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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 178-179

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Book Review

Los años del cambio:
Historia urbana de Bogotá: 1820-1910

Los años del cambio: Historia urbana de Bogotá: 1820-1910. 2 d ed. By Germán Rodrigo Mejía Pavony. Bogotá: Centro Editorial Javeriana, 2000 . Photographs. Illustrations. Maps. Tables. Figures. Bibliography. Paper. 498 pp.

In Los años del cambio, Germán Mejía provides a study of structural, demographic, and social change in Colombia's capital city during the nineteenth century, based substantially on foreign travelers' accounts, city almanacs, census data, and local government reports. He argues that, while Bogotá changed little in physical appearance during the nineteenth century, important qualitative changes occurred, particularly in the second half of the century. Accordingly, he denies that Bogotá's development as a modern city began only in the twentieth century.

Bogotá was in some ways rather similar from the colonial period until at least the latter part of the nineteenth century. The total space occupied by the city changed little during the greater part of the century, though over time urban gardens became filled in with construction. Streets remained narrow, and uncovered channels running through the center of the streets carried away waste with only partial success. The larger homes were constructed around patios, with an inward focus; much of the street front of many two-story homes or other buildings was occupied by small shops that had no connection to the interiors of the structures.

While noting such physical continuities, Mejía argues that significant changes occurred, particularly from the late 1850 s onward. The city population tripled between 1870 and 1912 . Mejía attributes this population growth to rural-urban migration; his data on eighteen of the years between 1849 and 1910 seem to support this, as in these years births outnumbered deaths in Bogotá by only 16 .6 percent. (This is my calculation from his data.) After 1860 population growth outstripped housing construction; the poor increasingly crowded into cramped living spaces, often one- or two-room windowless shops, which came to be called casitiendas. By 1867 such shop-homes were as numerous as independent houses. As of 1907 , 39 percent of Bogotá's residences were tiendas de habitación. The poor living in such circumstances depended on public fountains for water and disposed off their waste, human and otherwise, in the streets. Mejía concludes that urban density and crowding became acute in the late 1870 s and 1880 s; by 1907 the crowding appears to have been alleviated.

This is the central, the most important, theme of the book. But there is much more in it. In the book's seven chapters, which Mejía chooses to call lecturas, he describes the city's relationship to its natural surroundings, its transportation connections, [End Page 178] and various urban transformations. Plazas became parks; after 1870 sewage canals began to be covered; in the 1880 s electric lighting arrived as did horse-drawn trams. Churches continued to dominate the urban scene for much of the century, as its few imposing public buildings were long delayed in construction (the Capitolio from 1847 to the 1880 s; the Panóptico prison from the 1870 s to the 1890 s). Industrial plants, most notably the Bavaria brewery, began to become a visible presence, particularly after 1880 .

This book is usefully informative. It seems particularly convincing on the subject of late nineteenth-century crowding. However, I do have some quibbles. The author accepts as valid a published figure of 52 ,393 for Bogotá in 1848 , even though in the census of 1843 its population was only 40 ,086 , and there is no known census data to support the 1848 figure. Accordingly, he accepts as real a population drop of 17 percent between 1848 and 1851 , without giving any explanation why such a sharp decline might have occurred. Similarly he treats as a datum an 1898 figure of uncertain origins.

In his final chapter, Mejía presents a portrait of popular social and cultural ideas in nineteenth-century...


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