Warning: this article proposes a narrative according to the route taken from one side to the other of the wall, from the predictable to the most unpredictable. To better situate ourselves, the narrative will be told through my personal experience.
“Do you know the wall that divides the rich from the poor?,” asked three Greek travelers who, after visiting the “pretty” side of Lima, suspected that something was hiding behind appearances. But, “how is it that from, even though you’re from the other side of the world, you knew about the wall?” Well, news travels. And “why is this wall something that has to be seen in our city?” if it’s not a cause for pride. I knew exactly what they were talking about. I spelled it out: the wall of shame. Certainly, I wasn’t familiar with it in situ either, since I hadn’t left my urban bubble, like many of those who live in these parts, so with the same curiosity, as a tourist of my own city, we made our way.
From this side—the most urbanized—at some point you can see the extensive wall in the distance: high, white, and as impenetrable as it is imposing. In the area of Las Casuarinas (Surco) and part of La Molina hides San Juan de Miraflores (SJM), which is just next to the wall. But we couldn’t even imagine the universe behind it. The best way is to see it from the other side, we were advised.
Starting the trip, by electric train, from north to south, going from the most formal part of central Lima to the most informal there is a very strong contrast. The solid and well-designed houses begin to disintegrate to a minimum, from concrete to ground. When arriving at SJM, we take a taxi to Pamplona Alta, a neighborhood that borders the wall. We feel a sense of light fear of the unknown. As the car was traveling along a dirt road and getting further into the neighborhood, we suddenly began to be surrounded by hills, more than in other parts of the city, with seas of colorful houses. Then, without realizing it, we were literally at the center of the problem.
You don’t know if you should be outraged or astounded. It is definitely an overwhelming landscape and, maybe even beautiful? There’s so much poverty that in its sincerely exposed vulnerability it challenges the concept of beauty.
At the end of the dirt road, there is a cemetery that is integrated into the landscape, with niches in the shape of miniature houses. You arrive at the point in which the car can climb and then you go on foot. We reach a platform of land where there is a soccer field, some shops next to a local restaurant, and a small library under construction with plastic bottles. There is an evident lack of amenities and public space.
We get out of the taxi, and the taxi driver becomes our guide. It’s common knowledge. Climbing those steep blue stairs to the sky of approximately 12 floors requires pauses of reflection. As you go up, you notice the needs of the place more and more, and when you reach the top, you can appreciate it all. All that you had read or seen was there, and more. First, you collide with the wall, then you notice an expected contrast, and then you turn around to look at what you have gone through and you stay there as if time had stopped, with this side, at your side: because simplicity captures the view that is invaded by pure life.
“When they say that Lima has around ten million inhabitants, I couldn’t believe it, but now I understand. Many live in the hills,” said one of the Greek visitors, astonished in front of ‘Vista Hermosa’ (Beautiful View), as the name of the place highlights.
Duality: Rich and Poor
“You live on the other side? And what’s over there? … and there?” And you find out that many have never crossed over to the other side, nor do they have the interest to do so.
Finally, the wall is in front of you, and suddenly there is that moment when you realize that Lima is divided in two. And you belong either way, to one side or the other. Immediately you become a part of “those on the other side” and everything that that imaginary entails. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.
Before your eyes, there is a strong division between rich and poor, but that doesn’t only include the close opposites (Casuarinas and the ruined houses) but also, the formal and the informal. And that the other side of white purity, at times, could also mean power and control that distances itself from color and spontaneity. It is the rigid side separated from the organic side. The hill itself is the only thing they have in common without being really shared. The wall is kilometers away from the rich for whom the hill is intact, while for the poor the hill is completely invaded after a few steps. The houses are “mansion” style and vary from 1000 to 3000 m2, while the “huts” style dwelling are on average 15 m2. Other figures indicate that San Juan de Miraflores, in the district of Pamplona Alta, is the second least safe neighborhood in Lima, according to the NGO Ciudad Nuestra. On the other hand, Surco, in the district of Las Casuarinas, is the fourth safest neighborhood in Lima.
