Monday, July 6, 2009

Arica: A city without a mall!

People watching in Arica on a bright Monday afternoon... Over my many visits to Chile I have been struck, most particularly in Santiago, by the de facto segregation of neighborhoods. One can sit at an outdoor cafe in Lastarria, Bellavista, or in Providencia and see a kind of educated, upper middle class crowd walk by. The Plaza de Armas has largely a workingclass crowd that pass by on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. What struck me in Arica was the diversity of people walking through the city's main paseo 21 de Mayo in the middle of the day going to the banks, service centers, stores, restaurants, and cafes. Young and old, mestizos and indigenous, tourists, soldiers, businesspeople, students-- all moving through the paseo as citizens of this border city. And what really amazed me was how many people stopped to greet and hug friends and colleagues, as if Ariqueños were one great family.

Maybe something is to be said about this outpost city that has an eternal springtime climate in which conviviality and informality are part of the environment. Or maybe this all happens because Arica does not have a mall and people actually still live in the streets and crossroads of the citizenry. Everybody convenes in the paseos that connect the government offices, the cathedral, businesses, restaurants, plazas, and the street vendors that connect all the people in an ongoing interaction of an open air city. This is the South America of my romantic images of a past before Parque Arauco or Mall La Dehesa-- and all other such malls in Santiago, La Serena, Concepción, Talca, and all the other Chilean cities that have traded their central, open air plazas de armas for the enclosed air-conditioned malls with parking and private security forces.

Arica was magical with its citizenry cast in a daily drama of ordinary lives that become extraordinary in the hugging, strolling, eating ice cream, having coffee, flirting, kissing, smoking, begging, talking on the cellphone, being plugged into one's ipod, and all the small unnoticed acts that are part of a shared public life. So everyday, so dependable. Yes, Chilean magical realism.

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