How a neighbourhood organizes itself


In the basement of a monumental building from the early 19th century in the middle of a grand park    is located the „Escuela taller“– a workshop where neighbours, among others, learn to produce building materials. Barrio Yungay was partially affected by the earthquake last year and neighbours were, with help of this knowledge, able to repair their houses by themselves. It is not simply a matter of a lack of governmental support but it is also a question of self-empowerment among the neighbours. The workshop is part of the self-organizing-process that started in 2005 when the community mobilized given the problems with waste disposal. Afterwards they organized themselves to stop the construction of high-rise buildings and defend the historical and architectural heritage against real estate projects. Since then the neighbours have been organized in the ‘Neighbourhood Assembly in Defense of Barrio Yungay’ participating in the communal urban planning and protecting the ‘Barrio’s’ heritage.

A map of the ‘Barrio’ is hanging in the workshop. ‘The map of emotions’: coloured post-its are spread all over it with handwritten comments like ‘That’s my favorite café’, ‘Here is where I feel home’, ‘Happiness, contentment, love’. „ This map was created during our last anniversary celebration“, mentions José Osorio from the neighbourhood assembly and points out that the idea to celebrate the Barrio’s anniversary came from the neighbours themselves. And the celebrations were also completely organised by the neighbours together with different organisations and institutions.

The Barrio is Santiago’s oldest quarter with more than 170 years of history. But in a city such as this one, where the real estate market dominates urban development, history has not as much relevance because it does not generate enough surplus value. The only possibility for the neighbourhood assembly to protect their community was therefore to apply to be recognized as a ‘Zona Tipica’ – a special title of monument protection which is bestowed by a council of national monuments. In 2009, they were granted this title – a huge success for the neighbourhood. The real estate companies don’t have any interest to build here anymore because they cannot construct high-rise buildings and it is just as easy to pull down old buildings. But it was a long road to this moment.

In 2006, the neighbourhood assembly held the first council under the title „For a Barrio we dream of“. Here they discussed issues concerning the Barrio, the protection of cultural heritage as well as the urban development of Santiago and worked out proposals for the defence of the Barrio’s cultural heritage. The next neighbourhood council followed one year later and in 2008 they applied for the title mentioned above. Moreover they organised a range of other activities, like demonstrations against a new urban development law, workshops with issues concerning the city or the Barrio, the publishing of a neighbourhood magazine, a campaign against the closing of a cultural centre and a lot of social and cultural activities, among others. With the granting of the special area, the struggle for protecting the cultural and historical heritage does not end because they are struggling also for another definition of ‘heritage’. In Chile there is a law for protecting culture heritage but it only includes monuments and not, for example, historical dwelling houses. So the neighbourhood organisation wants to change the definition of heritage. It is now collaborating with students and professionals from universities to open up a discussion about it and find a way to reconceptualise the term definition.

The struggle of the neighbours of Barrio Yungay is not only about keeping the own neighbourhood lovely, but „it’s a social struggle“ like José emphasises. Because they are also fighting for maintain the social structure of the Barrio, which is a mixed income neighbourhood. And in a city which is as highly segregated as Santiago since the dictatorship, the right to stay in your neighbourhood is a very important political issue. It means for the inhabitants to live where they want to live, where they have their roots and their social networks –a fundamental part of the right to the city.

With the status of „Zona Tipica“ also came the problem of revalorisation within the Barrio; on the one hand the real estate value is rising and on the other hand the neighbourhood is becoming more attractive for people earning higher incomes and tourism. Furthermore, the Barrio is well located near the city centre and bordering Barrio Brasil, more and more a „hip“ quarter with a lot of bars and cafés. That could be leading to a process of expulsion of the poorer inhabitants and the transformation of housing space into touristic infrastructure, e.g. hostels. „We know the risk of gentrification and we try actively to avoid it. There are people with higher incomes who want to establish their lofts in the Barrio – we are fighting for social housing instead.“ The neighbourhood organisation also gives special attention to the most vulnerable families of the quarter – migrant families who are often living under precarious housing conditions and could be the first victims of any kind of restructuring process.

That the neighbours don’t understand their Barrio like an island within the city, which can be seen on the various solidarity activities with other Barrios in Santiago. The neighbourhood’s organisation is furthermore part of a nationwide network, as well as of the post-earthquake-movement „For a just und participative reconstruction“ and held nationwide conferences and gatherings.

The Barrio Yungay is a very good example of neighbours organising themselves and who struggle for their right to decide in what environment they want to live, often against neoliberal urban policies. These have been, for 40 years, ignoring the needs of the inhabitants and putting the decisions of urban development almost completely in the hands of the market. This organised neighbourhood not only wants that „our Barrio“ is spared from the destructive tendencies of neoliberal urban development but rather wants to intervene in urban planning, to create a supportive and participative city. They are struggling for urban citizenship – for the right to the city.