Author Nicholas DeRenzo Photography Gabriela Herman
DAY TWO I’ve been in Puerto Rico only a day, but I’m already singing salsa tunes in the shower. I don’t know any lyrics, so it’s just coming out awkwardly like boom t-ting-ting, boom boom t-ting-ting. It’s almost scary how contagious the energy is here.
Having explored the city’s past, today I’m turning my attention to its future. Just over the bridge from Old San Juan is Santurce, a scrappy urban area that has become an enclave of street artists, chefs, activists, and gallerists. The word “Brooklyn” gets thrown around a lot, but a more apt comparison might be contemporary Berlin or ’90s Soho.
I fortify myself with croquettes and fresh-baked bread at Panificadora Jerezana, the favorite bakery of local artist Martín Albarrán López. After breakfast, he drives me to La Productora, his industrial gallery on thrumming Cerra Street. The gallery got its name from the recording studios that once lined the block, churning out tropical music from the 1950s on. “This was the mecca, where salsa began,” Albarrán López says. “But with iPods, the Internet, it all went down.”
A few years ago, artists began to fill the void. “I don’t know if you understand the word ‘cojones,’” he says, “but we had the cojones to make it happen.” A block from La Productora, Jaime Rodriguez Crespo crafts whimsical plastic replicas of island wildlife, such as blowfish and the ubiquitous chango (grackle), a gregarious cousin of the crow, which he depicts stealing onion rings and dog food—an ironic urban take on the pink flamingo lawn ornament.
Albarrán López shares his gallery with two other artists: Jotham Malavé, a realist painter currently exploring the theme of voyeurism through nighttime images of the suburbs, and Gil Ramos, a former lawyer with no formal training who makes wild collages with found objects, like bikinis and scraps of paper. “I try to make conversations with these humble, discarded materials,” he says. “I get a kick out of watching these materials elevate themselves. I’m trying to escape the value society gives them.” It’s an apt metaphor for the way artists are transforming this once-maligned area.
The district’s streets burst with art too. Much of the graffiti is produced during the annual Santurce Es Ley festival, in which street artists from around the world are invited to use buildings as canvases. Works range from Pop Art to Banksy-like stencils to Alexis Diaz’s surreal zoological murals, including a crow-octopus-human hybrid on a wall outside the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico.
Next, Albarrán López, Malavé and Ramos take me to lunch at Soda Estudio de Cocina. Named for Argentine rockers Soda Stereo (on the stereo when we arrive), it’s a funky spot with wall-size shrines to the band’s late lead singer, Gustavo Cerati, and pinup queen Bettie Page. And if the decor seems ambitious, you should meet chef Hector Rosa. “We call it the New Puerto Rican Kitchen,” he says, “the food of the future.”
Rosa lets the market-fresh ingredients do the talking, often with a subtle twist: chorizo with guava, papaya, tomato, and avocado; fettuccine with chicharrones de pollo, satay sauce, and an alfredo-inspired celery root puree; and, for dessert, a bread pudding made from Krispy Kreme donuts that winks at the role of American mass culture on the island.
“Santurce is a zone that’s been stigmatized, because the slaves and workers used to live here,” Rosa tells me. “As raw as it is now, you don’t always have a neighborhood where you know it’s going to be amazing.”
Not far from here is LAB: Laboratorio de Artes Binarios, a stark space bookended by modernist cement windows latticed with geometric concrete gratings. The vast space works well for Chemi Rosado-Seijo, whose latest project involves skateboarding on custom ramps around the world, spreading the dirt from his wheels in abstract swirls and loops. “The shape of the ramp, the person skating, the dirt from that country affect the colors,” he explains. “It’s abstraction and performance art and modernism together.” Across the hall, Ricardo Morales Hernández paints massive monochromatic works that expand on his daughters’ doodles.
It’s only a five-minute drive from Santurce to my next stop, but the two places couldn’t be less alike. Condado is a South Beach–esque stretch of condos and resorts, including the Condado Vanderbilt, a Spanish Revival property built in 1919 (by the firm behind Grand Central Terminal) and restored to full glory late last year. I’m having dinner at the hotel’s 1919 Restaurant, a place of sleek leather chairs and mother-of-pearl chandeliers. The Michelin-starred chef here, Juan José Cuevas, combines influences from Spain and his native Puerto Rico. I grab a seat overlooking the sea and tuck into a plate of cochinillo (suckling pig) ravioli with burrata, caramelized eggplant, and Iberico ham, and a paella-inspired dish of rabbit, bomba rice, maitake, conch, and octopus.
I’m spending the night across the street at the Mediterranean-themed O:Live Boutique Hotel. This is where the Real Housewives of Atlanta stayed while in town, but don’t expect paparazzi—or catfights. Inspired by the owners’ wedding in Sorrento, the hotel feels like a sanctuary you’d find in Campania or Provence, with furnishings crafted from century-old reclaimed wood. It’s a little shot of the Old World in a city that’s become a vibrant symbol of what it means to be “new.”