I re-watched a movie recently, that reminded me of a walk I took, in the early morning hours, around Valparaíso, Chile, a couple of months ago.
Those familiar with Woody Allen movies surely know “Midnight in Paris”.
(If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this, run out and rent it, it’s great! And this is a spoiler alert.)
A despondent writer walks the streets of Paris, and at midnight, is transported back to the 1920’s, the era he’s longed for his whole life, to meet his artistic idols. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and all the other artists and writers of Paris between-the-wars. He meets a beautiful woman from that time, but then finds that she in turn, yearns to escape the ’20’s to live in an even earlier time, La Belle Époque (what we in the U.S. call “The Gilded Age”).
I would love to visit Paris, or New York, during those long-ago eras.
And it turns out, another great place to stroll around, then and now: Valparaíso.
During the Gilded Age, it was a major world port, called the “San Francisco of South America” — a key stopping point for Europe-to-Asia shipping, for clipper ships and steamers “sailing around the Horn” through the Straits of Magellan.
Valparaíso’s harbor handled a huge volume of lumber, wheat, beef, sugar, nitrates and saltpeter, copper and silver, as well as European cargoes bound for Asian markets, and vice-versa.
Farther back in time, in the 1850’s, there was a huge traffic in guano, at that time, being mined on the coasts and islands belonging to Peru and Chile, and then shipped to farmers in the U.S. and Europe. At that time, guano (the dried accumulation of seabird droppings) was an incredibly valuable soil amendment. Franklin Pierce, reckoned to be one of our worst Presidents (although, of course, he’s moved up one slot recently) displayed a politician’s natural affinity for, let’s say, “fertilizer,” and signed the “Guano Islands Act of 1856,” allowing U.S. citizens to claim any unoccupied island, covered with centuries of bird manure, sometimes hundreds of feet thick, as a new, fragrant part of the United States, at least until we’d mined it out. It was a proud moment for American statesmen, doing that voodoo, and bird doo, that they do so well. But I digress.
This was South America’s single most important Pacific seaport. Immigrants from UK, Germany, Italy, and France poured in. The cosmopolitan community grew and spread up the hillsides, with two dozen funiculars to carry people up the slopes.
Then, as historians like to say, something happened.
It was called “Teddy Roosevelt”.
In 1914, the Panana Canal began siphoning off the ships and trade.
In recent years, the city is awake and bustling again, as a tourist destination, and a center for universities and the arts. This is a vibrant, fun city, with art museums and amazing street art, too. And it’s still a seaport, of course, with fishing boats, and cruise ships, and the Chilean navy is based there, but it has nothing like the cargo traffic of Shanghai, Singapore, or Rotterdam. Nowadays, the lesser ports in the U.S., like Savannah or even the much-diminished New York harbor, handle far more shipping.
A hundred years ago, when the fleets of cargo ships stopped coming, the rich folks started moving out, and in the old downtown, it’s as if the grand city drifted off to sleep in 1914, when the canal opened.
So, here in the land famous for poetry and “magic realism,” a perfect place for a bit of time-travel on a foggy morning.
People compare Valparaíso’s climate to that of San Francisco, basically pleasant and moderate, but also including frequent fogbanks rolling in from the ocean. Whether it’s Yorkshire, Hong Kong, or the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I’ve always found fog to be conducive to a history walk. It quietens the roar of modern life, keeps the crowds indoors, gives an old-painting look to things, and acts as a theatrical scrim for old buildings.
So when I arrived, a bit foggy myself, after an overnight bus ride from Pucón, I was happy to step into a gray, misty morning, just before sunrise. The rain had just ended, the streets were wet, and it was still overcast and half-dark.
Walking through the historic district, down by the port, and the old-fashioned financial district, I was struck by just how empty it felt. When there was a break in the clouds, you could see the hillsides surrounding the city, as everyone notes, like a big amphitheater, jammed with tiers of houses, in beautiful colors, like a box of crayons. There are still quite a few operational funiculars, going up the steep slopes.
But where I was walking, the streets were empty at that hour, the shops still shuttered, and the city felt old, grayed, and even slightly foreboding.
I was happy to see a Kodak sign, a reminder of back home in Upstate NY, and a time when our economy was thriving.
It was around this time I really began to pay attention to the stone-faced buildings, from Valpo’s boom years. A lot of the blocks near the harbor have an early 20th century feel. The Spanish conquistadors established a village here in the 1500’s, but most of the buildings I passed are late-Victorian or from the early 1900’s. Earthquakes over the centuries, and a bombardment by the Spanish navy in 1866, destroyed many of the older buildings. The worst destruction happened around the turn of the last century.
