Turn Left at the Big Lake and Meet Me in Managua


Officially, Enrique Pena lives at Sixth Street Southwest #675, District 2, in Managua.

Asked his address, however, as he stands outside his modest stucco house, the 35-year-old government employee gives a different answer:

“From the statue of Monsignor Lezcano, a block toward the mountains, 10 yards down,” he replies. Pena reacts with surprise when a stranger, a foreigner yet, points out the blue street sign just a few yards from his house.

“I never really noticed that before,” he says, his initial skepticism turning to incredulity when asked whether he’s ever mentioned Sixth Street in his address. “I don’t think that anyone would know where that is,” he replies.

That answer provides some measure of the challenge facing Rafael Rizo. Last month, the City Council charged the energetic young architect who heads the Managuan Urban Development Department with the task of developing a naming system for streets based only on numbers--and, perhaps even more daunting, persuading residents to use the resulting addresses.


The new system is nothing less than an attempt to modify a basic component of the Nicaraguan national character, said businessman Mario Duarte, an amateur city historian: “Nicaraguans just don’t like to do things the way that law and order tells them to. We like to do things our own way.”

The government argues that the new system would be more efficient and less confusing. But to implement it, Rizo must overcome the political overtones that touch everything in this ideologically on-edge country and decades of tradition in a capital that many Managuans are convinced is the inspiration for a song by the rock band U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

Actually, many of Managua’s oldest streets do have names. It’s just that no one ever uses them. And as the city grew, people didn’t bother to come up with names for new avenues and boulevards, because nobody ever identified a location based on the strip of pavement running in front of it.

Instead of street names, Managua has a rich map of landmarks woven together by the forces of nature and geography that govern this steamy city. To the north is Lake Managua, to the south the mountains, the Managua Range. Up, in local parlance, is the east, where the sun rises, so down is west, where it sets.

So in Managua, “down” may actually be up the hill.

Addresses here start from a landmark--that may or may not still exist--and branch toward the lake or the mountains, then east or west. As a result, everyone in Managua knows where the store La Abanica, or the Fan, once stood, even though it fell in the 1931 earthquake, long before most present-day residents were born.

“From La Abanica . . .” has remained the starting phrase for addresses in that part of town throughout the 69 years since the store crumbled to nothing.

Other points are still here, but the origin of their names is a subject of friendly dispute. Consider Bald Chico Hill.

Miguel Portillo, the manager of an auto parts store named for the hill, said that the chico in the name means “small” and that “bald” refers to the hill’s sparse vegetation. But a longtime resident who gave his name only as Manuel insisted that the hill is named for a bald man called Chico, the nickname for a man whose first name was Francisco--and who was a member of the notorious National Guard during the Somoza family military dictatorship that ended in 1979.

Some landmarks are known by a name that exists only in popular culture. The address of the weekly newspaper El Seminario, for instance, is “from the statue of Montoya, 1 1/2 blocks toward the mountains.”

But don’t look for the name Montoya on the statue, a figure pointing a rifle at cars driving along one of the main highways out of the capital. The statue, according to the letters etched on one side of it, is an “homage to the Nicaraguan soldier.”

It was dubbed Montoya for a soldier--whose first name, like Bald Chico’s last name, has faded with the years--who, according to legend, used his fine rhetoric to inspire his comrades-in-arms to march all the way to the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, during a 19th century border dispute.

Residents Like the Free-Form System

Because places may be approached from different directions, many offices in Managua have two addresses. For example, the Miami Herald’s bureau in Managua can be either “From La Marseillaise Restaurant, 250 yards toward the lake” or “From Chema Castillo’s old house, one block toward the mountains.”

Castillo’s house became notorious during the Sandinista revolution of the 1970s, when the leftist guerrillas killed Castillo, a leading citizen, and his bodyguard in a robbery at a party there.

Most Managuans insist that this address system works perfectly well, but Rizo, the architect, has personal experience to the contrary. A few months ago, he was invited to a gathering at a friend’s home.

