre, is expected to become pedestrian-only,
Since the 1700s, San Francisco Plaza has been a center of commerce. Most years it served as a lively market featuring produce from country farms and goods provided by city dwellers.
Photos from the collection of Cuenca Municipality
Its history is breathtaking. Like the fabled cat, San Francisco Plaza has had more than nine lives as a stage for theater presentations, a city bus station, a coal yard, carnival grounds, a children’s playground, and a designated site for governmental public announcements.
After the battles that briefly established Cuenca as an independent country in 1820, dozens of enemy soldiers and local traitors went to the gallows in the plaza. Later, common criminals were executed there before firing squads.
Photo from Cuenca Municipality
San Francisco then became a general market for everything from fireworks and guns to real shrunken heads. It was also home to Cuenca’s first gas station.
Strangely enough, an architectural “window” has been left open in the new plaza over a portion of the cobble stoned street believed to be part of that gas station.
City leaders have been working on various plans to renovate the plaza since 1956. Most recently, a plan in 2010 failed after vendors and city leaders could not agree on the design. In 2016, Mayor Cabrera got the votes he needed to proceed.
Although vendors finally approved the design, some remain unsatisfied with certain regulations. One rule requires them to consolidate sales with members of their immediate families. That stipulation whittled an expected 132 merchants down to 96, each of whom leases space for about $160 a month.
But the merchants’ units are a vast improvement over the various shacks offered before. Made of steel and wood, they can be securely closed at night. Each unit features eight to 10 vendors, and all have high visibility, encircling the square.
Another bone of contention had been the day workers who routinely met at the corner of Padre Aguirre and Presidente Cordova to offer their services. They are no longer allowed to “loiter” in the square.
The workers have held sit-ins and continue to protest the change. But the government remains firm that they will be relocated to the Feria Libre area of town. They have been assigned to the Casa del Oberro, an area that generally houses craftsmen in construction, plumbing, and carpentry. The workers have protested, claiming they are unable to get work at the site and that there are only spaces for 60 of the more than 300 available workers.
Various complaints aside, the plaza is beautiful. It is wide and flat, with plenty of room for future festivals, celebrations and indigenous dancing. A giant “Cuenca” sign offers opportunities for memorable photos.
For me, the key element is the accessible, dancing water fountain in the center of the plaza. It features a colored light show at night and is encircled by a concrete seating area.
This is where the children will be making memories. Just like that little girl did, the one I used to be.