Puebla’s early urban characteristics

Given the ambitiousness of the urban enterprise in Spanish America and due to the differing and variable circumstances under which settlements became established, towns possessed widely differing sizes - in sixteenth-century New Spain, towns could range in size from a few families to many thousands of inhabitants.82 While towns in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico were usually walled to protect against pirate attacks, cities inland lacked such barriers. Additionally, once established, many cities never prospered and thus were abandoned. Such was the case for Segura de la Frontera (which eventually, after refounding it years later, became the town of Tepeaca in the State of Puebla), founded by Hernan Cortes as a Spanish settlement in 1520.83 For towns that survived the initial post-Conquest years and thrived, such as Mexico City, the Spanish academic Francisco Cervantes de Salazar noted, around 1554, how the buildings and infrastructure in the city’s core were polished and well-built.84

Puebla de los Angeles is a case of a successful urban founding. It exemplifies how a town transitioned from an embryonic physical form to a city with well-crafted civic and religious buildings and an ordered layout. The urban form, it must be underlined, was of extreme importance given that it dictated its growth, settlement patterns, hierarchical social order, and its future development. Settlers allowed to become vecinos or citizens of the city would be given an urban plot, a solar, which measured 50 by 50 varas. If they were Spanish and had the means, they could settle in the city’s central part. Everybody else - Indigenous settlers, mestizos, and poor Spanish families - settled in the peripheral barrios, often receiving smaller plots of approximately 20 by 25 varas.

The eastern bank of the San Francisco River, as discussed previously, was the first site for the city where the rudimentary settlement flooded severely a few months post-founding. The settlement then relocated to the western bank, in a higher, flatter place. The surveyor was Alonso Martin Perez, nicknamed El Partidor,85 a member of the cabildo who was responsible for the tracing of the central plaza and the urban blocks and also for allotting the plots of land to the future inhabitants.86

Once the settlement moved, Puebla’s new urban form was precise and geometrically ordered. The central plaza measured approximately 220 by 200 varas (184 by 167 m),87 and, in turn, it was then split into two rectangles, with the northern plot reserved for the plaza piiblica (public square) or plaza principal (main square) and the southern one for the cathedral building. The urban blocks were 100 varas in length on their short side (about 83.5 m) and 200 varas on their long side (approximately 167 m). Each urban block was divided into eight plots distributed among the Spanish vecinos or citizens of the city (the plots themselves being 50 by 50 varas or 42 by 42 m). At the same time, all streets in the traza principal, or the core layout (excluding the peripheries that developed a bit more haphazardly), were 14 varas in width (11.7 m) (see Figures 2.1 and 5.2).

Puebla’s central plaza was colonnaded only a couple of years after the city’s foundation. These colonnades were initially wooden, transitioning into quarried, dark basaltic stone, Roman arch arcades that characterize the elegant plaza principal to this day.88 In those first decades after its founding, the plaza principal featured a monumental public water fountain on its eastern side. In contrast, the western side was left open for public spectacles and festivities, such as bullfighting.S9 The plot destined for the cathedral was localized on the southern part of the plaza while the urban block immediately north of the plaza was destined for the civic buildings. Bridges connecting both sides of the city, divided by the San Francisco River, were reported to have existed already by 1537.90

Outside the traza, the city destined a series of commons, known as ejidos and dehesas, for the citizens’ convenience in grazing livestock and agricultural purposes. However, as the city took in more residents who needed to be allotted plots of land, the city would usually draw them from the dehesas, so that their borders and delimitations kept changing.91 The city was unevenly settled, with the central core, destined for the Spanish settlers, more densely inhabited from the start and with the southern and western parts of the city more scattered. Scholar Miguel Cuenya attributes this situation to the lack of potable water in these areas, which inhibited people from settling in barrios such as El Carmen and Santiago.92 Despite this, by the end of the sixteenth century, the city had 120 inhabited urban blocks and four public plazas located next to or in front of a religious building. These were the central plaza, San Agustin’s plaza, San Francisco’s plaza, and the La Compahia de Jesus’ plaza (the Society of Jesus), alongside there being an array of urban monastic complexes, such as the male monasteries of San Agustfn, San Francisco, the Society of Jesus, Santo Domingo, and the female monasteries of Santa Catarina, La Concepcion, and the Jeronomites. At the same time, the first few years of the seventeenth century saw the establishment of others, such as Santa Teresa, Santa Clara, and Santa Ines.93

Indeed, cities such as Puebla, administrative centers run by Spanish colonizers and criollos, were also the seats of religious power and bureaucratic apparatuses. A recurring theme in the study of early Mexican society is the close allegiance between the Catholic Church and civil authorities to such an extent that they often overlapped in their responsibilities and spheres of power. Thus, as Puebla grew in the sixteenth century, the myriad towers and domes of chapels, cathedrals, and monasteries began to shape the city’s urban landscape. The Church’s activities ranged from evangelization, education, and charity to health services, as the Church was often in charge of public hospitals. Its institutions spanned universities, hospitals, orphanages, almshouses, female and male convents, and others of varied responsibilities. Without the Church and its institutions’ presence, the Hispanic city of the early modern world, on both sides of the Atlantic, would have been unrecognizable given that the Church operated and owned many buildings in the cities.

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