Puerto Rico builds a train in the sky

ALEX MARSHALL
Metropolis Magazine
October 2001

The startling truth about San Juan, a metropolitan area of 1.4 million people in Puerto Rico, is that most of it looks like New Jersey. It is a landscape of ugly roadways lined with strip malls, American franchise restaurants, and glass office towers overlooking impenetrable limited-access highways. Sure, there is Old San Juan, the sixteenth-century fortified city with its tiny cobblestone streets. But that citadel of the picturesque, which sits on a point of land in the harbor, is a tiny speck in San Juan’s overall breadth. The bulk of the city was developed after World War II, when tax breaks and other incentive programs brought in industry. And in good postwar fashion, American and Puerto Rican engineers and urban planners heavily promoted the highway as the proper spine for development.

In Cairo: A Mega City Confronts its Challenges

With the Middle East’s martial concerns filling the news, it was a change of pace this month to visit the region’s biggest city, Cairo, and examine more quotidian concerns, namely its urban planning policies and problems.

With approximately 18 million people (estimates vary), Cairo can be seen as both a problem and a solution to the challenges of a developing country. Cairo is, in one analyst’s term, a “Mega-city” – a huge, expanding cloud of population, much of it poor, that by some estimates is adding 1.25 million people a year. Where all these people live, how to give them water, dispose of their waste, and allow them to travel, are the central questions. The challenges of Cairo are, in a word, infrastructure.

A Glimpse of Cuba in 1988

It was lunch hour inside the Ministry of Commerce in old Havana. In a small cafeteria, in a building that dated back to the 1800s, workers ate baked fish, rice and beans, soup, salad and cake, off white dishes on tin trays. They washed down the food and cut the sweltering heat with cold water from sweating metal pitchers placed on each of the 20 tables. Like many of the basics in contemporary Cuba, the meal was subsidized and cost each employee only a few cents.

A clerk there, a 58-year-old man with crooked teeth and thinning hair, spoke about why life was better, now that a Communist government ruled his country.