SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - Nestled between the historic city wall of Old San Juan and a rocky promontory into the Atlantic, La Perla is one of the more picturesque ghettos in the world.
Originally build up in the late 19th century as a place-of-exile for variably non-desirable aspects of San Juan society -- cemeteries, housing for former slaves, refuges for the homeless and a slaughterhouse -- La Perla developed a reputation for crime and danger, an image built partially on fact and partially on the neighborhood's intended isolation from the main city. Today, asking San Juan natives about La Perla can get either graphic stories of violence, police apathy and DEA raids or else blank stares.
But, like I said, there's beauty here and not just from the white-capped waves breaking on the shore, or even the Santa Maria Magdalena Cementery, in which the dead have a place of honor, a flower-studded outlook onto the ocean, and the living need only tip-toe through the eastern side of La Perla's gates to pay tribute to their departed loved ones.
The houses, stacked one on top of the other, crawling up the hill as if hoping for egress themselves, are vibrantly colored, creating a mosaic of purples and yellows and hot pinks. The architecture is diverse as well, with traditional archways sharing space with vast walls of block glass, a remnant of '80s style that leads me to pretend abodes were once the residences of towering criminals brought down by Crockett and Tubbs, never to return again. Rusted satellite dishes teeter atop the corrugated green roofs, but otherwise it could be almost any year in La Perla. Poverty is timeless.
Although there's a strong law enforcement presence on the outside of the wall, I talk to denizens who say that the police mostly leave La Perla on its own, though those stories don't jibe with stories that speak of recent attempts at a cultural renaissance in the neighborhood, which has also been an enclave for "artistic types" over the years.
It's August of 2012 and, at this moment, La Perla is positively swarming with a different assortment of artistic types, specifically a Hollywood movie production. Directed by Brad Furman ("The Lincoln Lawyer") and starring Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck and Gemma Arterton, the online gambling thriller "Runner, Runner" has taken over.