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120 cm

El ancho de la piel

To touch is to be touched. Of the resources with which we try to give meaning to our presence, at least in the realm of the primordial, the skin is the organ through which we seek to shape the immediate from our own. There is no other space as instrumental within the city grid as the sidewalk; in which and from which it is possible to conjure the materiality of the lived city, poured around almost every block of the central area of San José (1). Unlike the boulevards, more subtle, ephemeral and emphatic phenomena are manifested on the sidewalk. And although considering the city as a social category is dangerous (2), at least for this exercise in questioning, it is worth working from such an intimate metonymy.

Despite being appreciated for that intentional character of free access without express or implicit permission, the public is probably one of the most politically difficult terms to define: on this concept the very principle of cities imposes itself, its genesis is in the conflict, that is to say, in the recognition of the constant overlapping of functions: a space is public as soon as it is taken to be public. Notwithstanding the sense of collective appropriation with which they are dressed in the eyes of citizenship, there is no space produced that does not list its ‘who’ in the practices and behaviours that delimit it. Although in the first instance we suspect these norms to be implicit, as law they are channelled under construction codes and police regulations (because after the French revolution, the police plots mutated from the care to the control of their people).


sensorial base

“Certainly, without touch, I would always have thought of smells, tastes, colours and sounds as my own; I would never believe that there are smelling, sounding, colouring or tasty bodies” Condillac (1982).

Reiterating Mitchell (2003) the space is not public, it is taken to be public and this taking is not only semantic, but also physical, because on this skin the passerby recognizes the conflict, the frictions that constantly overlap on it, and in this touch, he practices his citizenship: the materiality of its porous diversity; a society in practice impossible to notice behind a windshield.

Based on the approximate data provided by the Municipal Observatory of San José, the four central districts add up to an area of 2.2 km2 of sidewalks against the 9.5 km2 of the total area; the traditional central area, of 6.2 km2, would have 1.4 km2 of sidewalks, while our study area of 1.87 km2, with 0.4 km2. (3) The latter alone could accommodate about 100 Plazas de la Cultura.


Although the study area does not officially exist, it is located within the traditional Central District of San José.

According to the “Report presented by the Commission appointed by the Junta de Caridad in 1869, to carry out the construction of sidewalks and planting of trees in the street that connects the City of San José with the General Pantheon, 1874”, 334 meters of sidewalk would have cost about 18.5 million colones in 2015, a project that under the current regulations would cost 13.5 million colones. Without going into details about the technology, raw materials or process optimization, it is evident the decrease over time in construction costs, although its technical specifications are more complex (law 7600).

Returning to Lefebvre’s logic of space, for what purpose is a space of such large dimensions and such cost built, what would be its productive function, and who does it serve? In the urban development regulations of the canton of San José, the sidewalk is considered part of the right of way: “the total width of the road, street, path, or easement, that is, the distance between property lines including the roadway, sidewalks, and green strips. It is assumed that its main purpose is to enable the fluid transit of pedestrians, hence all its regulations are justified primarily under this principle. Activities that contribute to economic vitality are privileged, defined by the appreciation of property or its tax returns and everything that should be defined as unproductive, morally or economically, is sanctioned as an anomaly, that is, all those events that make traffic impossible, break behaviours such as the rule of civil anonymity of Goffman (1980) or propitiate the disorder or deterioration of the conditions of coexistence.

The interpretation of what is sanctionable as morally or economically improper can degenerate into practices of structural gentrification, in the execution of order under excluding moral definitions, the machinery of labelling social groups and gender blackmail. Following Gramsci’s concept of common sense, all of the above implies the fabrication of reductionisms in the face of complex problems such as insecurity, indigence, and labour and commercial informality, from a biased ideological range. The free practice of citizenship that is expected to be facilitated by the public space, is finally governed by policies in line with certain hygienist intelligentsia, homogeneous and coercive, which, as Florencia Quesada analyzes, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, marked a period of segregation and social control in San José, presenting to the world and a certain sector of the national historical imaginary a biased image of progress, in which the population itself was unrecognizable.

