Via Libertad, agent of rebirth or lame gentrifier?

 

 

         Astute observers of urban milieus, be they dilettantes or professional urbanists, can’t have failed to noticed the proliferation in the past few years of a specific trope which could be described as a haute bourgeois mutation of the classic suburban strip mall, within whose confines are found, say, a collection of boutiques, a variety of vendors hawking whichever foods are currently the “hotness” (Korean tacos, pork belly bao, fried ants), and a couple of expiatory temples of self-flagellation (pilates, yoga, weight-lifting), all unified by a shared design aesthetic.  The three-building Via Libertad complex in Guadalajara - composed of Torre Libertad, ala Libertad and Mercado Mexico - could be said to be of this ilk. 

         In the 1970s, barrio Colonia Americana, a lightly scuffed but friendly center of bohemian activity east of Avenida Chapultepec, was home to what was then Guadalajara’s second tallest building, a slender structure dubbed Torre de la Paz after the thoroughfare that it looked down upon to the south. 

At that time, Torre de la Paz was home to various medical practices (dentist offices, private medical practices, and the like) and its surrounding grounds were a popular meeting place for the community.  Then, in 1988 the patriarch of the family that owned the property died.  Several years later, his children sold the property to Creaste, a development firm with an eye towards re-conceiving the complex as a center of social life lubricated by food, drinks and acquisition of consumer goods.  Two years ago, with the help of Guadalajara-based architectural firm SPRB, the renovation and re-imagination of this formerly utilitarian aggregation was complete.  The two firms had high hopes for Via Libertad’s potential ability to inject a fresh economic vitality into the neighborhood. 

         By that measure, the two-year-old Via Libertad has been a success, helping to attract a well-heeled, young and hip breed of creative professionals to live and work in La Colonia and specifically inside Torre de la Paz, given a facelift and re-christened Torre Libertad.  At least, that was the sunny appraisal offered by Andres Sanchez, the affable, urbane young man who manages the property.  

         “Everyone is happy,” he told the Reporter with a grin.  “It’s a meeting point for the community in La Colonia.  And people from other parts of Guadalajara have started coming here, too - from Providencia and Puerto Hierro [two upscale neighborhoods to the northwest of the city], for example.”

         Sanchez attributed this success to the approach the two aforementioned commercial entities adopted when conceiving of and executing the center’s transformation.

         “Instead of tearing everything down and building something ugly and monstrous in its place, they respected [the location’s history],” Sanchez observed.    

 

         Guadalajara is no stranger to indoor marketplaces where you can shop and be fed; its centro historico hosts two squat, massive buildings (Mercado Corona, est. 1891, and Mercado San Juan de Dios, est. 1958) where the surrounding community can eat lunch, breakfast or dinner and browse an endless phalanx of backpacks, sunglasses, artificial flowers, shoes, t-shirts, barks, salves and exotic birds, to name just a small fraction of what these warhorses have to offer.

         But where your typical indoor market in Guadalajara trades in the sheer quantity of its comestibles, the majority of which are Mexican, Mercado Mexico offers variety.  Examples of this diversity include an eatery offering east Asian greatest hits (pork bao, ramen, chow mein), a gyro shop, and a pastry spot purporting to represent “hedonism and the cult of the donut”.  Pizza, charcuterie, pasta, roast meats, sushi, Danish confectionaries...they even throw Mexico a bone in the form of a cevicheria and a joint specializing in carne en su jugo.    

 

         However, the Mercado’s internationalist aim, while noble, needs a little fine-tuning in order to guide its arrow closer to the bullseye of successful culinary execution.  The gyro was underdressed and dry, its meat chewy (the absence of a vertical rotisserie was telling); the pork bao was overly sweet, probably due to an excess of corn starch, and the ceviche was slathered with a spicy house mayonnaise that drowned out whatever flavor the octopus, shrimp and fish might have once possessed.  On the other hand, great coffee is made at a little shop at the base of the Torre de Libertad by a very serious man clad mainly in denim, and a negroni made with mescal, fashioned at the site of the mayonnaise incident, was well-balanced, smoky and cold.

         Across the courtyard from the Mercado, ala Libertad beckons with an odd array of goods and services: an “urban bike gallery”, a barber shop, and a jewelry shop; a pet store, an art gallery, and a toy story that promises “more than just toys”; a yoga studio, a boxing gym with exquisitely stitched black punching bags, and a small Asian market.  The possible permutations created from such a wide array of choices for an afternoon’s divertissement dazzle the mind.   

 

         Occupying the courtyard on Sundays is a small market trafficking in crafts and packaged artisanal food stuffs. The courtyard itself, when not invaded by said mercantile hullabaloo, also functions on occasion as a space for live music.  In addition, variously-themed bazaars are installed in a large shaded nook at the western extremity of ala Libertad, offering everything from puppies to potted plants.   

         Above it all soars the serene, impeccable Torre Libertad like a bleached accordion set on end and stretched to its limit, the omnipresent symbol of the Via Libertad’s upscale ambitions, stretching high enough perhaps to descry through the golden haze and heat distortion of a Guadalajaran afternoon the bulky forms of Mercados La Corona and San Juan de Dios, where despite the lack of a professional mustache landscaper or imported ham you’re sure to be provided with a well-made taco al pastor. 

         That may seem like damning criticism, but places like Via Libertad, while very handsome and having (presumably) honorable intentions, often let substance stumble into a ditch while distracted by style.  It’s important to point out when the emperor has no clothes.  Via Libertad isn’t entirely nude (good coffee, cocktails, helpful staff), but its toga could use a little tightening.

To view the article in the Guadalajara's website, click here.

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