“I ended up going around and around the block because the point of reference I was given was a little store that couldn’t easily be seen,” he recalled. “I had to ask three people before I found someone who knew where it was. It turned out that I had passed it four times.”

The problem becomes even more critical when a store used as a landmark closes, he said. “A drugstore disappears and the address is lost,” he said.

The city is especially confusing for outsiders. The few city maps available are based on landmarks rather than street names.

Taxi passengers must recite the long, unaccustomed addresses to drivers, who then often consult with their colleagues to determine the exact location of the key landmark that is the starting point.

In fact, Managua’s best-known landmark, the Little Tree, grew until it was quite a big tree, was cut down and then replanted. Through it all, “from the Little Tree . . .” remained the first phrase in scores of Managuan addresses.

President Arnoldo Aleman replanted it with great ceremony in 1994 when he was mayor of Managua.

“If Aleman is remembered for anything in the history of Nicaragua, it will be because he replanted the Little Tree,” said Duarte, the city historian. Still, Aleman’s involvement in any project, even planting a tree, makes the action suspicious to his numerous political enemies.

Aleman and his allies, including the current Managuan mayor and force behind the grid system, came to power based partly on a reputation for visceral hatred of the Sandinistas, who overthrew the last Somoza.

The tree-planting was considered a move to restore tradition, not a desirable objective for many Nicaraguans. If replanting the Little Tree raised eyebrows, redesigning the city’s address system has raised controversy.

Choosing Names Not an Easy Task

The new grid system inspired Erwin Castillo, an irrigation engineer, to write his first newspaper opinion article, which generated a flood of congratulatory letters and telephone calls. “These street signs look like mathematical equations,” he said in a recent interview.

He suggested, instead, naming Managua’s streets for rivers, scientists, countries and--this being Nicaragua, where every schoolchild recites and composes verses--poets.

Earlier efforts, however, to name places after people caused an uproar.

When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, they renamed Managua’s streets and neighborhoods for revolutionary heroes. “For some, they were heroes,” Castillo said. “For others, they were bank robbers.”

So, whether someone called a neighborhood Los Robles, the Oaks, or Pancazan, the site of an important revolutionary battle, depended on that person’s politics. Under a numeric system, the area would simply become District 5, Zone 2--not poetic, but not contentious, either.

Thus, to rename Managuan streets and neighborhoods based on numbers is to neutralize a symbolic political battle.

In the final analysis, however, custom, finances and time may weigh more heavily than politics against Rizo’s effort to bring order to this capital. After all, he is not the first to attempt this feat.

Following the 1931 earthquake that destroyed Managua, the city was rebuilt on a grid with a Central Street. Over the next 40 years, Duarte said, the city fathers got the post office, at least, to use the formal addresses, even though most residents didn’t.

Then the 1972 earthquake left the city a shambles, and the old grid system was forgotten as most Managuans moved away from the ruined downtown and toward the outskirts. Under the Sandinistas, the old Central Street became a pedestrian walkway.

Not even the post office used the old street addresses anymore, relying to this day on the landmark system.

Addresses became the least of the problems for a nation plagued by civil war and economic ruin. In 1996, with the war six years behind it, the Managua City Council passed a resolution creating another grid system, with the old downtown on Lake Managua as the center point.

A few street signs were put up, like the ones in Pena’s neighborhood, even though residents still refer to the statue of the city’s beloved former archbishop in defining their addresses. Then interest shifted to the presidential election that year, and the street signs were forgotten.

Similarly, this year the mayor has said that he plans to resign in September to run for Congress. He will be leaving before any budget provisions are made for street signs.

Further, the resolution passed in June places the center of Managua several miles away from the old downtown, recognizing the city’s post-earthquake growth pattern. That means that none of the 1996 signs will be of any use.

“It’s not viable to think that we will get started this year,” Rizo said. “Maybe early next year--we have a pretty incredible task ahead of us.”