Today we had the pleasure of starting our morning off with a tour of Plaza del Mercado and the area surrounding the University of Puerto Rico: Rio Piedras by Profesora Lidia Marte. Profesora Martes and her colleague, Profesor Carlos Guilbe, walked us around the area of Rio Piedras explaining that in the 1980s the area was developed with the intent of being a university-centered town. Thus, many small restaurants and businesses were established and filled the streets surrounding the university. However, although there are dorms for those students who desire the experience of on-campus-like living, in more recent years there has been a greater proportion of students commuting to the school from surrounding suburban areas. Interestingly enough, and somewhat serving as a plausible explanation for the increase in commuters, the island has a presence of more cars than it does people. So, students tend to travel to the campus by car or by way of the Tren Urbano, which is San Juan’s rail transit line.
Walking through the streets of the area surrounding the Rio Piedras campus today gives a much different view than what was intended by landscapers in the 1980s. Many of the small businesses and restaurants cease to exist, making the area one more similar to that of a “ghost town.” There are more of what Profesor Guilbe describes to be establishments selling “low order goods,” such as small scale clothing stores or stores selling a random variety of items like uniforms for youth and various household supplies (soap, hairbrushes, etc)–mainly all items made outside of Puerto Rico. A little further down the main strip more people come into view, a long with the presence of fast food restaurants like Subway and Burger King (which we have seen a great deal of throughout our journey around the island), apparel stores such as Rainbow and Foot Locker, and more small businesses bringing in revenue from electronics like TVs and cellphones. These stores are in closer proximity to the Plaza del Mercado, our main point of interest as it is a large indoor market where vendors sell produce, meat,and prepared food (mostly that of the traditional Puerto Rican diet), in addition to dietary pills, juices, lottery tickets, and electronics accessories to the community. We were told that the consumer population of the market primarily consists of women within the local area who come to purchase produce. Additionally, we saw what was mostly an older population dining in the prepared foods section.
The produce section of Plaza del Mercado can easily be described as a market filled with native and non-native vendors who serve a more intermediary purpose, as opposed to the direct role linking producer to consumer. These vendors tend to purchase their produce from larger supermarkets, Costco, Sam’s Club, or Walmart, and resell food to the consumers who visit the market. It is not uncommon to come across a vendor who does not know where the produce was grown, although there were some vendors who were able to tell us that about half of their produce was grown in Puerto Rico and the rest from countries such as Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Professors Guilbe and Martes describe this aspect of Plaza del Mercado as an accurate reflection of the city of Rio Piedras, and the island of Puerto Rico itself, in that people more often than not are uncertain of where their food comes from. It is important to remember that the island is primarily dependent upon imported goods, as described in previous posts.
Being a student interested in the food policy sector of public health, one particular thing I found to be worth mentioning is the idea that the vendors in the market only accept cash. This exclusivity of payment prohibits food stamp recipients from using their benefits in a marketplace such as this one to buy fresh produce. Tomorrow we will be engaging in a lecture on the Food Stamp Program, so it will be interesting to see where food stamp recipients can go to purchase fresh produce from places other than traditional supermarkets.
It was quite interesting to see such a gorgeous, open campus filled with plenty of students making their way to class in the bright warm sun or relaxing outdoors between classes underneath the amazing Arabic-style archways just steps away from what was left of the dozens of small business spaces that relocated. During our walk through the area, no people appearing to be affiliated with the university were present. Moreover, this population was not present in the Plaza either. The UPR professors explained to us that in order for integration to occur between local and university life in this “ghost town” is to bring people in by increasing the area’s walkability, while lessening the appearance of cars. They are undoubtedly hopeful that with the recent openings of small office buildings and other businesses, such as small music cafes, life will indeed be brought back to what was once a university-centered town. It will be interesting to see how the landscape of the area affects the dynamic between the Plaza del Mercado, the university, and the surrounding area in the future.