Kisses Beyond the Gate: Putting up Walls in a Country that Values Intimacy

This post was originally published by Agora, the Urban Planning and Design Journal at the University of Michigan. It is reproduced here with permission. 

Davor was the first one who kissed me. Let me explain. I recently spent the first month of my summer in Santiago, Chile, where I worked for an NGO called Ciudad Emergente. The organization does interventions and research surrounding public spaces in Latin America, promoting the notion that short-term action can lead to long-term change. Some examples of their work are experimental bike paths demarcated with cones and a pop-up concert/artisan market hybrid in derelict space — both of which are examples of an approach known as tactical urbanism. Implementation and evaluation of tactical urbanism interventions are growing in popularity as effective means of testing scenarios to ultimately influence policy.

In my first moments as a Ciudad Emergente intern, Davor opened the door, and then another door, and finally a wrought-iron gate that separated the facade of the building from the happenings within. And then, immediately after clarifying that I was, indeed, Alana, he kissed me on my right cheek. It caught me off guard. I might as well have been a stone wall. For the remainder of the month, after having been kissed by every single person I met, residual shock remained.

But why was I so shocked? This wasn’t my first time traveling to a country that subscribes to such intimate greeting traditions. Over the course of my internship, I made observations that shed light on my qualms. A great deal of our work simply involved conversation with and facilitation of it amongst neighbors. In fact, over the month, we coordinated three “malónes urbanos.” Literally, it means “urban surprise attacks,” but we called them urban potlucks. They brought residents to share in community and ownership over a public space in their neighborhood (plazas, abandoned markets, or the middle of the street). A primary feature of the potlucks was an invitation for residents to discuss the qualities they like and dislike about their neighborhood. On not just one occasion, residents would say, “I had never spoken to my neighbors before today,” or “No one trusts one another. That is why we go into our homes and shut the doors.”

A wall of victims of the Pinochet dictatorship on display at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile. This is one of many memorials that can be found all over the city. Photo Credit: Alana Tucker.

Without appropriate context, these words would be descriptive of your average American subdivision. However, to a Chilean, the words’ weight is palpable. In the 1970s and ’80s, Chile was ruled by a dictator named Augusto Pinochet, after a coup d’etat that overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende. Pinochet opened the borders to free-market trade, positioning Chile as the most powerful economy in Latin America.

Yet, to steal a common adage, all that glittered was not gold. During Pinochet’s dictatorship, public space was the stage for promoting his neoliberal agenda, instilling fear as a tactic to suppress his opposition. Heavy censorship, sanitation of public space, and physical retention of artists and cultural icons was commonplace. Estadio Nacional, the country’s national soccer stadium, was turned into a concentration camp at one point during the regime. Over 40,000 Chilenos were taken captive and brutally beaten or tortured. Nearly 4,000 people simply disappeared, executed and never to be seen again.

At the close of business each day in Santiago, as I walked home from work, the cacophony of screeching graffitied garage doors and gate locks turning was my playlist. For some properties, the gate was a decorative feature with finely detailed metal work. On others, a gate was simply the outermost crust of a wary domicile or bodega. But a single property without a gate or garage was not to be found. Viewing the private spaces where Chileans converse, embrace, and love was impossible. At first, as a passerby of these designs of high security, I felt alone and rejected by Chile, as if an entire country could exile a tourist.

At some point during my tenure in Chile, the words of the neighbors assumed meaning. I saw that public space was never public for Chile’s last few generations. To feel safe and secure, to share one’s true thoughts and ideas, one must stay indoors behind the behemoth of wood, iron, and steel doors and gates. To be in public meant to risk one’s own dignity and life, lest they be stripped of their most basic human rights. On the other hand, to allow one to pass beneath the doorpost of a Chilean home and to bestow a kiss to a newcomer is the physical embodiment of the transfer of trust.

Tactical urbanism defies traditional planning practice that pontificates that a good plan makes a good city. Rather, it is seeded in the belief that planners know nothing until they know what people think and feel about their city. Bearing witness to the words of the Chileans at our potlucks, the complex relationship between the physical form of private property, social elements of public space, and the history of Santiago, Chile makes sense. By using often cheap, but wildly innovative methods of city shaping, we can measure the successes and failures of our interventions. As tactical urbanists, the profession will be all the wiser, as we navigate red tape and change policy for better cities and a better world.

Feature Image credit: Alana Tucker.

Alana Tucker is a 2nd-year Master of Urban Planning student at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College. Her studies focus on urban stormwater and tactical urbanism as a means to promote equity, environmental sustainability, and placemaking in urban space. She holds a bachelor’s degree in International Business from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and owns her own small business making maps of cities around the world. Last summer, she worked at a small tactical urbanism NGO, Ciudad Emergente, in Santiago, Chile.