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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

A View of the City

The many European visitors who came to Latin America’s cities at around this time—some on business, others to escape political adversity, and still others motivated by a romantic spirit of adventure—discovered that those cities had a colonial character, or even a somewhat aging look about them. From the cities, which they viewed as the last redoubt of civilization, they were surprised to find a world not entirely alien to them. That world was a sort of little Europe, more primitive perhaps, that displayed a dose of exotism moderate enough to make it bearable. The natural world they found was extravagant to excess and the cities somewhat rudimentary. Someone from one of the great capitals of the world might smile with a certain naive smugness. In 1850, hotels in Mendoza or Veracruz were not as fine as the ones in Paris. But the spectacle was an interesting one for travelers. Some wrote down their impressions, and those who knew how to write well, or how to paint, found a suitable vantage point and sketched a view of the city.

Despite their slightly contemptuous attitude, many travelers, temporarily turned into writers and painters, carefully observed the cities of Latin America during the half century that followed Independence. What caught their attention, above all, were the stark contrasts they found within each city. No doubt, they were observing them at a rather unique moment in their development, when their societies were undergoing profound changes while the cities themselves registered no parallel change in their physical appearance. Their layout and architecture were predominantly colonial but the urban societies were Creole and in full ferment. Someone newly arrived would rarely be able to discern the intensity of the change underway in the life of the cities, and his observations could only capture one moment in the process. What these observations registered in their memoirs or in their drawings was an everlasting impression of the urban architecture and atmosphere: the churches, the ironwork and balconies on the old mansions, the calm that surrounded the main square.

No doubt, for the foreign traveler, these cities had to be an intriguing spectacle; for, regardless of their particular traits, they functioned like the cities they had known in their homelands. Natives also saw their cities as architectural and social centers that played a unique role not only in the life of the country but also in the life of the world, as links in the complex urban network that mercantilist economy had created and that were now beginning to serve the economy of industrialism. It was a role that did not go unnoticed by novelists won over by Realism, to sociologists astonished at a thoroughly unexpected reality, or by historians concerned with the course of change. Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna wrote methodically about Valparaiso and Santiago, and many others compiled materials or recorded what they knew about their city’s development.

At the time, cities were an object of interest and study. European cities were growing, spurred on by economic changes, and industrialization was changing customs as well as the conditions in which people lived and the objects they used. As the pace of technological change quickened, contrasts became more pronounced. And both the foreign observer and the native who had visited Europe were analyzing and judging the cities according to certain patterns that revealed stagnation or progress. Cities were, in fact, the gauge of change, and everyone looked to them in order to find out whether the society each belonged to had become part of the process unleashed in Europe.

But in Latin America, many of the cities that began to change at the end of the eighteenth century saw their incipient development arrested, first by the process of Independence and later by the civil wars. Trade routes were interrupted, and relations between the urban centers and the surrounding regions changed, as the cities were occupied time and again by opposing groups, and their manufacture and consumer goods were destroyed or confiscated. The slight movement, which had only recently started, was brought to a halt. Things were different, however, in cities that were important economic centers: those that received and distributed foreign imports and those where products were gathered for export. Things were also different in several capitals that benefited by the presence of the political power. But only in a handful of cities did the continuation or resumption of economic development translate into a physical change that would impress any traveler who lingered long enough to take a look at the city or to describe it. A very perceptive geographer, Agustín Codazzi, after describing the progress of the Venezuelan city of Barinas from 1787 to 1810, explained the reasons for its decay:

As already noted, the war destroyed it; burning and lootings prevented it from recovering as quickly as other places had. The wealthy and talented men of Barinas either abandoned their homes in flight or perished there, or the war scattered them near and far and the few who returned remained indigent. The money had been used up, the livestock had died, and farming had been completely abandoned. Barinas was a ghost town, its plains a desert, its fields barren, its haciendas reclaimed by nature, and its houses swept away. A new era began, the era of liberty and freedom. Each one, believing himself to be free as indeed he was, considered himself to be the master of his own actions and did not want to answer to anyone.

The same process repeated itself in many cities, to a greater or lesser degree. The Argentine Sarmiento, in Recuerdos de provincia, described the fate of San Juan, while in Facundo he described the fate of other cities. The Brazilian Joäo Lisboa described the listlessness of San Luis de Marañon. The Marchioness de Calderón de la Barca said, “There is no city which has fallen off so much since independence as Morelia.”  No less significant, however, was what happened to the port of Veracruz: victim of the misfortunes of war, it lost its old vibrancy and seemed to be at a standstill. Other major ports during the colonial era, like El Callao, Panama City, and Cartagena, suffered a similar decline.

