Sunday, September 2, 2012

Valparaíso's Historic Heritage: a Conversation with Todd Temkin (Part 1)

Married to a Chilean, Wisconsin-born Todd Temkin is a Valparaíso resident and founder of the Fundación Valparaíso, which promotes the preservation of the city’s historic legacy, which a political hot potato between developers and preservationists. Last March, I met him for an hour at the city’s Emporio La Rosa, a café occupying the former Café Riquet facing Plaza Aníbal Pinto (pictured above). Today’s lightly edited transcript of our conversation is the first of two parts, dealing primarily with background and the impact of the massive 2010 earthquake on the city. The second half, which should appear soon, deals mostly with Valpo’s picturesque ascensores (funiculars that connect the flatlands with the hills).

WBB: About the state of the city, well, its historic district, which is a good part of the town – one rumor I heard recently was that UNESCO was upset and even considering revoking the city’s world heritage status.
TT: Absolutely untrue, as far as I’m concerned, this is a standard technique by people in the city who are against this project. One of the tactics they use to send a complaint to UNESCO. We saw this first when a supermarket was built in front of the Iglesia La Matriz (pictured above) - they used the same technique, they wrote a letter complaining. The standard reponse is that when they receive a letter from any group, they write a letter back saying “we have received your document and we will look into it.”

WBB: So anybody can make such a complaint?

TT: Yes, so when they wrote about Supermercado Santa Isabel the next day the same people called La Tercera and El Mercurio de Santiago  and there were these huge headlines in the paper saying “Valparaíso about to lose World Heritage status…” because UNESCO is so against Santa Isabel near La Matriz. For them, the fact that they got an answer means UNESCO supports their claims.

WBB: To me, that sounds like a courtesy reply.

TT: Precisely, the same thing has gone on with Puerto Barón, which is the waterfront/mall project, which is a bigger project, and I think there is a possibility UNESCO will want to look at this, but it is not in the historic quarter. I haven’t heard any legitimate rumblings from UNESCO to the effect that they are thinking about taking World Heritage status away from Valparaíso. If Valparaíso were to lose the status, I don’t think it would be over Puerto Barón but rather because of the unfulfilled promises of the government, such as the rehabilitation of the ascensores.

WBB: One thing I did notice, somebody else mentioned to me today, up on Cerro Concepción, that there have been unauthorized additions to houses in the historic district, such as a rooftop terrace where they ought not to have one. I did see one that looked very attractive and modern – I would give it some aesthetic credit, but whether it’s appropriate or not is another issue. Can you clue me in on that?
TT: I’m not privy to that inside information, but my hunch is that there have been cases where the city’s World Heritage department has made a value judgment on such things. For example, there’s a new hotel that’s going to be inaugurated fairly soon in the Palacio Astoreca [pictured above, it has since opened], on Paseo Yugoeslavo on Cerro Alegre, and the architect who was hired was Mathias Klotz, probably one of the most famous Chilean architects in the world, a modern and very contemporary architect. His idea was that 90 percent of the original palace intact was OK as it was, but they could add some contemporary balconies on the back. A lot of people in the neighborhood complained, and said it never should have been signed off in city hall, they claimed corruption. There have been other cases, some people just do this stuff and challenge city hall to make you come and take it down. In other cases, the heritage department in city hall seems to have been complicit.

WBB: The groups on Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre are pretty well-organized, aren’t they? Why is that?

TT: Valparaíso has a growing civil society and in the past six or seven years a more militant society. We’ve seen this in a lot of historic cities, a lot of cities in general, in Valparaíso there happen to be two or three groups that are very ideological. I always defend them in that I believe they add really valuable things to the discourse. I think these groups have been really important in making sure that authenticity continues to be the most valued asset of the city, and that we don’t turn this into a Disneyland, so to speak. And I think that almost all of the tourism investors have understood this. So these groups play a very important role, but sometimes they’re contentious.

WBB: Another topic that I wanted to touch on was the impact of the 2010 earthquake on this historic district here. Have there been a lot of teardowns? Was there specific damage to historic buildings?
TT: There was a lot of interior damage, but not a lot of buildings that had to be leveled in the historic district. There were a lot that had to be leveled in the Almendral area [pictured above, in an area built on landfill], near the Congress – Colón Street, Victoria Street, and those neighborhoods were really the hardest hit. Still, we were obviously not the epicenter of the quake, and we were sort of squeezed like the ham between the sandwich, we were hard-pressed to go to the government crying that we needed emergency funding when it was so obvious that Concepción, Talcahuano, Chillán and all the coastal areas needed it worse. We didn’t get any of that funding.

There have been teardowns. There was some damage to the Biblioteca Severín, the oldest public library in Chile, on Plaza Bolívar, built by two of the most important architects in the history of Chile, Arnaldo Barison and Renato Schiavon. Some damage to the Colegio Alemán on Cerro Concepción, where there’s an historic theater there called the Deutsches Haus.

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