Friday, March 28, 2008

Winners and Losers in Valpo

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!"


Anonymous said...

Hola, Wayne. Congrats on the blog. Tried to leave a Valpo-related note but it may have been disappeared into cyber-limbo as the system returned me to a blank comment page instead of asking me to confirm the text or something. I have problems with a weak connection, as well. Gotta run. Off to Pto. Varas to snoop for allies against the pisciculturas. NY Times is certainly on a Chile-ambientalista role with its recent stories against the chilean salmon and the Aysen dams! Hope you are well and enjoying spring in the ever-lovely Bay area.

Cheers, Alan (

Matt said...

As a foreign resident of Cerro Concepcion and also someone who is actively involved in the gentrification process (renovation and conversion of old properties) in the city, I agree fully that there's a huge conflict going on at the moment between different interest groups.

The biggest problem is that no one can agree on anything and the entire city is mismanaged by incompetent officials who have no idea about how to promote and improve the city.

It can be an incredibly frustrating environment in which to work and many people have been turned away by the bureaucracy of it all. Multi-million dollar investment has been lost due to infighting and incompetence (not that all investment is good, per se, but if correctly managed, it helps...)

And the most powerful organisation that is supposed to oversee the rebirth of Valpo, El Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales is probably the worst of the lot. To be fair, the local CMN is actually doing a pretty decent job at attracting investment and getting projects approved. They're actually working hard. The problem is that all projects must be approved by the gravy train riders CMN in Santiago, a useless group of people who have no idea of what Valparaiso needs. Local CMN head, Paulina Kaplan, has been complaining for years about how the CMN in Santiago is putting the breaks on investment and good projects by dismissing them out of hand. And I have first hand experience of this, where the local council and CMN approved a project and the CMN in Santiago denied it without explanation. 6 months later we got it approved but it was 6 months of stress and hassle that would scare most people off.

At the end of the day, everyone here in Valpo wants to the city to grow and improve. Trouble is, no one can agree on how to do it. There are groups that want no change whatsoever, just for Valpo to magically improve, others who want the city to return to 20 years ago when they were the lords and ladies of everything and then the newcomers, such as myself, that want to see the place gentrify, attract more tourists (local and foreign) but at the same time retain the village atmosphere that makes Valparaiso so special.

It's actually easier than it sounds. But it needs people who know what they're doing in charge. Maybe next century :)

My blog about Valparaiso is here: Corrugated City

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