I traveled to Valparaiso, Chile, not quite knowing what to expect. It was once a great port city on the Pacific coast of South America. But the construction of the Panama Canal more a century ago fundamentally changed the strategic importance of Valparaiso. The port is still extremely active, but I was curious to see how the city had reinvented itself as a place of arts and education. While walking around the city, I was intrigued by how the the neighborhoods were knit into both the dramatic hills and the hurly burly of the port. In 1963, the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens made a beautiful documentary film about the city called …A Valparaiso. In just twenty-six minutes, he captured a city that was dealing with its transformation from a booming center of trade to a place where people were questioning the very existence of their communities. My walks in recent years reveal a city full of vitality and energy.
The city and the port meet at a specific spot, in front of Plaza Sotomayor, a public space that overlooks the bustle of fishing boats, container ships, and ferries. Ordinarily, ports are off limits for visitors, but here the energy of the city, with its nearby historic civic institutions, converge at a place where the the life of the industrial scene can be engaged and observed. For all the remarkable places in the city, I am always drawn to this place first when I visit.
The city is famous for its funiculars, which climb up and down the steep hillsides. This one stops at a public space with a terrific view. Here a neighborhood market with a precariously balanced pavilion overlooks the sweep of the port below. All over the hillsides, dense neighborhoods along curving streets appear to cling to dramatic slopes, opening up sudden and unexpected vistas.
Wandering through the streets I immediately notice colorful murals of urban scenes depicting imagined or local places. They’re rather skillfully done, incorporating architectural elements of the building forms. The painted city is a kind of city within the city.
The graphic power of the murals is striking. Surrealistic juxtapositions constantly reveal themselves as you move around the curving streets and unfolding urban context. These stories—which unfold on the walls of ordinary houses—are a unique way to experience the city. Imagine turning a corner and finding this big bird looking at you from its flattened surface.
Valparaiso is a gritty industrial city of subtlety and grace. The colorful buildings create a dynamic pattern that feels both warm and vibrant. That duality is a part of the city’s unique urban character.
Roaming around, I discover a rare flat area with a community soccer field and a game underway. Behind the goalposts is a rather clever mural of hills and sky carefully navigating the shape and profile of the adjacent houses. I love how closely living, working and communal areas intersect. These kind of juxtapositions are often missing in our planned urban environments.
Next to the field is one of the more remarkable structures I saw in Valparaiso – a small wooden grandstand for locals to watch the game. Stained green, with a faded cotton roof, the seats seemed to offer an improvised opportunity to gather for an afternoon of neighborhood fun. A modest place of civic dignity and energy, quite appropriate for a city reborn in the 21st century.
All photos by the author.