I have written often and forcefully about my dislike of many things about Bogota. It is crowded, polluted, pretentious. But since I've gotten back from my Haiti trip two weeks ago, I've had to spend a lot of time in Bogota as my wife gets set up in a temporary job here, and I must begrudgingly acknowledge that the city is growing on me. Its bustle, its industry, and frankly its architectural beauty can't be denied, and these are the things that make for a great city.
I have realized that Bogota belongs to the ranks of the great grey cities of the world. The most typical examples are Madrid and Buenos Aires, and of course Paris, which all grey cities are trying to imitate. My definition of a great grey city is very particular, and perhaps not very coherent. Basically I use the term to refer to those elegant, tragically beautiful Latinate cities that are filled with lots of early-20th century architecture. Of course Berlin, Chicago, and most other major European and US cities of the industrial age are known for their early-20th century architecture, Beaux Arts and Deco styles, wide boulevards, etc. And most such cities are suitably grey and overcast to create an elegantly sad ambiance. But I think the Romance culture is a key part of my definition of a great grey city. Paris is dramatically Romance, in its language, its chic style, the physical beauty and blase ennui of its people. And it is grey, from the limestone buildings to the steely Seine to the misty, cool, cloudy air.
Actually, Madrid is one of the sunniest cities in the world, but I still consider it a great grey city for its beautiful-yet-cold boulevards and early-20th century buildings, and the Clasically tragic existential malaise of its people. Buenos Aires has its sunny moments too, and gets hotter than hell in the summer (like Madrid), but the beautiful, neurotic Latin people combine with the Paris-style buildings and boulevards to add it to the ranks of the great and the grey.
In its own way, Bogota outdoes them all for greatness and greyness. It is literally cool and grey all year round in terms of weather, the people are bustling, discontent, professional, elegant, bored, rude. The proletariat is grey too, not grey like sleek wool suits and tailored skirts, but simple and frank and industrious, like the Madrid cafeteria class. There are deep green parks, wide boulevards (often with an Andean creek running down the center), and lots of architecture from the early 20th century. Often these buildings tend more towards English imitations, steep-roofed Georgian manor houses crammed into dense city blocks, but the end effect is similar to Paris's mix of Gothic and Nouveau. Furthermore, Bogota feels more authentic and gritty than Paris or Madrid or even Buenos Aires. There is no feigned decadence here; that dilapidated mansion with the roof caving in and dogs and hobos living behind the boarded-up windows is for real, not some iconoclastic decorating job by bohemian bourgeois artists from the Marais.
Of course not all of Bogota is grey early-1900s. Just like the other great grey cities, our capital has old colonial areas of low whitewashed adobe houses, high-rise financial districts of glass and steel, and huge swathes of mid-late-20th-century functional brick apartment towers and single-family rowhouses. Much of the city's residential periphery reminds one of the newer parts of European cities--boring but dense, well-designed mass-produced neighborhoods.
So that's my reluctant ode to Bogota. It is elegant and cold seen from afar, but its neighborhoods pulse with children playing in streets and parks, bums recycling, dogs being walked (or running wild), and nondescript bars at most corners, where local people create their own scene with no other aspiration than to enjoy one another's company. Those who want fun tropical chaos should look to Cali or Medellin for their kicks, the respective Seville and Barcelona to Bogota's Madrid. But for a world-class city of cool Euro-style culture and big decisions made behind reflective glass, Bogota is the place to be in Colombia.