Looking back to go forward: Latin American Gentrification?

shattered glass

Reviewed: 08/11/2013. Image2: The city as a shattered mirror of styles. Courtesy of 123RF. Retrived from www.123rf.com/ 25/10/2013.

In  two recent articles, Francisco Sabatini (2007) and Francisca Ward (2012)  mention that Santiago serves as a good example of what they consider Latin American gentrification. Both authors separately claim this entails a form of expanding the city which historically does not involve displacement of lower income groups by higher income ones. Various aspects are positive regarding this perspective about how gentrification and city expansion relate. Firstly, there is an attempt in finding a new form of gentrification which takes into account the processes of a particular city within a specific region. Secondly, it is an alternative reading of the consequences of horizontal urban development, looking at how social relations are affected during the city’s transition from a city to a mega city. Much of Santiago has actually been developed in the last 70 years, which makes the city relatively “young”. During this period of expansion (and still expanding but at a lower rate today),  Sabatini et al.’s identifies no significant gentrification process at a city scale. Thirdly, it offers a well studied phenomena at a city scale, built over evidence-based data which covers much (if not all) the metropolitan area.

Although the title of the original article alludes to history, the theory sidesteps various issues. This article will look at three. Firstly, Sabatini et al’s theory implies imagining a city where higher income groups expand in areas which were not used by lower income groups previously. And a valley of Santiago, which is vast, without relevant previous history of occupancy. Nevertheless, this could be answered by including a commonly known event of Santiago’s history: the program Operacion Sitio (Garces, 2002). Operacion Sitio was developed during the Allende’s presidency. It is a program based in the popular practices of squattering and building self made housing (today known as informal settlements or Tomas). Although the program is a form of political propaganda, it allowed poorer sectors of society to “occupy” a variety of areas in the valley. The provided areas or sitios (plots of land drawn on the ground for each family) covered most sectors of the valley of Santiago. Some of them in the north and east, areas which today are occupied by the wealthiest groups. 

Eventually, most of the north and east sitios were evicted during the Pinochet Regime. Among the range of strategies, probably the most known one is Programa de viviendas básicas de erradicación de campamentos. This eviction program served both as a repressive and dispersal mechanism which left the previously occupied lands north and east of Santiago available for real estate firms. Pobladores were evicted in general to the south and west of the Valley. The evicted areas were eventually developed by through the Chilean PPP model, which allowed a flexible and segregationist form of catering income groups. The evicted areas were provided to (and still is) the mid and high income groups predominantly. Therefore, the supply side of the urban expansion and policy environment are significant variables to associate gentrification and urban expansion.

Additionally, projects which came after the pobladores’ eviction such as the Benjamin Vicuhna Mackena  (BVM) provide a different reading to the inner-city shaping process. The BVM suggests a relevant re-ordering of social relations based on strategic inner city physical transformations. This re-organization of space and uses undermine a simplistic view of significant past displacements in Santiago. It also evidences the active role of the state to set the basis of how the spatial structure of social relations are to develop in the next decades.

I we look even further back in history, de Ramon (1991) shows the displacement of the urban poor between center an periphery has been going on for a while in Santiago. Santiago in the 1900’s was formed of a center and a few surrounding towns. By that time a significant number of poorer urban groups  were been displaced from periphery to central areas, due to rising land prices in the surrounding towns (Providencia, Nunoa and Las Condes for example). The conventillo/cite legacy is an evidence of this displacement in Santiago Centro. By the way, the cites were built through the real estate firms sector of the time, based on financial programs designed by the state to “improve living conditions”of the poor. Eventually, in the 1920s and 30s, most of the Conventillo enclosures of poor would be bulldozed by the state, obliging those living in them to once again look for shelter in the peripheries. It was by 1950s that land take overs or “Tomas” alarmed the elite mid and high income groups, due to its level of social organization and resistance to evictions.

The trigger of these house-centered social movements were a mix of class and state led displacements, which left with little chance to live either in central or periphery areas. Such displacements will continue in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s with a varying degree of acknowledgment by elites and the state in the struggle to live in the city. It was really during Allende that location and particpative aspects changed radicalley, but came back to almost null participation during the dictatorship.

Still today, the remaining Conventillos are slowly displaced by urban regeneration, as well as the young professionals seeking trendy parts of central Santiago to live in. state-led programs will continue to be a relevant variable to explain location outcomes of the poor urban groups; not just through an effect of seeking low rent sectors due to rising land prices. All these historical accounts make it hard to separate in Chile a pure class displacement from institutional displacement, specially when the state forms a class in itself. We could even classify most of the state interventions in the last century as: (2) assisting the accommodation of displacement, (2) initiating the displacement; (3) or a mix of both.