There were many cities that had not yet experienced any real development; added to those that had declined, they completed a picture of widespread stagnation. What kind of image could cities like Cuzco, Quito, Ouro Preto, Tacna, Cochabamba, Monterrey, Asunción, Guatemala City, and Valdivia project? The eighteenth century was still very much alive in those cities, which had the same square, the same fountain, the same church, the same streets, lined by the same houses. Anyone reading an old description of the city would conclude that nothing had changed.

Fired by the new economy, new cities would be created or old villages would become cities: Bahía Blanca and Rosario in Argentina, Tampico in Mexico, Colón in Panama, Barranquilla in Colombia. “She is the natural fruit of trade,” said Miguel Samper about Barranquilla’s bustling development around 1872: “Barranquilla has more foreigners than the rest of the country combined; one hears English spoken in offices, on the docks, on the train, on the steamers. It contrasts with the quiet one finds in the cities on the Altiplano.”

But the physical appearance of these prosperous cities was still very primitive. The layout was irregular; there were more straw huts than masonry houses; what few masonry houses existed were very small and looked like an attempt to solve the immediate problem of a roof over one’s head. There were vacant lots in the center of the city, and activity tended to center around two or three streets or in an area around the port or the railroad station. Something similar happened in border cities and towns, or those that cropped up along railway lines, starting with the first primitive business establishment set up in front of the local railroad station.

The impetus of the new economy and the new social situations spurred the progress of those cities that more radically changed their physical appearance in the long half century after Independence. It was in some political capitals, in some ports, and in some cities where regional economies were centralized. Capitals that were also ports, like Buenos Aires, Montevideo, or Rio de Janeiro, had all the advantages. Economic activity was joined to political influence, and the concentration of wealth was joined, on accession, to the modernizing tendencies of certain groups. Ports experienced increased traffic. In 1855 Panama City began to get back on its feet when a railroad connected it to the Atlantic port of Colon; very soon thereafter it acquired a new look altogether when a large contingent of people from the United States settled there. Guayaquil and El Callao grew slowly, although by 1851 El Callao was connected by rail to Lima.

But the Pacific port that grew most and that transformed itself into a modern city most quickly was Valparaiso. It reaped the fruit of the economic activity that picked up in the area when gold was discovered in California and Australia. On the whole, it was surpassed by Santiago, which made no attempt to hide its envy of the port that aimed “to be more important and to be held in higher regard than the capital of the Republic,” as Blest Gana put it. As the mountainous amphitheater surrounding the bay began to be populated, the atmosphere of Valparaiso became more and more lively and picturesque. The views of the city done by Wood, Fisquet, and Lafond de Lurcy capture that one aspect above all. The earliest photographs, however, show a city on the road to modernization, with its luxurious Hotel Aubry on Aduana Street, almost as elegant as the Pharoux Hotel in Rio. In 1856, Valparaiso’s population was 52,000; twenty years later it was 97,000. Many people were engaged in the city’s busy commercial activities. “The customs plaza, which is open on one side to the sea,” wrote Max Radiguet in 1847, “is alive with the hustle and bustle created by so many important commercial transactions: the place is filled with mountains of tied and wrapped bundles, barrels of all sizes and shapes, large, colorfully-painted boxes covered with labels and lettering, the laborious work of some Chinese painter.” And yet Valparaiso was just starting. Exports of wheat, especially to California, had boosted its commerce; its imports grew as well, so much so that its customs revenues multiplied five times over between 1841 and 1870. The traffic in the harbor increased, as did domestic traffic, which became heavier and faster with the 1863 inauguration of the railroad connecting Valparaiso with Santiago. This economic splendor was accompanied by a significant urban transformation. The harbor area blended into the suburb of Almendral, creating a continuous waterfront. New buildings changed the look of the center, as Almendral became a neighborhood of beautiful residences, most belonging to foreign businessmen. Hotels, businesses, and banks were lined up along the narrow Aduanas Street—today called Prat—around which a few traces of the old colonial city remained intact.

