In a manner of speaking, Las Reales Atarazanas (the Royal Dockyards) have come full circle. When they were originally built in the early 16th century, the Spanish Crown used them to store goods shipped from Europe destined for distribution in Santo Domingo and other Spanish colonies. Today portions of the Royal Dockyards house restaurants, boutiques, gift shops and art galleries. So you could say that it still in the business of storing and distributing goods.
The Atarazanas de Reales Museo (Museum of the Royal Shipyard) is also a part of the complex.
The dockyard is located on the western bank of the Rio Ozama. During the colonial period, the Puerta de las Atarazanas (Dockyard Gate) was the main entrance into the dockyard from the river. As the colony grew, the dockyard became a busy center of commercial activity.
The complex was built in several stages with construction beginning in 1509 and continuing until 1544. The three buildings in the complex are connected through interior courtyards where today’s shops and galleries are located.
In addition to using the space to warehouse goods sent by the Crown, the dockyard also included the office of the Casa de las Contratación. This House of Trade was an agency of the Spanish Empire charged with controlling all Spanish exploration and colonization. That included collecting all colonial taxes and duties and approving all voyages of exploration and trade. The House of Trade can legitimately be called the first tax collection agency in the New World.
In the colonial era, an integrated neighborhood of poor people (dock workers, ship and boat maintenance men, sea-bound sailors, etc.) along with food and other types of markets grew up around the dockyard. As the sense of community grew, the area became known as the Barrio de las Atarazanas (dockyard neighborhood). It was the first Spanish-American neighborhood in America.
Barrio de las Atarazanas still exists. While residents of the neighborhood are still on the lower rung of the economic ladder, the neighborhood continues to have its own distinct vibe. That vibe can be seen in the random nature of the neighborhood’s “architecture”, the unique bars and restaurants that flaunt neighborhood ethnicity, the distinctive dress and language of the residents, and the wide assortment of “tricked out” cars cruising the streets. As appealing as the neighborhood may sound, it is not a place for sightseeing, especially in the evening.
Santo Domingo’s Royal Dockyards are the sole and oldest building of its type in America. It is predated only by the Reales Atarazanas of Barcelona, Spain which dates to the early 13th century.