Revitalizing Old Market Spaces: León, Guanajuato Mexico

It is argued that public space is diminishing in the city; that governments do not have the money to plan and design the beautiful spaces and boulevards of old. Instead, private money is increasingly being relied on to create these spaces, especially in urban centers. Rather than designing for the users in mind they are being designed as marketing spaces. Spaces that just look good, but don’t feel good.

This made me think of a place where I spent part of my childhood. In the city of Leon, Guanajuato in Mexico there was an old market place that occupied an entire street block with houses on either side for sixty years. It began in the 1960s and continued to flourish in the ’70s and ’80s. The market, officially named Market Revolution, but called by the locals “las covachas,” which I just learned means small cave, was not just a place for the surrounding communities to buy meat, fruits and vegetables. Rather, it was a gathering place for people to come together and socialize. It was a central hub and what I believe gave the community its identity. My grandmother who lived on one side of the market went out daily to buy groceries. Most families do not go to huge grocery stores like we do; they buy fresh groceries every day. She also enjoyed visiting friends who lived in the area and the vendors. Everyone knew everyone else so of course there was daily gossip to catch up on. I remember being sent out almost every day to buy freshly made tortillas around the corner – just enough for that day’s meal. Or to one of the local “tienditas”, or small stores, to buy a liter of coke for everyone coming over to eat. I remember the sound of the butcher shop cutting up meat, juice being freshly made, and the smell of menudo. The kids that played right outside my grandma’s house would kick the ball into the wall and wake us up early in the morning. I also remember playing with the kids that lived in the area at night. Everyone gathered near the front of the market where my uncle and my grandfather before him sold birria, a spicy mexican meat stew made with goat. We would play all sorts of games like tag and run through the market. It was an old, dirty place, but every time I went back it felt like I were home; a feeling that I have never felt anywhere in the U.S.

It lasted sixty years and in October of 2009 they demolished it and constructed a new market on one side of the street of where the old market used to stand, leaving the street desolate and unattractive. While they were constructing, all the merchants were forced to take a vacation, and many of the residents had to move out – permanently. Part of the new building for the new market would be over my grandmother’s house. The old house where I spent many years and made great memories as a child was demolished. The old market had many problems that both the vendors and residents had wanted to solve for years. The new market cost 33 million pesos, approximately 2.4 million dollars, and was part of a program that the state governor, Juan Manuel Oliva Ramirez, implemented called “Mi Plaza”, or my plaza. This program allocated more than 110 million pesos or 8.2 million dollars to modernize 53 popular markets throughout the state. At the opening of the new Market Revolution he stated that this new development would be a modern and competitive place of commerce.

Now, I’m not one to argue against revitalization. I commend the government’s efforts because the old market had a lot of problems; problems that I was never aware of, but problems nonetheless. I just don’t think the end solution was the best solution. I went back to visit during Christmas last year, a year after the new market opened, and I was distraught at what I saw. It was ugly, just plain ugly. The new market was just a big box building with every vendor placed next to each other in rows inside. It wasn’t even an open market. The vendors were each in smaller spaces that they could close. I am sure that solved a lot of issues with theft, but it just didn’t feel right. They also left the street where the old market was empty and did not even fix it. If it functioned the way it was supposed to then I wouldn’t criticize, but it doesn’t. Not every space inside the new building was even occupied. There were tons of vendors before. Where did everyone go? It was pretty empty inside. This new place was not thriving like the old place did. There was no hustle and bustle. No kids running and playing around. It was not the busy, social, uniquely charming place that the old market was. I don’t know who designed this space, if it was even “designed” but, I do not think their idea of modernization and revitalization worked. It seems to me as if whomever planned this had never been there; never walked through the old market to see how the place worked. or how the community interacted with it; how the users felt about this unique place. I feel like the community lost a big part of their identity. And sadly they are doing the same thing to old markets all over the state.


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  1. This sounds like a classic example of broad governmental intervention taking a stamp and replicating it in multiple places when the situations are not identical. On one hand, you can’t blame the government for recognizing some problems and taking action to preserve and enhance such a culturally-rich aspect of a community. But on the other hand, it is projects like these that require a lot of research and specialized design to not debase the initial integrity of the market.

  2. Aw, this was a really nice post.

    1. Thank you for reading!

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