Because my parents work in investment, I spent a week this December at the St. Regis Bahia Beach in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. We’ve been to the resort before, but returning to the resort this time felt a little different.
In September of 2017 the resort, located on a beach 26 miles from San Juan, was hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Because of the damages caused by the storm, the resort was forced to close for renovations. (Apparently, resort closures were a major epidemic in the aftermath of the hurricanes. You can read more here, from this pretty-hilariously titled article: Hurricanes Irma And Maria Update: Caribbean Luxury Resort Damage Reports). The resort began renovations shortly afterwards to reconstruct the spa area, many of the hotel accommodations, and to refurbish both the short-term rental condos and private villas. Writing that a resort unfortunately lost a “spa” in hurricane damages feels like I’m parodying myself, but actually eludes to my larger point: the resort is so very completely constructed for commercialized leisure alone, yet still with it’s condos and villas–called “Residences”–, restaurants, and other amenities, the St. Regis Bahia Beach is a community.
Margaret Kohn addresses relatively similar dynamics in Brave New Neighborhoods. Despite the public and shared connections we associate with communities, many residential communities are created and only exist to fulfill commercial purposes. Kohn discusses Battery Park City in New York, and the Business Improvement District (BID) designation that basically allows the public space that is Battery Park to be governed by influential and monied interests more more than by the votes of its residents and the community board (62-63). The St Regis Bahia Beach community takes it one step further, however. A resort offers the illusion of a sun soaked public space, but nothing about a resort is public. It, unlike the BID, is not connected to any democratic or actual governmental structures. The shared space offered by a resort is a product of the hotel corporation that owns it. In the case of Bahia Beach, Marriott International upkepts the property and the “Residences” in the hope of attracting wealthy vacationers.
I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with the resort. Of course, no one joins the “Resident” community at the resort expecting to be involved in any capacity with the governance of the area. What I find most interesting is the parallelism between a space that certainly belongs to the public–like Battery Park–and resorts. At least resorts, maybe because they have to be to attract consumers, are more upfront about their nature. They are obviously corporations that hope to profit off of the creation of an artificial public space. Should we be worried that Battery Park is almost a reverse resort? It began as a completely public space, but instead, has become almost like a resort with it’s BID designation. When the resort reopened in late December 2018 (two months later than the expected date), it was–in all honestly–a little barebones, which made it easier for me to see the underlying corporate structure that reminded me of Kohn. Maybe the most unsettling part about the privatization of public space is the invisibility. It’s hard to remember that you are a consumer when you are basking in the Puerto Rican sun, and it’s even harder when you are napping in your Battery Park City apartment.