Rising Mega Mall In Quaint Fishing Town Exposes Chile's Deep Divides
Essay: A coming monstrosity or an engine for new jobs? The chattering class in Chile's capital of Santiago are appalled at photos of a huge new mall being built in the southern island town of Castro. Locals, it seems, see a very different picture.
SANTIAGO -- A national debate has broken out in Chile over a rather large mall currently under construction in a relatively small southern city called Castro. Located on the island of Chiloé, Castro is an isolated but popular tourist destination, best known for its seafood, local folklore and colorful wooden houses, some of which are built on wooden stilts.
Starting a few weeks ago, social media sites began buzzing with an image that for many seemed at first too strange to be true. In the foreground is a collection of typical seaside homes, fishing boats and a bit of the harbor itself: a scene captured countless times in postcards and tourist brochures. But this is not a picture postcard image. Looming above the homes is a huge, half-built rectangular shopping center covered in metal staging and tattered plastic wrap.
The image is shocking. In the interest of making a proper analysis, one tries to be neutral about all of this. But there are clearly some objective details regarding this half-built mall that jump out, even for someone like me, a complete neophyte when it comes to all things concerning architecture and urbanism. The size of the mall is considerably out of proportion with the surrounding area. The materials they've chosen to build it with (glass and metal) clash with the rest of the city's homes and buildings. And it now dominates a city skyline that until now had been the sole domain of the 27-meter San Francisco church, which was declared a national monument in 1979 and a UNESCO world heritage site in 2000.
There are some other interesting aspects to this story as well. Not only does the structure exceed the city's existing building norms, it also exceeds, in terms of both levels and square meters, what Castro municipal authorities originally approved. The builders had permission for a 24,000-square-meter shopping center. The half-built mall is instead about 34,000 square meters. And yet the business venture is defended tooth and nail by Castro's mayor, Nelson Aguila, who happens to be up for reelection later this year.
Based on all of the above, one can imagine that the project might wind up being frozen, that the investors will get slapped with hefty fines, and that the structure may eventually be demolished. But all of that remains to be seen, especially since the majority of residents in Castro, a city of 40,000, actually support the mall.
Why, given everything we know about the project and the apparent transgressions of the investors behind it, would people in Castro still want the mall? And why is it that a majority of people in Santiago, Chile's bustling capital, 650 miles away, seem to feel the opposite way? Based on the last couple of weeks worth of tweeting and facebooking, social media-savvy Santiaguinos appear determined to keep Castro just the way it appears in all those nostalgic picturesque postcards.
This is hardly the first time that people from Santiago and people from the rest of the country have failed to see eye-to-eye. This divide between the populous capital and the outlying provinces is an old and unresolved issue in Chile. The ongoing political crisis in the far southern region of Aysen is a case in point.
President Sebastian Pinera has his hands full trying to control the unrest, which erupted in mid-February. Residents have erected roadblocks, occupied bridges and engaged in violent clashes with police. People in Aysen say their isolation takes an economic toll. They feel literally abandoned by the central government. Like the people of Castro, they complain, for example, that in order to receive specialized medical attention they must travel long distances to another city. The same goes for those seeking quality work and education opportunities.
Is it that the provinces have so little that the possibility of a single shopping mall is seen as a kind of substitute panacea? Or at least a cold compress to alleviate all of those complicated fevers they suffer from? Could it be that the people of Castro see those seven stories of concrete as an opportunity, finally, to look out at the rest of the country with their pride restored? A way to stop being treated just as the quaint characters in a picture postcard?
In the end, Castro will surely get its mall. We'll soon see some kind of measures taken to resolve the various legal glitches so that the massive structure will eventually open its doors, and offer its wares, to the public. We can only imagine where things will go from there: high-rise apartment blocks rising from the lots currently occupied by multicolored wooden houses on stilts. If this vision seems a bit apocalyptic, take solace in the fact that at least the memory of old Castro will be honored. They'll probably save two or three of those old stilt houses, and hold on to the San Francisco church.
Read the original story in Spanish