Valparaiso: Getting a Glimpse
Valparaiso, Chile is a spectacularly beautiful city. It seems appropriate that it is a sister-city to San Francisco as it shares the Pacific Ocean and a very hilly topography, along with the historic connection that linked Chile to San Francisco’s Gold Rush in 1849-1850. Chileans were one of the largest populations to arrive in the early days of the Gold Rush, since they were closer, though their presence was quickly overwhelmed by tens of thousands of people from France, Germany, England, the U.S., and elsewhere. There’s no memory of that Chilean connection in San Francisco these days, though as I mentioned in the previous post, a more recent wave of Chileans arrived in San Francisco during the 1970s as refugees from the Pinochet dictatorship.
If we historicize that a bit more precisely, those Chileans were the first escapees from the harsh imposition of a neoliberalism determined to smash the organized working class. After the 1973 Chilean coup, new military dictatorships from Argentina to Indonesia, South Korea and the Philippines were backed by the U.S. as bulwarks of the “Free World;” at gunpoint they freed markets for international investors by breaking unions and selling off publicly owned assets. Milton Friedman’s “Chicago Boys” provided their throwback economic theories to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and their market fundamentalism drove the reorganization of the global order that landed us in the mess we’re in now.
I went to Chile full of curiosity to see it and get my first glimpse of its culture and people. My time there was very brief so I can’t make any claims to real knowledge, but I did learn a bit about Chilean history:
- The 1879-83 War of the Pacific with Bolivia and Peru that seized territory rich in saltpeter and copper, and left Bolivia landlocked without the sea coast they had when the war started.
- A brief civil war in the 1891 between the President, backed by the Army, and the Congress, backed by the Navy, won by the latter.
- The curious coincidence between Chilean national politics and California when in 1938 both saw the election of left-leaning Popular Front governments.
Valparaiso, or Valpo as it is sometimes called, had long been a city that I imagined, and the real place did not disappoint, even if my uninformed fantasies proved to be entirely inaccurate. A bustling container port, an elegant dying old financial district, funiculars climbing from commercial lowlands to residential hillside neighborhoods, a seaside bikeway connecting Valpo to nearby wealthy enclave Vina del Mar.
Some of the hilltop neighborhoods just above the downtown area are rapidly gentrifying while adjacent areas are left mired in the poverty that neoliberal prosperity necessarily produced. Wherever I went walking around Valparaiso’s streets I found street art from graffiti to spraycan murals to sophisticated large works by very talented artists.
Ricardo Jerez, my wonderful host and guide, knows Valparaiso very well since he’d lived there for years before returning to Santiago. We hardly stopped moving for the weekend we spent in the city and he took me to so many wonderful spots. I was constantly delighted by the street art and we even came upon a steep block that had gone through a bit of a Nowtopian transformation with trees planted in the middle and gorgeous murals gracing the houses.
It was a surprise to exit my first ascensore on Cerro de Alegria and immediately find myself amidst walkways, cafes, art galleries, street musicians, etc. It was unmistakably a gentrifying neighborhood but at that stage that still harbors struggling artists, street musicians, and déclassé bohemians, a stage that precedes the wholesale class- and racial cleansing underway here in San Francisco.
Ricardo took me to Playa Ancha, another neighborhood with mid-19th century Victorians originally settled by the many British who came to Chile, but hasn’t yet gone into the spiralling madness of property fever.
Our visit to Playa Ancha was focused on visiting the “House of Gus” as Ricardo described it to me.
We also took a long bike ride along the coast to Viña del Mar, which gave us a chance to visit an old-style fish market.
Lastly, here’s a spooky inadvertent reminder of the tens of thousands who disappeared during the dictatorship.
And even though you’re reading this here, don’t forget: