Costa Rica, Coffee Railroads, and Confusion

As the capital city of Costa Rica, San Jose is one of the most significant areas of the country. Home to important buildings such as foreign embassies and the Costa Rican Yellow House, San Jose is a popular place for Ticos to live, about 20% of Costa Ricans live there. In some ways, San Jose is similar to cities that I am familiar with, such as Pittsburgh. In other ways, though, San Jose is much different from other cities, particularly as a result of the influence from the coffee and banana industries that shaped Costa Rica’s history.

During San Jose’s development in the late 19th century, the coffee and banana industries were at the forefront of Costa Rican business. Due to the necessity of transporting goods from the city—where coffee used to be produced—all the way out to Puerto Limon where the goods could be exported to other countries, Costa Rican businessman Minor Cooper Keith pushed for the construction of a railroad that could accomplish such a task. Keith then helped establish the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita Banana, which utilized the railroad for its exports. As a landlocked city it was previously very difficult to export goods from San Jose, but the railroad created a method for transporting goods to other cities and countries and still provides transportation for the public today.

In contrast to the landlocked geography of San Jose, Pittsburgh is surrounded by three rivers, but the two cities do have many similarities as well as differences. Both cities are located in a valley; in Pittsburgh, the city is surrounded by rivers and a large incline on the Southwest side, while in San Jose the entire city and much of the central valley is surrounded by mountains. Both Pittsburgh and San Jose are full of culture and history; Pittsburgh contains museums such as the Carnegie Museum of Art, and San Jose also has many museums including the National Museum containing historical Costa Rican artifacts and the Gold Museum which contains many early moldings of Costa Rican gold. Also, each city is a hub for business. Pittsburgh is home to a multitude of companies such as PNC Bank and UPMC, while San Jose, formerly the center of the coffee and banana industries, now hosts its own variety of companies and industries.

Despite the similarities between Pittsburgh and San Jose, there is a major difference that, unlike the diverse geographical arrangements, may be hindering further development of San Jose. As the city of San Jose first began to develop, there was never any need for street addresses; people would simply locate buildings based on landmarks that they used as references to point others in the right direction. Though the disorganized system was probably harmless during San Jose’s early years, it causes some chaos in San Jose today. For example, the Costa Rican mail system relies on reference landmarks to deliver the mail. When a landmark is removed, the mail system fails because the mail carrier would not be able to find the address necessary to deliver the mail. Thus, it would be much more logistically efficient if San Jose had an address system, but for the most part delivering the mail is possible when significant landmarks are still present. However, the landmark reference system is not useful at all for tourists, who do not know where the popular landmarks are let alone the places that they are trying to go. Therefore, San Jose would be better off with a formal address system, but is not severely impeded by the lack of such a system. Recently, the Costa Rican government has been working on creating an address system that would mimic those of other cities. Hopefully this new system catches on so that Costa Rica can equally compare in stature to other cities such as Pittsburgh and free itself from one of the main consequences of the coffee and banana industry booms that is still holding the city back.

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