Rio de Janeiro was the first Latin American city whose physical appearance changed significantly, beginning as early as the first decades of the nineteenth century. The surprise arrival in 1808 of the Portuguese regent Juan VI, a fugitive from the French protected by the British fleet, suddenly transformed the sleepy viceregal capital into a court city. Accommodating the royal family and the 15,000 people in its retinue was a difficult problem that was solved by functionally transforming the center of the city. With only minimal changes, the viceregal palace, the Carmelite convent, and the jail were taken over to house the court. But from that time on, everything began to change little by little. The Portuguese noblemen wanted to accommodate their own needs and thus hastened the change. Yet the British and French traders who made themselves available to satisfy those needs by taking advantage of the opening of the ports, contributed even more to the transformation that Rio underwent. Within a short time, the Rua do Ouvidor became a rich and varied showcase of imported products, where the elegant gathered in improvised sidewalk salons.

Very soon Rio’s architectural look began to change. The regent moved to a luxurious manor house outside the city that had been a gift to him. He called it Boa Vista and ordered that the street leading to it be improved. The name of the road, Aterrado, became the name of the neighborhood. Little by little it began to fill up with new houses, which were valuable because of their proximity to the Royal Palace. It was the Cidade Nova, and with it the perimeter of the city was extended as far as San Cristóbal. But that was not the only expansion. A snuff factory went up near Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon and the botanical garden that the regent had installed around it created another hub of expansion that gradually underwent urban development, giving rise to the neighborhoods of Lagoa and Gávea. New neighborhoods were created by newly-arrived foreign diplomats and businessmen, some along the coastline, like Gloria, Flamengo, and Botafogo, and others in the valley, like Laranjeiras or Tijuca.

Through the imperial period, Rio de Janeiro achieved a certain splendor. Its growth was natural, but in some respects its transformation was the work of two French urban planners: Auguste Grandjean de Montigny and Auguste Glaziou. They either opened up or remodeled streets, plazas; and gardens; there was even some thought—by this time influenced by the work of Baron Haussmann in Paris—of razing every colonial structure in the city. Some work had already been done. The Plaza del Mercado, completed in 1841, gave the area around it a new look. Construction was in progress on the waterfront. The Plaza de la Aclamación, formerly Campo de Santa Ana, was transformed into a French garden. Many buildings went up during the Empire years. Some were public buildings like the First Royal Theater in Tiradentes Square and then the Teatro Lirico, the Church of the Candelaria and the Casa de la Moneda; other buildings were private, like those that were put up along the Aterrado near Boa Vista Palace, especially the home of the royal mistress, the Marchioness de Santos, or the sumptuous palaces of Itamarati and Catete, which were built by rich hacendados, the first in 1854 and the second in 1866.

An imperial capital and a port at the same time, Rio de Janeiro enjoyed considerable commercial activity. Viscount Mauá started a number of businesses and is credited with installing gas street lamps and the first railroad in 1854. He saw Rio for the humble, provincial city it was, a city portrayed with some melancholy by Machado de Asis in Don Casmurro and in the scenes of the city done by the Austrian J. Varrone and by the French Jean Baptiste Debret. He dreamed of building a railroad that would reach the productive areas in the country’s interior, which he believed would bring a burst of activity to the city: “That is when Rio de Janeiro will become a center of trade, industry and wealth, and power, and will have nothing to envy in any other place in the world,” he said when he inaugurated the first stretch in the presence of Emperor Pedro II.

Mexico City, too, was for a few years an imperial capital, when Maximilian and Charlotte sat on the throne. But it was an unsteady throne, threatened by the armed resistance of the Mexicans who saw it only as a symbol of invasion. This was not the time to concern oneself with giving the city the dazzle of an imperial capital, so only the drive that connected the old city with Chapultepec Castle was given any attention. Nevertheless, that drive, then called Paseo del Emperador and one day to be Paseo de la Reforma, established the direction in which this city would grow.

By mid-nineteenth century, the physical appearance of other capitals began to change. Greater political stability and some prosperity afforded the upper classes and those in government an opportunity to give cities a new look, one consistent with their importance and, above all, with their Paris-inspired pretensions to opulence. Indeed, Paris had by now become something of an obsession in terms of the model to imitate. There was no major remodeling of the existing city, but in upper-class neighborhoods, wealthy businessmen, hacendados, and mine owners began to build residences that looked more like palaces. The revivalist trend underway in some European countries left its mark on Latin American cities as well, in the form of Neo-Gothic and Moorish palaces. But on the whole, a kind of French eclecticism was the most prominent trend in architecture, reflecting France’s heavy influence on fashion and custom.

