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Puerto Rico: The country of many faces

Puerto Rico: The country of many faces

Posted by Juan Gavasa on April 04, 2015

Beneath indigo skies speckled with starlight, well-heeled arts patrons and civic leaders spilled out of the opulent lobby of the Condado Vanderbilt, where they’d turned out as much for a pop-up shop of designer fashions and jewelry as for the scene itself. Sun-kissed guests draped in elegant clothing sipped Champagne, chatted and air-kissed.

The hotel, a newly restored palatial resort with a legendary pedigree dating to 1919, had just reopened to much fanfare, and it seemed poised to once again become the epicenter of refined San Juan social life. As I surveyed the crowd, I was transported to my own past, when girls like me swanned at debutante parties in grand ballrooms and women like my mother attended fashion shows in hats and gloves.

Later that same night, a mere 20 minutes away, I attended a different sort of opening, at La Productora, where the excitement was rooted in the promise of the future rather than the glamour of the past.

At this gallery, in a former warehouse on a side street in a dodgy neighborhood of low-cost houses and cut-rate shops, the crowd was in their 20s and early 30s, and the drink of choice was Medalla Light. Upstairs, in four high-ceilinged rooms crammed with paint cans, brushes, tools and screens, a smattering of pieces were hung and others simply leaned against the walls. Asked why he had chosen this space, the gallery owner, Martín Albarrán, said, “Why here? One reason, cheap rent.”

These two openings exemplify the variegated landscape that visitors to Puerto Rico can expect when they touch down nowadays. The commonwealth has in recent years been seeking to replace spring breakers and middlebrow clientele with a high-end set, enticing them with newly restored resorts and restaurants with hot chefs in San Juan and Vieques, too. It has embraced its faded former glory at the same time as it has supported an upstart artistic community that somehow is thriving just beyond the historic, museumlike center of Old San Juan.

But can Puerto Rico be a Bushwick, Brooklyn, by the sea, a Palm Springs set in the tropics and a preserver of Spanish colonial architecture all at the same time? That seems to be its aim, and perhaps it’s only natural that a place that has been trying to redefine its status and relationship with the United States for more than a century would offer a shifting identity, seeking to be all things to all comers. It’s in permanent limbo, too far-flung to feel American and yet too familiar to feel like a different country.

Whatever Puerto Rico has become, I saw signs on my trip there this winter that being too complicated to label had revitalized it. Old, new, colonial, anti-establishment — traveling through the islands was like attending a cocktail party with a very eclectic guest list. Murals on underpasses gave way to glistening hotel towers, which gave way to the rustic beaches of Vieques.

The Casa Cortés art gallery. Credit Robert Rausch for The New York Times

I’d gone there to see what had become of a homeland I’d left at 14 and returned to only sporadically, in time to see the cosmopolitan surge that eventually soured after the recession of 2007, when rampant crime pervaded previously upscale areas.

I wouldn’t find an easy answer. Now, Puerto Rico is perhaps more difficult to pin down than destinations of a similar size — the archipelago that includes the island for which the commonwealth is named has a land mass smaller than Connecticut’s — but it seemed more self-assured than it has been in a long time. That much was clear from the moment I arrived, and I couldn’t wait to see more.

The main cultural asset associated with Puerto Rico has long been music. Spain lost the islands in the 1890s, rather late in the colonial scramble for the Caribbean, and as a result Puerto Rico has retained a Latin-infused language and heritage, evident in music ranging from bomba to salsa to reggaeton.

Now, though, it has become home to a thriving visual arts community.

La Productora, for example, is part of a Calle Cerra collaborative, a group of young aspiring artists and gallerists. But a similar conversion is happening on Calle Loíza, a potholed commercial artery full of abandoned buildings, gas stations and old-time beauty parlors. They are being joined by quirky bars, modish specialty shops and galleries. At night, Sanjuaneros hop from Funky Buddha and Bar Bero, to the Art d’Chocolat, to the Argentine bodega Agarrate Catalina and spots like the inexpensive outdoor Café Tresbe, the pizza and whiskey bar Loiza 2050. Other formerly sleepy areas of town are gentrifying. A new design district anchored by the Walter Otero Contemporary Gallery is springing up off Avenida Constitución, breathing new life into a marginal industrial area.

This is not by happenstance. With government and private backing, graffiti artists and muralists who operate under names like the all-female Morivivi collective and Bikismo, a solo muralist who exhibited work at Miami’s Art Basel in 2014, have become celebrities there.

“It’s a new manifestation of art,” Ninah Aymat, a Christie’s-trained assistant director at the Otero Gallery, told me. While collectives like Calle Cerra play a role, street art “is effervescent all across the island.” She doesn’t see it as a shift but as a “movement within the art world that’s more appealing and accessible to a diverse crowd.”

Street art has pretty much taken over congested Santurce, spilling over into nearby neighborhoods. There are no boundaries. Murals pop up along freeways, on cruddy streets, on abandoned storefronts, on old and new buildings, near hotels and on billboards.

The reclamation of these neighborhoods is all the more surprising because Puerto Rico, like so much of the Caribbean, seeks to hide its economic woes from visitors, presenting a glossy exterior rather than street art in run-down districts. It has a lot to paper over: Puerto Rico is approximately $73 billion in debt, its debt rating has spiraled to junk status, unemployment stands at 13.5 percent and thousands of professionals a year leave for rosier economic climes like Florida. The exodus of middle and upper-income professionals and blue-collar workers has drained some sectors (law, education, small businesses, health services) and deprived the island of badly needed tax revenues. High crime rates, heavy drug trafficking, corruption and government incompetence add to the bleak picture.

