Valparaíso is by far Chile's most interesting city, and not just because of its history and outlandish cityscape. To be sure, the setting is spectacular, its architecture is picturesque, and its rapidly developing hotel and restaurant scene are making it more tourist-friendly than ever. Still, behind the scenes there's a tension that many not be apparent to short-term visitors.
Time was, a couple decades ago, that both locals and the venerable South American Handbook warned tourists against venturing almost anywhere in the hills neighborhoods. My own feeling is that these warnings were always a bit alarmist, though the city had (and still does have) some truly marginal areas. Since then, though, gentrification has run rampant on Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre, the adjacent hills neighborhoods where most of the city's boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants now reside. Still, the posters in many windows suggesting that "we need to respect the peace and quiet of the neighbors" suggests a conflict between longtime residents, on the one hand, and newcomers and visitors on the other.
In fact, the density of services has become so great that there appears to be a de facto moratorium on new services in the area--when a Chilean-Australian couple wanted to open a new B&B here, authorities suggested instead that they do so in the Cerro Artillería neighborhood to the west. There's now a cluster of fine but moderately priced accommodations there, but no comparable gastronomic scene has yet developed.
That, of course, has to do with an influx of private capital, but not all neighborhoods have been so fortunate. According to what city tourism official Milos Miskovic told me, the city's oldest neighborhood, Cerro Santo Domingo, will require some public investment for improvements and there are some positive signs. Yet when the Santa Isabel supermarket located here, it roused protests from local residents concerned that it would undercut the small-scale merchants in the historic (if unfortunately grubby) Mercado del Puerto. Any large-scale activity is going to arouse some suspicion in a poor neighborhood, though it's arguable that the supermarket, for instance, can provide a selection of products that even the sum of individual merchants can't.
There are also controversies over the direction of contemporary development in the context of Valpo's World Heritage Site designation--how will the city develop in the 21st century? Some people believe the city should retain its historic style to the extreme that even new buildings should conform to it--a classic example is Cerro Concepción's Brighton B&B which, despite appearances, is barely a decade old. Others think the city needs to enter the future with audacious projects such as Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer's planned cultural center on Cerro Cárcel (some worry that this will displace artisans who presently occupy parts of the former prison, but one also might wonder whether the 100-year-old Niemeyer will live long enough to see it through).
Meanwhile, cutting-edge commerce advances, and Valparaíso is increasingly fashionable despite resentment from some quarters: thus, the improvements in accommodations, food, and style, have also brought a reaction, with occasional graffiti that urge people to "storm the yuppie shops!"