In the first instance, what we categorize as incivility is part of a narrative of risk for a largely fictional “everyone”, that which is argued from the insecurity perceived in crime rates, which invokes not only active self-regulation and seclusion, the intimate apartheid that is projected onto human groups stigmatized as socio-economic burdens: children, migrants, sexual minorities, etc. To a great extent, order is defined as the clamour not to lose status (Kefalas, 2003), and for this, the creation of simple demographic filters, which do not take into consideration that perception is a complex product of individual experiences and relations, despite the drive to the homogeneity of life in collective.

Those who take the front page in the catalogue of anomalies are those in street conditions, which to a large extent is the result of insufficient institutional assistance to people with mental problems, in conditions of extreme poverty, addiction, abandonment, as well as the high cost of living, in particular residential rent. Decimated, by the annulment of its prescriptive articles in 1994 by the Constitutional Chamber, the Law of Vagrancy typified delinquents, in one of its primordial versions, those who “… without exercising an occupation or possessing goods or any income, live without being able to justify the licit and honest means by which they subsist”.

But “the criminal law of guilt pretends that criminal responsibility-as a whole-is directly related to the conduct of the active subject; one is responsible for what one did (for the action) and not for what one is. To punish man for what he is and not for what he did, breaks the fundamental principle of guarantee that criminal law should have in a democracy. Disregarding the right of every human being to choose how to be (abiding by the legal consequences, of course), and others who cannot choose to be as they are, is to ignore the social and human reality and basic principles of freedom”. (Ruling No. 07549 of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, December 22, 1994).

Despite the above, just as intimately and structurally there is an insistence on criminalizing poverty, in terms of space, street dwellers actively resent their existence, although this reveals a conflict of alternatives: public space cannot be denied to those who have no other option. Their visibility makes them uncomfortable because it highlights their shortcomings, those of those who avoid them, very much to the discredit of the welfare bubble, and resignifies the sidewalk as a stage of survival.

70 %
Food assistance
They go to eat at an assistance center
90 %
Consumption of drugs
Suffer from an addiction or are drug users
50 %
Family contact
They maintain contact with relatives

According to indigence data from 2013, Municipality of San José.

Which makes us wonder about those who take it to produce in the sabotage of the tax order: labour informality in its many forms (4), especially that which makes the public highway its stage, is usually the most debated when dealing with the sidewalk. It is only necessary to do a small documentary search on calle 8 and the ‘chinamos’, and the year 91 inaugurates for the recent history a pyre of conflicts until today. Despite the drama, this is perhaps one of the least understood points of friction on its broadest scale. Among those most affected are the less educated and those in the 15-24 and 60+ age brackets, and most likely women. Most striking, however, is the conclusion reached by researcher Francisco Delgado Jiménez of the Development Observatory, which is closely aligned with more recent OECD analyses, particularly those impacting low levels of financial inclusion:


informality factors

“… informal jobs are associated with little stability and also with underemployment of the labor force, which has negative effects both at the individual level (family decisions) and at the aggregate level (underutilization of productive factors). It is possible to infer that in periods when informality is reduced, the main cause is the general loss of jobs, and to a lesser extent other factors in the labor market. As jobs recover, an increase in informality is again observed.” (Delgado, 2013)

So it is not only a matter of forcing all subsistence activities towards formalization but of integrating them in a viable way into the lists of economic activities, restoring dignity to the minimum and closing loopholes of abuse, not only taxation but also those related, such as underemployment and labour exploitation, smuggling and other structures of organized crime.

Information layers

Information vectors

And what is to be done? It is easy to conjure up system vices, to enumerate programs and their results such as those of attention to indigence and drug addiction, citizen participation, the integral program for elderly people (PRIPAM), management of cantonal environmental quality and others committed to enforcing human rights with local gears, but why do these multiple focal initiatives seem like patches at the bottom of a basket? Is it the competence of local governments to provide solutions to problems that are so complex to articulate? Is it insufficient, not to say futile, to attribute to them the palliative attention of country-wide issues, the multi-institutional coordination of experimental niches without expanding on them, without expanding their causality to the gears of the central government and the idea of a nation? Would it not be more productive than to consider all of the above, not as isolated pathologies with geographic determinism, but as symptoms that are magnified by the continuous friction between so many actors in a space as limited as the centre of San José? Although it is not valid to be confused with the conflicts of proximity, at least in terms of informality, it is clear that there is a serious problem in the ability to ensure a minimum quality of life by our general economic policy and more to the reason in our financial culture, a sharp discord between our aspirations of consumption and our real capacity, manifested to the base
of our basic basket and puncturing the social welfare of the most vulnerable (no one chooses to throw himself into the street to bite garbage bags).