The dining room of La Mallorquina. Credit Robert Rausch for The New York Times

Yet mainland and foreign investors are taking advantage of financial opportunities and tax breaks, backing hoteliers who are opening lavish resorts, boutique hotels and restaurants. Some credit goes to a 2012 Puerto Rican law offering tax breaks to high-income mainland citizens who buy property in the commonwealth and move there. Hundreds have taken up the offer so far. In addition to that perk, there are other incentives for investors in tourism. A government tourism promotional leaflet reads “Sol, arena y cero impuestos,” “Sun, sand and zero taxes.”

It seems to be an easy sell. The Puerto Rican government has signed up a Virginia developer, Clark Realty Capital, to turn the 3,000-acre former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station into a multibillion-dollar seaside residential-entertainment project with hotels, an airport, a marina and a harbor. The Roosevelt Roads project will be financed entirely by private investors, including Clark, an official of the redevelopment authority, Freddy de Jesús, wrote in an email. Though Clark has not received any tax incentives, it could apply for them after the master developer contract is signed. Clark estimates that the project would involve $3.2 billion investment over 30 years. The plan is expected to start by this summer. It is unique to the Caribbean because of the change in land use and the size of the project.

The project is part of the push to draw luxury clientele: celebrities, fashionistas, one-percenters, high-flying singles. Hotels are the main magnet, but high-end shopping like the new Mall of San Juan, near the international airport, is part of the mix. The man behind much of the effort to revitalize San Juan is the billionaire John Paulson, president of the New York-based investment firm Paulson & Co., who has a majority stake in the Condado Vanderbilt and in La Concha Hotel next door. Mr. Paulson poured $260 million into the hotels in partnership with International Hospitality Enterprises, a major owner and operator of hotels on the island.

The industry hopes that super expensive coastal resorts like the St. Regis Bahia; the Royal Isabela luxury golf course and resort; the Four Seasons, which is set to open in 2017; and the restored $1,799-a-night Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton Reserve — where I played in the water slides and the roiling surf those many Sundays of my youth — will put Puerto Rico on par with glamorous St. Bart’s and Anguilla.

It already has the cuisine to compete. A very vocal culinary vanguard seeks to resurrect Puerto Rico’s past agrarian glory and transform the islands into a farm-to-table haven. The chef of Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert, is an unabashed fan who credits the Puerto Rican chefs Alfredo Ayala, Wilo Benet, José Santaella and Mario Pagán as trailblazers who fused international and criollo dishes to create a contemporary Puerto Rican cuisine.

Some of the best food in Puerto Rico can be found these days at José Enrique, a modest pink casita a block from the nearly century-old farmers’ market Placita de Santurce, a neighborhood of produce and meat stands and down-home criollo bodegas. Named for its celebrated 37-year-old chef and owner, the restaurant has no sign, no set menu and takes no reservations. The dining room is set up with bare tables and a small bar, and the staff is friendly if harried, trotting plates to a festive and loud lunch-hour crowd of business people, lawyers, executives and tourists. On a white chalkboard is a simple one-or-two-word menu: mahi mahi, scallops, tuna and so on, with entree prices running up to $30.

I went there with my cousin Sigrid and her friend Marilyn, two lawyers who are José Enrique veterans. They ordered nearly half the menu and a bottle of Spanish red. Everything moved fast, plates landed on the table and flew off, each bite an exclamation of pure delight. Fried yellowtail snapper, perfectly grilled churrasco, avocado and papaya salad all came so quickly I couldn’t keep track of what I was eating. Two hours later, when the crowd dispersed and the restaurant went into siesta mode, we finished off a dish of coffee flan, a dessert my mother would’ve swooned over.

José Enrique, of course, has branched out, and has a restaurant in El Blok inn in Vieques, the North Fork of Puerto Rico. After three days in busy metro San Juan, I took a bumpy 20-minute flight to the island on an aging eight-seater Cessna. But once I landed, I found an understated iteration of the capital’s luxurious digs paired with its madcap experimental artistic sensibility.

Vieques has gone from military testing site to Fantasy Island, with locals living simply, tourists lounging on sparsely populated beaches and wild horses grazing on lush farms. Small planes land every day on the hour, flying in supplies, groceries and tourists from the Puerto Rican mainland seven miles away.

The taxi van that I took from the airport traveled a two-lane road of hairpin turns, passing horse stables and farms, brightly colored cinder block and wood-framed homes, new large houses on sloping lawns and hillside mansions fronting the sea. Many of those are owned or rented by seasonal visitors like the New Yorkers and New Englanders who make up a sizable number of Vieques regulars.

But no structure was more striking than El Blok, a new inn set back on a corner lot of the malecon in Esperanza, a seafront strip of quaint restaurants and stores. An exotic oddity with a round cast-iron and concrete facade, sculptural perforations and open floors, El Blok is so unusual I could hardly find the front door. Up a flight of stairs, Justin, a friendly young manager wearing an El Blok T-shirt, offered to take me on a tour. He started by saying that El Blok, which opened in August 2014, is LEED-Gold certified. The rooms are furnished plainly, though in a concession to comfort, they do have flat-screen TVs. The second-floor communal lobby is open to wind, sun and rain and furnished in handmade wooden chairs and tables and a few works of art. Splashes of color and flowering greenery break the gray monotone of polished plaster.

Standing in the bar-restaurant area, El Blok’s co-owner, Simon Baeyertz, a dashing New Zealander and longtime record industry executive, explained his reasoning for opening an upscale hotel there. Though he and his co-owners, all English, received tax credits from the Puerto Rican government as well as certain tax exemptions and other incentives, he later wrote in an email, that wasn’t the sole reason.

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