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Urban Development, Public Health, and the Environment: A Historical Case Study in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Possibilities for the Future

Essays and Interviews
Ann Zulawski

A number of years ago, while I was researching the history of public health in the Archivo General de Puerto Rico in the section of the city of San Juan known as Puerta de Tierra, the windshield of our rental car was shattered. The damage was the result of a falling coconut. When I called the rental company, however, the representative immediately assumed the damage had been caused by vandalism and asked me what I was doing in a bad neighborhood like Puerta de Tierra. A good deal of the area’s unsavory reputation comes from problems related to drugs and crime that emerged in some of the zone’s housing projects in the 1980s, but the neighborhood’s stigmatization has a longer history. At the time of the windshield incident, I had already found many documents in the archive dating back to the nineteenth century that discussed disease, inadequate housing, environmental challenges, and the poverty of the zone’s inhabitants. However, with the coconut incident, I began to consider Puerta de Tierra’s pres- ent and future, as well as its past. My gaze shifted from more general work on public health to an examination of the neighborhood where I spent my days. 

This article is the result of that effort. It examines the historical origins of the neighborhood’s reputation for poor hygiene, disease, and environmental degradation and places that story in the context of Puerto Rico’s development programs since the 1940s.