Secondly, the first point is useful to highlight that cities are a significant part of how we build and perceive a common history which shapes the identity of urban dwellers. Changing the perception of how the city was developed justifies how ongoing processes treat different groups in society. There are various dangers to generalizing a city’s history as Sabatini et al’s et al’s article provides. It does not consider the city as a multiplicity of agendas and actors (Mcfarlane, 2011), which do not necessarily agree upon an agenda, and sometimes just have to “go along” (Holman, 2007) with one. History shows the city as a site of social tensions and political disputes. A city where various mechanisms and systems (not necessarily based on land markets) operate to solve differences among urban dwellers; not necessarily in participation or democratic terms, even during democracy. Santiago, far from being a unitary element, is formed by different styles of urbanization, like a shattered mirror, representing different interests and forms of city building. Many identities within the same entity.

Thirdly, a non-conflictive city is a reading of the city that Sabatini et al’s article suggests. But this reading is relative if we consider the wide range of displacements programs that have structured Santiago. Indeed, the city is also about how one group perceives the “other” and they do about it. Therefore, the “otherness” as Harvey mentions (1996) should be subject of inquiry too. In this sense, the perception of a conflict-less expansion of a city may make sense to some groups, think tanks and policy makers. But taking into account the previous examples it does not represent the experience nor the collective memory of all Santiaguinos.

Sabatini et al’s discussion could, for example, take a direction towards understanding how much has government-led displacement shapes Latin American cities. The answer may lie in Lopez and Shin’s (ongoing) research regarding gentrification in Latin America. Other aspects that could be included (or not-excluded) in the perception of how Latin American cities develop is find out why inner city migration exists. This issue may carry us to question how involved should a government be in gentrification. And how much should be decided by the supply-side of the housing industry (both public and private sectors), as suggested by Lopez (2011). Lopez suggests that who structures local markets and how matters in gentrification, specially in central Santiago. As much as Sabatini et al. suggest the expansion of the city has more to do with a general demand-side or social force driven gentrification, avoiding the variable of supply -side or public-private partnership could mislead us from a relevant underpinning factors of gentrification in this city.

Finally,  what is proposed in this article is that focusing on process, as Sabatini et al does, is crucial to understand and evaluate the outcome of the city. Nonetheless, how the concept used to analyze the processes is carved out should be looked at more in detail. As it is defined, it also interprets the type of events that are observed. If gentrification is defined differently, or linked to a broader processes, such as displacement processes in general, a wider range of events may emerge in the study of urban development. Events such as the ones provided in this article. They may not even be labeled just as gentrification: forced eviction, forms of enclosure, dispersal tactics and repression. Recognizing them does provide a different insight on the observed process: urban expansion. Therefore there is a discretionary element to how theory is carved out that should not be missed.

This article proposes that the issue brought by Sabatini et al. has an alternative approach to generalize about cities. Lopez & Shin’s research propose one, which is extensive and covers many cities within a region. Comparative work is a key aspect. This research suggests that history is relevant, but how events are selected to build generalizations should also form part of research. It is after all a process of conceptualizing the “other”. The issue here is making a general reading of the city which does not support the process of excluding through discourse the multiplicity of urban experiences in Santiago. Although this informal article and Sabatini et al’s published article use similar periods of time, the conclusion of the displacement processes in Santiago are significantly different. Looking back can provide an understanding how the social relations are set out in territory today. But to go forward researchers should include (at least) what are the limitations in how data is selected and generalizations built.



  1. Bien Juan Pablo, interesante y lúcido. Muy necesario extender esta discusión a la forma de habitar Santiago. No sólo está el tema que tu mencionas, sino también el dejar que grandes áreas de la ciudad se deterioren y “despoblen” de vecinos, dando lugar a múltiples talleres y actividad comercial,que hasta se toman la calle para funcionar, como es el caso típico de los talleres que reparan autos. En mi barrio Aguilucho, Providencia al borde de Ñuñoa, los vecinos hemos dado una amarga batalla para mantener la calidad del barrio y han sido los vecinos más modestos los más interesados en mantener su calidad de vida.
    MT del Río


    1. gracias por comentario. hay bastante que investigar sobre estos procesos en loas ciudadesw chilenas. De a poco, pero ya ire publicando y engrosando este articulo.


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