Squandered Discovery: 16th Century Gargoyles for $200 in Santo Domingo

The Dominican Republic doesn’t realize that its capital city should be a world destination city on the order of any of the old European capitals or Buenos Aires.

Santo Domingo has a world-historical Zona Colonial that is systematically being torn down in order to build modern apartment buildings (which, at best, will last half a century and which, on the whole, have the design value of 1970s, post-68-riot architecture). This is the city where you can see the bed Columbus’ son slept in (surprisingly small by modern standards). Here you also may find the Americas’ oldest cathedral, bearing witness to centuries of additions and expansions cobbled together in an architectural story of the Spanish empire.

The bricked streets of the old city should be teeming with pedestrians visiting cafes and art galleries reminiscent of Recoleta. Instead they are empty but for two corners where there are a few restaurants and a middling flamenco performance at the Museo del Jamon. And one of the guys who watches cars for pocket change was aghast when my cousin offered $1000 for one of the gargoyles piled in the back of the Cathedral in what looked like a scrap yard. He thought the price was outrageously ridiculous and said that he’d sold one for less than $400 earlier in the week. My cousin then offered $200, which the guy thought more reasonable. Of course, the transaction never went through.

Can you imagine someone being willing to sell an early 16th century Florentine church statue for the price of a train from New York to Boston? It’s like playing tacks with diamonds. They show the world beaches without realizing that they have something even more rare: the history of colonialism in the West. Can you imagine someone visiting France for beaches and never pausing in Paris?

All this takes is a little vision: an Archeological Society that will register the history littering the streets, building restrictions, a few cafes, a couple of art galleries (there are stunning paintings for sale on the street corners for a paltry $30), boutiques with handmade jewelry (from local larimar and the world’s only blue amber), and a handful of Dominicans who will hang out there and take pictures to put on the internet. I can’t believe none of the wealthy Dominicans who have traveled to Tokyo or London or Madrid or New York haven’t thought of this.

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