The first thing we see from above is a contiguous urbanization: Las Casuarinas, which was created in the 1950s, is one of the most luxurious areas of Lima with one of the most privileged views of the capital. It is highly sheltered. At its limit towards the slope of the hill is this wall, while at the entrance of said urbanization, there is a fence. So exclusive is the area that they ask for identification when entering (which is alright) but the problem is when they bother you and question you. I remember it perfectly. I went to investigate one of the huge houses with a large garden and swimming pool, and the security guard was not satisfied with my ID. He asked me to get out of the car and tell another guard what I was planning to do in there. Perhaps it’s best to get past this wall.
What is life like on the other side of the wall?
I would like to be able to see the whole landscape that the wall covers, even though what can be seen is beautiful. By living on top of the hill, we would like to be able to choose what we see and what not to see…
The children complain, although they are afraid of those that have told them what there is on the other side. It even seems true. The children place stones in the manner of a ladder to climb the wall and look over to the other side, but their sight has nothing more to envy than the sea.
In this way of life you need to get the most out of the least. Pamplona Alta is a settlement, an informal neighborhood built through encroachment on the land, with little resources, and without any form of urban planning. Life is communal, immigrants from other parts of the country coexist and are integrated and supported by their neighbors. The people here are workers, many share personal anecdotes of the trajines at dawn when they wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning to leave to be on time on the other side of the wall.
The houses are made of mats, tiles, plywood, wood, plastic and all kinds of recycled materials. They sit on sloping terrains with tires, sacks of compacted earth and stones, as this is the fastest and most economical way to fill and create platforms. “There is no water. We got electricity just a few months ago,” because until recently, there were no services.
The interesting thing about the way of life here and which perhaps resonates most with the residents is its location with respect to the wall, as a limit of arrival or departure, where spaces are integrated between the wall and the housing units, or where the house supports one of its own walls to this bigger wall. On the other hand, all the houses, with their few constructive elements, have spaces to sit and talk in the shade—whether created by steps, a terrace or a “roof” they are spontaneous spaces for coexistence.
Thus, the inhabitants of these informal settlements do not build walls, but rather open them to the street. Despite invading in an unplanned way, they have the wisdom of what it is to interact with neighbors, that gregarious feeling of a city. This is nothing new, it happens in the periphery of Lima and in other Latin American cities, and we carry on without really seeing them. But what is surprising is the peace and tranquility that is breathed here, in spite of its reputation of crime and danger.
It is worthy of recognition that on this entire side of the wall to which we turn our backs away from the formal Lima, this place has so much to teach us about the city, yet we would rather hide it instead of tackling the problem; we evade it. There is a basic need for decent housing and everything necessary for a neighborhood to coexist.
What’s it like?
A snake shape. It is almost three meters in height, and approximately 10 km in length. It’s a concrete wall with barbed wire. It is white on the outside and colored on the inside. (Seeing it from the side where we are standing). While on the other side, this wall is as clean as possible; this side has colored parts that identify the neighbors or some interventions made by artists or different collectives together with local children and young volunteers who express some message of union. Others like the Muralist Brigade, paint landscapes and skies as a way to cross over the wall using art, and others, like Poetic Action, break barriers with poetry.
“Hands and hearts to paint this wall of shame.” The brigade, along with other groups, made this call to color the concrete-imposed border.
Only three years ago there were posters on the wall that warned against any attempt to cross to the other side: “Entrance prohibited. Order to shoot.” It is an impenetrable wall, but there is an exception: a small door that remains closed from dusk to dawn, and is open during the day under the control of a guard who permits entrance with ID for those who work at La Molina as guards, domestic employees, gardeners, etc. And if it wasn’t for this pass, which allows them to travel quickly in just minutes, they would have to make the full trip, which would take almost three hours. It is an insufficient connection attempt …
Despite being located side by side, this wall accentuates a non-physical distance, which creates a gap, an urban void, for those who should also have the opportunity to directly access everything that the other part of the city offers.
Why does it exist?
There are many versions that derive from the situations that our country has gone through and directly affected the area: providing security in the face of violence and crime, preventing more invasions on the hill from one side to another, hiding the “huts” from view, differentiating social classes, perhaps an act of discrimination, etc. For others, the cause is simple: a notable and widespread absence of urban planning in the city.
“More than half of the urbanizations in Lima have emerged from land trafficking and invasions,” explains urban planner Pablo Vega Centeno, who also says that the construction of walls like this occurs because of the need to mark social differences with physical elements. “It is the fear of social closeness. By asserting much of our internal security we follow a logic of fear of the outside, of exclusion, in almost all Latin America”.
