In Valparaiso, A Tourist Boom Pits Culture Against Capitalism

Can gritty urbanism and ritzy tourism coexist?

Valparaiso, Chile has always been a gritty industrial backwater of wayfarers, prostitution and happy-go-lucky lawlessness. But recently, a vibrant graffiti culture perhaps unrivaled in the world has emerged here. This chromatic city’s relentless street art is the physical manifestation of a renaissance three decades in the making; a bohemian boom that has propelled a new and exploding tourism industry that now overshadows shipping as the region’s most important economic driver.

These days, it is increasingly an international crowd — wealthy travelers and thrifty backpackers — that meander like ants through Valpo’s battered cobble stone walkways, seeking out postcard worthy vistas revealed atop hills or glimpsed in-between crumbling facades. But these visitors quickly understand that the city’s truly unique treasures adorn the very walls that envelop them. The relatively new works of street art, ranging from the political to the psychedelic to the ubiquitous “tags”, are an odd but tantalizing compliment to the 19th century grandiose European buildings and makeshift structures dripping with Latin charm that act as canvas. These structures, which helped earn the city its World UNESCO Heritage status, are stacked precarious and lego-like on steep hills that funnel into an intimate cove still functioning as the country’s premier port. If you manage to steal an early-morning moment alone, Valparaiso’s streets can feel alive; an ever-evolving urban organism confidently exposing itself — stark naked and silent — exuding a charisma, chaos, frustration and hope that can only be the product of conflict.

Valparaiso, blanketing the Pacific just 70 miles West of Santiago, is a destination on the rise in a country poised to affirm its status as Latin America’s most developed, most stable nation. Yet look no further than the omnipresent street dogs pawing through piles of garbage to taste its lingering provincial status. As prestige and affluence inevitably pour in, hiking up real estate values and adjusting to a flood of wealthier clientele, it remains to be seen what will happen to the artists and escapist youth culture responsible for this transformation.

Will gritty urbanism and ritzy international tourism be able to coexist? It’s a question being negotiated in the streets right now, but one thing is for certain: the city’s poor residents are not happy with the current trajectory.

In 2014 a fire devastated the poorest part of town, leaving in some estimates over 10,000 people homeless. The Mayor, in response to the catastrophe, uttered, “Did I invite you to live here?” The words, presumably something he meant to mutter to himself rather than proclaim publicly, still ring through his city’s hills and inspire ire from citizens.

 

“They don’t care about us,” said Ma Noh, a local artist who now takes advantage of the boom by guiding walking tours of the city.

Ma Noh speaks for those feeling disenfranchised when he says this sort of cynical answer sums up the government’s attitude and actions, which are transforming the city to cater to private financial speculative related to the port and tourism. He says this “Valpo for others” has led to job insecurity for many, and life in popular neighborhoods has been permanently by altered by the privatization of public spaces, property speculation and the resultant gentrification and expulsion of residents.

Today, if caught painting on the wrong wall you can face a night in prison and a hefty fine. That’s why, when walking the streets late at night (something this author doesn’t condone), you’ll find crews hard at work nestled in the streets shadowy nooks and crannies, one eye on their artwork, one eye watching for the police. Early in the morning, every morning, cleanup teams in new trucks with fancy logos on the side and equipped with sophisticated paint removing gear cruise through the city to wipe away evidence of the nighttime activity and, in a sense, the culture responsible for it.

For centuries, Valparaiso was one of, if not the, most important port in South America. The “Jewel of the Pacific” was a critical stopping off point for ships and crews making the long journey around the Magellan straight. From the 16th century to the end of the 19th, it flourished. But what took so long to build up was all but destroyed in the span of just a few years, when a devastating earthquake in 1906 caused massive damage and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 meant the trip around the tip of South America no longer made sense.

For nearly 100 years, Valparaiso was left in dire straits. It’s once proud alleyways, home to dignitaries and industrial magnets, now belonged to history. The money and prestige left, but the working class locals and the buildings stayed.

It’s no coincidence that graffiti found an outlet here. The street art is heir to Chile’s protest mural culture that flourished in the 1960s under Chile’s first democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende. Indeed, it is hard not to turn a corner in Valparaiso today and not find his lionized stenciled likeness. But during Pinochet’s dictatorship, the murals were strictly forbidden, and the social and artistic current lay dormant until the 1990s when, after the General’s fall, street art reemerged in earnest.

Fast forward to today, and the world is just starting to notice the new wonders that adorn these old walls and well-concealed streets.

Jorge Fajardo opened a Melbourne Café on Plaza Sotomayor four and a half years ago. Since starting up, he has seen revenue increase by 20–25 percent every year, crediting the influx of international tourists for his business’s success.

“Overseas, Valparaiso is known for street art. It’s a marketing that they do overseas, but don’t appreciate it much,” says Jorge. “The real truth is many [foreigners] that come here to the coffee shop come asking for street art. It’s amazing.”

Jorge managed to purchase his café, on perhaps Chile’s most historic square, at bottom price. But this was before the boom. Today, just five years later, the value of his property has gone up 50 percent. Starbucks moved in across the square a few months ago. It is an accelerated trend spreading from the centrally located tourist hot-spots up and over the hills, to homes of the original Portanos who just 20 years ago were living in an ignored Eden.

As a country, Chile has one of the highest income disparities in the world. Ever since US-backed General Pinochet’s ruthless regime, the country has been a neoliberal experiment. The right leaning economic and social policies here in many ways coincide with what some observers have called the “Great Britain of South America”, because of Chile’s insistence on the rule of law and accountability. Across the border in Bolivia it’s often the only way to get by, but don’t try to bribe a police officer here.

The impacts of this economic stratification are more potent here than in other parts of the country. It’s a classic situation certainly not unique to Valparaiso, but those at the bottom — the very people representing the culture responsible for its ascendance in the first place — are the ones yet to reap the positive benefits of the city’s rags to riches narrative.

Yet there exists a contradiction. While the boom has been a negative for many, some, like Ma Noh, have found ways to capitalize on it. Some of the best artists now make money painting on private buildings for commission (Occasionally drawing scorn from the others for “selling out”). Some who have found some fame have even moved overseas to pursue their work and find their fortunes.

It must also be noted that in a few cases the government has made an effort to embrace the movement. When piles of garbage posed a health and safety risk (this was a major reason for the 2013 fire), the city responded by initiating a program to allow local artists to graffiti garbage trucks and thereby turn garbage collection into something almost cool.

In many ways, the future is bright for Valparaiso. But the changes happening here are happening fast, and it is still uncertain what will be lost as the city continues to attract more and more tourists and fill it’s coffers.