With the prosperity that Chile enjoyed between 1840 and 1870, Santiago’s wealthy class achieved considerable splendor; its most powerful members had built mansions or petit-hotels. The Ossa family decided to build a home in the style of the Alhambra. Enrique Meiggs, the United States businessman who had made his fortune by securing public works contracts, wanted to have his Bostonian house. But most drew from the French influence: the Blanco Encalada family, the Larraín Zañartu family, the Concha y Toro family, the Subercaseaux family, the Cousiño family. Old streets were lined with a new architecture. A new residential area was opening up along the Alameda, which was already home to the Amunátegui family; to the south of that new residential area began the new farms, perhaps not quite so fine as those on the other bank of the Mapocho. In the heart of the city, Cousiño Park was patterned after a French garden, and Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna, historian and mayor of Santiago, transformed Santa Lucia hill into a beautiful public promenade.

It was only after 1870 that other cities slowly began to change. A number adopted gas lighting, introduced horse-drawn trolleys, improved their water supply systems, paved some streets and improved security services. As the population increased, the old suburbs grew and new ones appeared. Like ports, train stations became unique centers of urban development, and the sinister world of gambling and prostitution began to stake out its own territory. Markets and slaughterhouses attracted a variety of people; not far from them the boundary between the urban and the rural began to be drawn. In 1858 the Chilean José Antonio Torres described that little world in his novel Los misterios de Santiago, which was an imitation of the novel written by Eugène Sue.

In some cities the pace of transformation quickened. During the time of Guzmán Blanco, Caracas changed in appearance when the Capitol was built, a Neo-Gothic facade was added to the university, and Bolívar Square was remodeled. Sarmiento added Palermo Park to Buenos Aires, laid out on the property that had once been the residence of Rosas. At about the same time, São Paulo, too, began to undergo rapid change. Around 1860, the French traveler Auguste Emile Zaluar pointed out the contradictions of the city, where the Law School and the student world seemed to capture its spirit despite the burgeoning commercial movement derived from the region’s coffee wealth. “Take away São Paulo’s Academy and the center will die. Having no work and no large-scale industries, the capital of the province would no longer be the same and would cease to exist.” After 1870 São Paulo ceased to be a student town and became instead a coffee capital. Contrary to what some had thought, the railroad line that joined São Paulo with Rio de Janeiro and the port of Santos strengthened its position. The textile industry appeared in 1872, and rich hacendados from the interior settled in the city, building fine homes there. The face of streets and squares began to change, so much so that that people could talk about a second founding of the city. In contrast to what happened in Caracas, the process of change was in full swing—there was no stopping it.

In 1878 the French traveler Edmond Cotteau wrote: “The walls of Lima have recently been demolished and replaced with new streets. But all these neighborhoods are being built slowly. The business and monetary crisis that Peru is experiencing is paralyzing any spirit of enterprise.” Between 1869 and 1871, stimulated by the initiatives of U.S. entrepreneur Henry Meiggs, President Balta’s impulse to modernize, was to knock down the city walls and build a steel bridge over the Rimac river. But there were no immediate opportunities for expansion, fewer still after the war and the occupation of the city by Chilean troops. Something similar had occurred earlier in Montevideo. When the city walls began to go down in 1829, the so-called new city was added to the old one; a square for the marketplace and a main street—18 de julio—formed a chessboard, planned in 1836, that covered the city’s common. Within a few years, a number of buildings went up in the area. Yet the outbreak of war and the seizure of the city in 1843 transformed it into a battlefield until 1851 and, in the process, arrested its development. Other urban clusters appeared in the meantime in the outlying areas: the community of Cerro, called Cosmópolis; the community of Restauración, later called La Unión; el Cerrito de la Victoria, and Buceo. After the peace of 1851, these and other centers began to establish relations and to grow, thanks to the immigrant population. There were any number of ambitious buildings, like the Teatro Solís, built in 1856, and the Mercado de la Abundancia, built in 1859. But even when the political unrest was past, urban growth continued to be slow; the views of the city painted by Théodore Fisquet in 1836 and Adolphe D’Hastrel in 1840 showed that it still retained its traditional character.

Open to foreign influences, Latin American cities began to be transformed when the social and political processes stabilized to some extent, and wealth began to accumulate. One of the basic concerns of the patrician elite was to project itself as a legitimate, landed aristocracy that was part of European civilization. Everything was imitated: from architecture to the custom of drinking tea. And yet, the forms of communal life were predominantly “creolized” during the long half century that followed Independence. By the time European customs were finally embraced by the upper classes, the old patrician group had ceded its place to a new generation, to a new class.