Killer Monuments of Valparaiso
by Sophie Arie
Halfway down its long, jagged Pacific coast, Chile's second city has seen better days. A century ago, Valparaiso was the country's main port, but it has since been abandoned by the wealthy classes and the industrialists and is rough, rusty, and grimy.
The city's hodgepodge of Victorian follies, French neoclassical palaces, and modest wooden chalets clinging precariously to the hillsides is literally falling apart.
A piece of one old building in the center of town came crashing down recently and killed three passers by. Officials have admitted that it would only take an earth tremor — not a rare occurrence in this part of the world — and another 30 buildings, including several national monuments, could collapse.
Many of the cash-strapped owners are itching to demolish the hulking shells rather than invest in making them safe.
"That accident was like a red light for us," explains Juan Fernandez Yanez, an architect at the local authority repairs department. "It's forced us to sit up and notice that this town is falling apart. Otherwise years more could have gone by."
Much of the old city center, built by European immigrants, has already been wiped out, either by the five major earthquakes of the last century or by the eager property prospectors who until recently were erecting concrete tower blocks at an alarming pace.
A bill to protect national monuments has been waiting in Chile's notoriously slow court system for years. Until it is passed, owners are not obliged to maintain or restore their property.