The Pamplona Alta area began to be invaded in the 1970s, says Diana Rivas, an anthropologist who wrote a thesis on the wall. At that time the invasions increased due to the massive arrival of immigrants from rural areas that were fleeing from the misery created by the crisis that the country was going through as well as the violence from the internal conflict caused by Shining Path guerrillas. That is how the physical origin of the wall came about when an emblematic private Jesuit school, encircled the perimeter of the school to, among other things, prevent neighbors from stealing the products of their gardens.
It was in the 1980s that the wall began to be erected, during the era of terrorism and the advance of invasions in Peru, as a measure of prevention and security in the face of an atmosphere of violence, crime and fear.
Little by little the wall expanded and its construction advanced as did the invasions along the hill, extending towards the west of the city. In recent years, another stretch was made around 2011, with the emergence of the Fronteras Unidas (United Frontiers) settlement; finally, the last section of the wall was erected 3 years ago in front of the Vista Hermosa settlement. It took months to build.
While the invasions increase, the wall is extended to prevent them – or avoid them – with a tone of resignation and habit as the result of an initial security situation. But today it would be worth rethinking.
This wall contains contrasts and paradoxes. One of these paradoxes is that the same neighbors who live in precariousness are also hired to build the wall that separates them. They take advantage of any work that they can get as an opportunity.
Despite some obvious reasons, we keep asking ourselves why it still exists today.
Today, the wall represents several things: fear, security, a solution, disconnection, distance, isolation, inequality, frustration, discomfort, excess, conformism, resignation, segregation, peace, chaos … there are as many interpretations as there are people and their freedom of expression.
“There is a difference in the perception of the wall,” says Pedro Elías, a community psychologist at Ayni Peru Educación Alternativa, an association that has built a small school there. During the construction process he noticed the different perspectives: for the children it’s like a game or something anecdotal, or they even believe that it’s to avoid invasions from the other side; the parents are more resentful about it, because many feel unequal and isolated. For others, it is ironic, but in the sense that they feel that they are disturbing each other from one side to the other. These people have come to accept that the wall is a “symbol of peace to resolve conflicts” and thus they avoid relating to, or having problems due to their very different ways of thinking. Finally, there are those who find it normal, because it has been there since before they arrived and they don’t know what it was like without the barrier. In the eyes of many of those who live here or visit the place, the wall is a symbol of social inequality in the country.
“When I saw it, it created a sense of sadness, dissatisfaction, an accumulated rage to know that the people of Lima, Peruvians, are putting up walls in places where we should be shaking hands.” – Ayni
Mental limitations are stronger than physical limitations
Behind this physical wall, there is a stronger wall still: the closed mind. It is alarming that after so many years of evolution where walls have been diminished, that the easy solutions exist, like that of placing or maintaining a wall and conveniently forgetting about the real problem, and even worse, creating other problems around this division/barrier/limit. Urban segregation. Whatever we choose to call it, in the end, it is a shame. Apart from the distances, today we have to witness this situation, our wall and the Trump wall, but the main wall that must be thrown down is the wall of indifference and social injustice; it is precisely there that architecture plays its most important role: to give human lives the spaces and dignity that has been conquered throughout history.
What alternatives does architecture offer us against this? On this side of the wall, informal and spontaneous growth is the unpredictable aspect, because nobody knows how it will end up being, how it will continue to grow, as the invasions continue and continue into the future until we address them with greater urban planning … but, as architects, on which side of the wall are we? Or rather, how do we eradicate walls and instead connect with public space, outline subtle permeable boundaries, and dilute barriers with art. It is complex, but we can address the issue very carefully and find other, more inclusive solutions that benefit both parties as one.
We return to the formalities, back to our side a little dizzy and intoxicated from the pure, and hard reality. Back on the other side of the wall you realize that the poor side is actually the one that decides to turn its back on the informal settlements; they are poor in mind, in solutions and they have impoverished souls. The other side of the wall has the richness of living together in community.
Note: If you have been left wanting to demolish walls for peace, you have understood the background of this story-journey.
Photo credit:Orestis Karagiannis, Henry Cárdenas, Juan Caycho