Spurred by the listing, Chile’s national government decided to act. In 2006, after securing funding from the Inter-American Development Bank, it set up the $73 million Valparaíso Recovery and Urban Development Program to overcome the city’s worst ills.
Over six years, the program has bought and restored landmark buildings, including the gloriously eclectic Palacio Baburizza and the art museum it contains. It has repainted private homes, installed street lighting, renewed paving, modernized trash collection, and refitted the scruffiest ascensores. It has even sterilized 18,000 stray dogs.
Yet such achievements have met with a chorus of disapproval. Some locals simply hoped for more widespread or profound change after investing “70 years of dreams in just one project,” as Castro put it.
Others — who relish the city’s seamier side — remained obstinately opposed to renewal. (The fiercest rejectionists counterattacked immediately, vandalizing newly restored ascensores within days of their unveiling.) “There are people who believe that the essence of Valparaíso is its scuzziness,” architect Antonio Menéndez said. “I don’t think they’re in the majority.”
The loudest protests have come from preservation-minded residents’ associations. So keen are they to protect every centennial nail and historic doorknob, complain architects involved in the city’s renewal, that many historic buildings are likely to collapse before they can be rescued.
“Surely it’s better to take some action rather than let the city fall into complete ruin?” said architect Mathias Klotz, who recently transformed a near-derelict Victorian-style mansion in Cerro Alegre into the Hotel Palacio Astoreca, its stucco-and-brick exterior newly washed in a startling red.
For the foreign visitor, the citywide spruce-up has been an unmitigated success. The reopening of the Fine Arts Museum in the Palacio Baburizza after its 15-year closure is huge, along with the revitalization of the adjacent Paseo Yugoslavo promenade and other nearby streets, with their antiques stores and artists’ studios.
“The conversion of Cerros Concepción and Alegre into a touristy, gentrified area is a hugely positive development,” said Matt Ridgway, a British property developer who restored a traditional Cerro Alegre townhouse. “Without these changes, many of the historic mansions would simply have fallen down.”
Refreshed public space has turned a simple stroll between cerros into a walker’s delight, the joy of discovery compounded, too, by the streets’ maze-like ability to confuse.
Follow an apparently blind alley and chances are it will open to a row of stucco-and-brick Victorian-style cottages, perfectly ordered and maintained, their facades washed in vibrant shades.
Skip down a winding staircase and a sliver of glinting ocean could flick into view in a gap between townhouses or a dazzling burst of orange materialize as a patch of flowering strelitzia in the tiniest of cliff-top gardens.
Urban renewal is becoming visible even outside the city’s historic districts. Fresh paint is evident on private homes in less salubrious districts like Barrio Puerto and Cerro Artillería. On formerly down-at-heel Cerro Yungay, several clusters of loft-style apartment blocks aimed at well-to-do urban youth have sprung up.
And on Cerro Cárcel, the city’s former prison has reopened as a world-class rehearsal and performance space for dance, music, and theater.
Valparaíso’s long-term future may remain uncertain, but for the first time in decades, the city seems able to breathe. “The Valparaíso of the past, a city more prosperous than the country’s capital, is dead,” Jacobo Ahumada, the city’s culture director, said. “We must search once again to find what we want to be.”
Colin Barraclough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.