Over several months in 1906, a series of severe earthquakes hit all around the Pacific Rim, knocking down thousands of buildings, and killing thousands of people. Columbia and Equador were hit first, followed by a tsunami, sixteen feet high. Then Taiwan, one of their worst, followed by the infamous San Francisco quake, that leveled almost the entire city.
An even more severe one (8.2) hit this city, and killed almost four thousand people. The cathedral and churches, museums and government buildings from the 1800’s were repaired and reassembled, so you see some neo-classical and beaux-artes styles, but near the harbor, blocks and blocks of buildings had been built on fill, just like lower Manhattan, and had to be created from scratch, so I was roaming around in a substantially post-1906 world. The streets are sometimes curving, sometimes at angles, so there are some interesting angular buildings.
I looked around at the handsome old buildings in the mist, and decided I was taking a stroll in the, say, 1920’s.
The provincial government building, the Palacio Armada de Chile, is from 1910. The national library, 1925. Banks that wouldn’t look a tad out of place in the older parts of Manhattan lined the streets. I passed the Bolsa de Comercio, the 1917 stock exchange, and the offices of El Mercurio. the oldest continuously published newspaper in the Spanish-speaking world.
I stopped to examine the statue of the winged messenger god, perched on the newspaper building. Another reminder of home – there’s a similar statue of Mercury in Rochester, from 1881, that used to be on top of Kimball’s Peerless Tobacco Works. Placed in storage for many years when the factory was torn down, it was then moved to the Lawyer’s Coop building. (Rochester loves the statue, although when this naked man was re-erected over the city, if you’ll pardon the expression, there was an intense, sometime cheeky debate over which part of town his derrière would face.)
A couple of blocks away, I caught a glimpse of a trolley going by. (As I found out later, it was actually a vintage trolleybus, from the ’50’s, rather than the ’20’s, but from a distance, it helped with the time-travel illusion.)
Then something else caught my eye.
Off to the right, I caught a glimpse of a clock. Partially out of curiosity as to the time, and partially because it struck me as sort of familiar, I walked towards it.
If you’ve ever seen pre-WWI pictures of city streets, you’ll remember the webs of electric, telephone and telegraph wires overhead, from poles and brackets on buildings. Each phone and telegraph, was connected to an exchange by its own, individual copper wire, creating a crazy tangle overhead. A century ago, the larger U.S. cities began putting the wires underground.
But in Chile, the overhead wires for the electric trolleybuses, and some telephone lines are still strung over some of the streets, adding to the old-time feeling. Philadephia and Boston are the only U.S. cities I’ve been in, where the trolleybuses still run.
Cities in New York State abandoned streetcars and trolley systems many decades ago, most of them gone before WWII. But in the early ’50’s, Valparaíso bucked the trend, installed this system…and the original 1950’s vehicles are still running somehow.
And, so, when I went around the corner, and saw through the fog, an odd, almost triangular building, with trolley wires crossing overhead, on a street that looked like old-time Manhattan, it suddenly felt like I was walking in a Gilded Age incarnation of New York City. The angular building reminded me of a miniature six-story Flatiron.
(In reality, an example of how we compress and blur events in the past. I checked and found that in NYC, the wires went underground sooner than most places, following a disastrous blizzard in March 1888. So the telephone/telegraph wires were gone before the very modern, 22-story Flatiron went up in 1902. NYC went on to embrace subways, and phased out trolleys.)
The building I was walking toward, as I later learned, was the Reloj Turri, completed 1924, in the French Neoclassical style. Like the Flatiron, it drives a wedge between two streets. It’s one of the city’s landmarks, topped by one of its oldest functioning clocks.
Later in the morning, Valpo began to come to life, and my fantasy stroll through the Nineteen-Twenties was fading out. But next to the tower, I wandered into the café of an old, elegant hotel. They served caffè italiano, instead of the usual instant Nescafe, and had wonderful pastries, and offered lots of newspapers. I wished I had a linen suit and a Panama hat. But seated in the quiet turn-of-the-century hotel, I sat back like a rich boulevardier, eating pastries, drinking excellent coffee, reading the papers, and watching the people slowly strolling by, and stayed immersed in my daydream of the ’20’s for just a bit longer.
I didn’t get to go back in time and meet Hemingway or Dalí, and it was only a few hours, before the city woke up, and got noisy again. But when I think of Valparaíso, it is these images and feelings from that foggy early morning, that surface in my mind. A taste of a city as it once was, and a feeling like nostalgia, for a prior incarnation of Valparaíso, and New York, too, that I would have liked to walk around.
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