At Every Corner, From Deaf Man to Danger, Hints of a Colorful Past

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- In Caracas, you can live between Danger and Keep Your Eyes Peeled. Or between Hope and Faith, just a short walk from Eternity. At Restaurante Gallegos, one of several restaurants with similar names, prospective diners often call to ask, "Are you the one on Dead Man's Corner?"

The city today is a traffic-choked, graffiti-smeared, hyperbolically violent capital where spasmodic bouts of modernization over the years have left little of the colonial charm of some other South American cities. Yet Caracas is also an urban palimpsest, where its past character can still be read amid the concrete.

Here buildings have names instead of numbers. Yet street names are unknown to many people, including, at times, the name of the street they live on. As a result, asking directions can lead to a long recitation of landmarks, like a Hemingway short story: "Go past the pharmacy to the top of the hill till you see the big tree and turn right. ..."

And in one of this city's most endearing quirks, the street corners themselves have names, often ones that point to a colorful history.

"In all of Venezuela there's only one Dead Man's Corner," said José Goncalves, 77, the owner of a butcher shop there. On a map, Mr. Goncalves's shop is at the intersection of East 14 and South 5 Avenues. But no one, he said, uses those names. If he needs to tell someone where his shop is, he simply says to look for him on Dead Man's Corner.

"That never fails me," he said. Even his telephone bill comes addressed that way.

As with many of the intersections in this part of Caracas, there are multiple stories, or legends, to explain how Dead Man's Corner got its name. A customer in Mr. Goncalves's store one recent morning declared that many years ago a dying man asked to have his wake held at that intersection.

Not so, said Mr. Goncalves, who has owned the shop for 38 years.

There used to be a brass plaque on the outside of his building, he said, put up by the city to tell the story -- although, this being Caracas, it was stolen long ago. The plaque, he recalled, said that there had been a deadly epidemic in the city. Soldiers were sent out to collect the dead, and as they were passing this spot with a cart piled with bodies, one of the supposed cadavers sat up and cried out to let people know he was not as dead as he seemed.

Another version, told in a book called "The Corners of Caracas," published in the 1950s, says that the name is derived from one of the civil wars that ravaged Venezuela in the 19th century. A battle between rival bands left the dead rotting in the streets. As some soldiers were carrying what they thought was a corpse to the cemetery, the man sat up in the stretcher and said, "Don't take me to be buried, because I'm alive." The panicked soldiers, the book says, dropped their load and dashed off.

The names, which apply to all the corners at an intersection, are found only in the center of the city, in an area radiating from the old colonial main square. A popular pocket-size book of maps says there are 305 of them.

Some corners fit their names.

Misery Corner is down at heel. A building painted bright green and yellow stands at Parrot Corner. The main office of the national prosecutor is halfway between Mercy and Keep Your Eyes Peeled.

Others corners do not.

On a recent morning two drunks fought, flailing at each other ineffectually, at the corner known as Eternity. The Corner of the Upside-Down Christ is wholly nondescript (the legend goes that a shoemaker whose shop was once there was short on work, so, following local tradition, he turned a small statue of Christ in his workshop upside down to "punish" it for not sending him more clients).

Some corners come in groups.

A person walking along South 15 Avenue (almost certainly unaware of the street name) will go past a series of corners in this order: Checkpoint Corner, Danger Corner and Keep Your Eyes Peeled. In past years the walker could have gone one block farther to reach Off With Your Underpants Corner, which was eliminated when a school was built on the spot.

Alex Reyes, 31, an assistant in a pharmacy two doors from Keep Your Eyes Peeled Corner, said the names reflected the area's edgy reputation at the time they were coined. He speculated that there was once a police checkpoint at the corner of that name and that the farther away one got from the checkpoint the more perilous things became, until the spot where the thieves were so ruthless they stripped people bare.

Asked if Keep Your Eyes Peeled was still a dangerous spot, he laughed and gave a typically fatalistic response, characteristic of a city with one of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere, "These days, any part of Caracas is dangerous."

The corner names reflect the city's preoccupations. There are more than two dozen named after saints, and there are corners named for the Rosary, Charity, Faith and Eternity.

Some reflect the urban landscape, past or present: Hospital, New Bridge, the Old Barracks, the Brewery, the Steps.

Some are named after animals: there is a Lion, a Vulture and the Corner of the Little Birds (one that might take on new resonance now that President Nicolás Maduro has famously said that his dead predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, visited him in the form of a little bird).

Some names conjure stories. The Corner of the Lonely Soul is rather far from the Corner of God's Grace and uncomfortably close to the Corner of the Lion.

Others are simply intriguing: Trick Corner, Fat Lady, Deaf Man, the Duck's Tail, Joy.

Caracas is a Caribbean city with vivacious people and often glorious weather. But 14 years of self-proclaimed revolution have produced a city that, like the country beyond, is deeply divided between government supporters and opponents.

Corruption and bad management have left large parts of the city in poor repair, and unremitting violence -- murders, muggings and kidnappings are epidemic -- has severed the ties of many people, especially in the middle class, to their city.

"Caracas was something you saw through your car window, through the window of your house," Stefany Da Costa, 29, said. "People stopped walking in the city."

Last year, Ms. Da Costa and a friend, Adriana Arias, 29, started a company called Urbanimia, giving walking tours of Caracas landmarks and becoming part of a movement to retake and reassess Caracas. Their most popular route covers the street corners and the stories behind them.

Mr. Reyes, who works in the pharmacy at Keep Your Eyes Peeled, said that the corner names were a welcome holdover from the days when Caracas was a small city known for its colorful tile roofs.

"It's a reminder of another era, of the Caracas of red roofs, when everyone treated each other properly and with respect, when people greeted each other with 'good morning' and 'good afternoon,' " he said. "It was a simpler time."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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