Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tables and Chairs

Eleven years ago, shortly after I returned from my first Latin American adventure, six weeks in Guadalajara, Mexico, I remember walking into a Don Pablo's restaurant and being struck by how they'd gotten the decor right. It wasn't just the concrete floor and rough masonry. They'd selected really typical furniture--rectangular formica-topped tables with chrome trim, and chrome-tube chairs with vinyl seats and backs. Something along these lines, except removed from the Pottery Barn catalog ambiance:

(photo from ebay auction)

You have to forget that such furnishings have since become retro-cool. Decades-old, with torn and taped vinyl, stained formica, and rust-dotted chrome, they were definitely down-scale, but along with bare incandescent light bulbs, they created a particular developing-world feel, more modest than you would ever find in a dining establishment in the States, but charming nonetheless. So while I'm sure Don Pablo's seemed a lot less beat-up and a lot more sanitary, I was impressed by its authenticity. I'm pretty sure they've since rethemed in the interest of blending into suburbia, but initially, at least, they got it right.

Here in Ecuador, there are lots of those kinds of modest restaurants, family run joints offering a set menu of something like soup, rice, vegetable, chicken or beef, and a banana for $1.50. But they've switched to oppressively white compact fluorescent bulbs, and you sit in the sort of plastic chairs that have become popular patio furniture in the US. This is a pretty typical looking place, though from the sand/gravel floor, I'd guess it's an outdoor place at the beach:

(photo courtesy of Alt1040)

I don't know when these things were invented, but they've only become widespread in the last decade, so I suspect that they've replaced the kind of tables and chairs I saw in Mexico in the mid-90s. I don't think it's an improvement. I'm sure they're cheap (likely manufactured by an even poorer labor pool in Asia), and that's certainly the main concern of a lot of people setting up businesses here. In a place where the average yearly income is about $1000, and people find it worthwhile to keep a restaurant open that only has a dozen customers a day (paying $1.50 for their meal, remember), the start-up cost for your business has got to be a few hundred dollars at the most. I suppose it's good that cheap plastics make this possible for a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs, but the aesthetic loss is really unfortunate. They're fine on a deck, but they can't match those holdovers from the 50s. They certainly aren't going to last as long. If this is the face of economic development brought about by globalization, it's not making the world a more livable place.

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