In a few blocks, on the very dermis of this area, it is possible to come into contact with a symptomatology in multiples of hundreds of the forms that survival takes, the reasons why as a species we take over a space: the immediate ones in line with necessity, the ruses of our financial formation and the facts-personal ones that hard approaches dismiss, i.e. the day to day behind the counter of a soda at the Meat Market, the logic of preferring a soda to an orange, what a person is exposed to when waiting for a bus on the public road, or details that reveal values such as the cordiality of those who pick up a fallen coat, give smiles without hypocrisy or give sincere thanks for trivial favours, and that despite the good intentions share a seat with the constant scourges revealed in morbid plots in trend and our racist bestiality.

Walking is simple, or so it seems to most of us, but walking is also to stumble, it is to appreciate politically the difference (Young, 1990), to act on it, to recognize the possibilities in the fatal of togetherness, the different temperatures of that skin of cement or granite of the skirts of the Central Volcanic Mountain Range. The proposal is to consider the 120 centimetres of the sidewalk as the space of opportunities in the friction of that lived diversity that runs through it, that is, to build a better connected, recognizable, respectful and continuous social map despite its conflictive variability; to admit that many of the forms of sabotage to the status are not whimsical uprisings to be extirpated but in themselves resources of last resort to supply the desires and needs that the order denies to many, either because it is complex, mean and excluding, or because much of what we aspire to as order really deserves our renunciation: to see in that sabotage not a crime, but perhaps an alternative for improvement.

On the sidewalk, we are all others and in this, there is a value: the unnoticed union in a plural self, propitiated by ephemeral contacts and the risk they entail, but with the rank of opportunity for the well-being of all. The skin that we all step on touches us all back; and just as for Aristotle it was evident that the loss of touch necessarily involves the death of the animal, in our case, without skin there is no Chepe.

  1. According to article 67 of the Police Regulation of 1849, sidewalks should have a width of 167 cm or two rods wide, which was later reduced to 104 cm wide (five quarters) and 14 cm high (one sisma), to be redefined to 120 cm wide and 15 cm high with the law 7600, in 1996.
  2. The danger of defining social categories lies not only in what they group, but in the segregation of those they ignore.
  3. It is noted that in these two zones the area of sidewalks is perhaps greater because, towards the centre of confluence, the cartographic grid is much denser than at the ends of the four central districts.
  4. According to the ILO, “informal employment is understood to include all paid work – self-employed or salaried – that is not recognized, regulated or protected by existing legal or regulatory frameworks and unpaid work in a profit-making enterprise.”
Referencias Bibliográficas

Archivo Nacional: CR AN AH SECBEN 000318. Informe presentado por la Comisión nombrada por la Junta de Caridad en 1869, para llevar a efecto la construcción de aceras y sembrado de arboledas en la calle que une la Ciudad de San José con el Panteón General, 1874.

Bourgois, P. Schonberg, J. Intimate apartheid Ethnic dimensions of habitus among homeless heroin injectors. SAGE Publications, 2007


ESTUDIOS ECONÓMICOS DE LA OCDE: COSTA RICA 2018. San José, 17 de abril de 2018.

Goffman, E. Behavior in Public Places. Westport, CT: Breenwood, 1980.

Kefalas, M. Working Class Heroes: Protecting Home, Community and Nation in Chica, 2003


Mitchell, D. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York; Guilford Press, 2003.

Philosophical Writings of Etienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, 2 volumes, Franklin Philip (trans.), Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1982–87.

Quesada Avendaño, F. La modernización entre cafetales: San José, Costa Rica, 1880–1930. Helsinki: Yliopistopaino, 2007.

REFORMAS A LOS REGLAMENTOS DE DESARROLLO URBANO DEL CANTÓN DE SAN JOSÉ, Diario Oficial La Gaceta No. 29 del 11 de febrero del 2014.

Sienna, R. An Anthropological Account of Ephemeral Relationships on Public Transport. A Contribution to the Reflection on Diversity, Erodiv Paper, 2006.

Young, I. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.