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  • Politics and Urban Growth in Santiago, Chile, 1891-1941
  • James A. Baer
Politics and Urban Growth in Santiago, Chile, 1891-1941. By Richard J. Walter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005. Pp. xvii, 319. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $65.00 cloth.

Richard Walter recognizes the importance of cities in modern Latin America in this straightforward, chronological history of Chile's national capital in a period of transformation. He brings a wealth of information and detail, arguing how "an examination of local government, especially of the debates and discussions that went on within the city council, provides a lens with which to view the larger elements of the city's growth over these years" (p. xiv).

Chapters 1, 4, 8 and 13 describe Santiago in the early twentieth century, 1920, 1930 and 1940. Walter shows how personalities and party politics affected issues of sewage treatment, streetcar fares and food distribution. Santiago's politicians accomplished much between 1891 and 1941. New government offices were constructed [End Page 703] in the Barrio Cívico, skyscrapers appeared downtown, taximeters were imposed and regulated, streets were paved and women got to vote in municipal elections. But it is the leitmotif of unresolved problems that emerges from these pages as, decade after decade, housing and transportation problems persist. "In 1911 it was estimated that about 40 percent of Santiago's population lived in conventillos" (p. 14), yet by 1940 "perhaps the most notable and persistent problem was the need to provide adequate housing for a burgeoning population" (pp. 255-6), with almost half of the city's population living in conventillos.

Walter does a wonderful job of describing the incessant struggle between various city administrations and the foreign-owned streetcar company during this period. Decade after decade the streetcar company wanted to raise fares and, when the city balked, reduced service or, in one instance, even colluded with its own employees encouraging them to strike for higher wages paid for by increased fares. Whether German, English or American owned, the streetcar company continued its battles with Liberal, Socialist and Radical politicians. Walter, however, waits until the conclusion to compare this conflict with Buenos Aires and does not tell us enough about what this conflict means for a broader understanding of urban politics. In the conclusion Walter comments on the persistent difficulties of Santiago mayors. He indicates that appointed administrations under authoritarian regimes did no better than popularly elected ones. And, in relation to the significance of the national/municipal relationship, Walter says, "it would be difficult for a mayor of the national capital, with its special relationship to the national government, to accomplish much if he or she were a member of a party in opposition to the president. Even that, of course, did not guarantee success" (p. 270). Walter explains what has not worked more than what makes these seemingly ungovernable cities function.

One wishes Walter had done more to explain why neither elected nor appointed councils—nor Liberal, Radical or Socialist mayors—could effectively resolve Santiago's problems. These were talented individuals who wanted to improve the lives of the city's inhabitants. Did ideological differences make it impossible for them to agree? Or was it personal ambition that divided them? Were they without the resources to provide effective solutions? A common theme is the need to fund the city adequately. Did the rivalry between municipal and national leaders limit the effectiveness of Santiago's government? These are important questions because residents of Santiago, Mexico City, Lima and Buenos Aires face many of these same problems today and a historical perspective is what Walter claimed to provide.

This book is a valuable contribution to the field of urban politics in Latin America. Walter has a variety of sources: newspaper accounts, city records, descriptions by foreign travelers, census information and a variety of secondary sources. There are some wonderful photos from the period, a good map of downtown Santiago in 1910 and several tables with information about occupation and social classes. Walter is one of the best in telling the story of city administrations, and his tireless [End Page 704] investigation brings out rich details. However, the book falls short in his goal of...


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