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Chile: Citizens Fight to Save Valparaiso's Emblematic Elevators

In 1945, Eduardo Reyes, then 16, hopped aboard the Artillería funicular elevator, overlooking the rocky coast of Valparaíso, Chile. As a fresh navy recruit, it was the first day of a life full of rumbling rides up the metal rails that belong to an exclusive community of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

“I never considered the elevators as a tourist attraction. In those days, I was just worried about getting back to the barracks late,” said Reyes.

For Reyes and his neighbors, the elevators provide an essential service, cheaply lifting and lowering residence during their morning and evening commute, but now Valparaíso’s elevators are teetering on the brink of extinction. The World Monuments Fund named them one of the world’s 100 most endangered historical treasures.

About 130 years ago, there were 30 elevators. Now, only five are still cranking, which is why residents are fighting to ensure that the local government makes good on their promise to purchase and repair the elevators.

Photo by Katie Manning

Photo by Katie Manning

The wooden boxes, passing each other on parallel tracks, wear many hats. Up to about a dozen passengers peer through the carts’ wraparound glass goggles. Tourists snap up memories of Valparaíso's seemingly perpendicular slopes, layered with crayon-box colored houses.

Over the years, the elevators allowed workers to migrate upward and outward and grow the city beyond the shore.

Reyes, now 82, stayed put after his service, working as a professor at the University of Chile in Valparaíso and a scientific journalist. He clips newspaper articles about repair plans and recognitions that the elevators won over the years.

He said, “They are in our heart and in our spirit. Having them is necessary. It contributed to the the history of our city and how it developed.”

Many Porteños, or Valparaíso residents, live in the less-pricey hilltop perches and work down on the shore. They shell out only 100 to 300 Chilean pesos a ride (25 to 50 U.S. cents). But the elevator's cheap price doesn't turn enough coins for their upkeep.

Consequently, 10 remain out of service leaving Porteños searching for alternate transportation.  Reyes explained that many can't afford to take a taxi. The roads often cut off suddenly, which means a sweaty-uphill climb between bus routes. This makes for a long commute and poses an obstacle for the elderly.

Reyes said, “Valparaíso is poor. It's not like the beach resort towns next door. And it's not just the practicality, the elevators are also a point of pride for our community.”

UNESCO sites the antique elevators in the first paragraph of it's explanation of why Valparaíso made the list of World Heritage cities. It reads:

The colonial city of Valparaíso presents an excellent example of late 19th-century urban and architectural development in Latin America… The city has well preserved its interesting early industrial infrastructures, such as the numerous ‘elevators’ on the steep hillsides.

The “Elevator Users” (Los Usarios de Los Ancensores) disagreed that the elevators are “well preserved.” Hermann  Cabezòn, 41, leads the group because their rusty state burdens residents and falsely advertises one of the cities premier attractions, he said.

“They're an important emblem of what it means to be from Valaparaiso. We deserve the elevators, and they deserve to be maintained,” according to Cabezòn.

The group said their social media and picketing campaign encouraged  the Supreme Court's 2009 mandate that the government purchase the rest of the elevators from private owners. In January this year, Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera officially announced the government's purchase, recovery and repair 10 elevators: Florida, Cordillera, Larrain, Mariposa, Monja, Villaseca, Santo Domingo, Artillería, Concepción and Espíritu Santo. According to the city's regional governor (el Intendente) Raúl Celis, they've set aside 2.4 billion Chilean pesos, or U.S. $4.8 million to buy them. This month marked the tentative deadline for the purchase.

“We hope that in the shortest possible time – we believe that by the end of this month or early December – we'll be able to make the legal transfer of the elevators and sign the deed,” according to Celis.

Photo by Katie Manning

Photo by Katie Manning

Reyes said he's not convinced the deal will go through considering how much time has passed since the court's decision. He laid down a photocopy of a local newspaper from 2006 onto a coffee-house table in central Valparaíso. The paper mentioned a proposal to buy the elevators four years ago.

Reyes now writes for online citizen-journalism site, El Martutino [es], to spur the municipality to keep their promise. He faulted authorities for lagging past the deadline of the Barron elevator's repairs. He wrote,

¿Dónde y cómo se fija un valor patrimonial?

Where and how will heritage be fixed?

Reyes and other citizen journalists at El Martutino [es] are bringing attention to the struggle to save Valparaiso's elevators.

The Elevator Users, under @ValpoAncensores, tweeted [es] a photo to their nearly 500 followers showing evidence of the municipality's as yet unfulfilled pledge to patch up Barron.

REALIDAD DE ASCENSOR BARON,VALPARAISO,CHILE pic.twitter.com/onDKI3KW

Reality of Baron elevator, Valparaiso, Chile pic.twitter.com/onDKI3KW

Alongside the Twitter account, they organized a Facebook page [es] with 3,540 followers.

While the Elevator Users focus on the practical use for residents, Reyes also mentioned that the elevators attract crucial tourism dollars.

One rider from Toulouse, France, 69-year-old Michel Aymeric bobbled down the Concepción elevator while on day fifteen of a 20-percent wine business and 80-percent pleasure trip. He skirted out of the capital to drink in Valparaíso’s coastal view and “find a nice girl.” He said, “In Valparaíso, you have both the soul and something that’s joyful.”

His desire for a convenient route to a “touristy” café convinced him to step onto the oldest of the elevators. He mimicked the rumbling of the elevator with roughed-up noises from back of his throat. It was “fantastic and original. We French people like old things, so we like that. It's a pity that they haven't fixed the rest.”

Tourists stare at the view and Citizens worry about their commute, but the elevators’ 130-year-old story seems to enchant all. The Elevator Users Facebook group debates [es] whether changing out the cars – rather then repairing the battered originals – would injure their monumental status.  Reyes'  expressions grew more colorful as he rattled off century-old facts from their transport role in Valparaíso's seaport history that, he said, makes them unique and demands preservation.

Cabezòn said,

For now, this historical image of our city is a lie. It is a false emblem until the government fixes our main means of transportation, which everyone comes to see, but not enough can ride.

Katie Manning reports for www.MiVoz.cl, which publishes 15 citizen journalism news sites across the provinces of Chile. Read more about our partnership with Mi Voz here.

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