Argentina, Mixed Bag

The Plastification of Buenos Aires

Sunday, June 15, 2008  

One of the things about the city of Buenos Aires that appeals to me is how the city retains an individual character. In many cities I see a homogenization taking place. New York is a prime example, in that since the Guliani and Bloomberg administrations took hold, the city has not only gotten safer on a police level, but safer on a character level. Tourists from any midwest US region now can walk Time Square and feel at home with all the theme restaurants and big name stores. There are less and less neighborhood mom and pop hardware stores and more locations of Home Depot, Blockbuster, Starbucks, Bed Bath and Beyond, The Gap, etc.,…

A side effect of globalization, nowhere in the world is free of this trend. In Buenos Aires, McDonalds, Burger King, and various chain stores from Spain, France, and Chile are filling the cityscape more and more. Walmart already exists in the suburbs, and the first Starbucks recently opened here. Gentrification is happening here like everywhere too, with working class families getting pushed out or trendy developments. Historic low-rise colonial buildings that give the neighborhood its character are being demolished to make way for clean-lined hermetic luxury apartment towers. In San Telmo, the neighborhood where I live, one historic building was undergoing renovations when the contractor “mistakenly” removed the entire building rather than just part of one floor as the permit allowed. Now in place of a rundown historic building that was home to various low income families there is a fenced-off empty lot with a stop-work order.

One small change that is happening here is the focus of the photos you see here of sidewalks. A native of the US, I have been impressed at how the sidewalks here are all constructed from tiles of all designs, from the top neighborhoods to the most humble. In all of Argentina the sidewalks are tiled and not cemented, and every morning people are outside thoroughly cleaning them with brooms, hoses and sometimes kerosene. The latter is used more in other parts of Argentina and gives the sidewalks a special luster, while leaving them spotless. Maybe a bit extreme, but you see the character of the sidewalks gives Buenos Aires and every last village a warmer character, making the city a bit more humane.

The new leader of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, made a campaign promise of fixing potholes, etc. He may have been elected on this promise (and the fact that he was once the president of the most popular soccer club in all of Latin America, a job given to him because his father was a powerful businessman). Anyway, the well advertised refurbishment has now begun in several barrios, and I happened across an area downtown where construction crews are at full speed. Blocks and blocks of tiled sidewalks are being ripped up and being replaced by cheaper concrete surfaces. Walking is a becoming a little more comfortable in some parts of the city, but I fear that this is one more change to taking more character away from Buenos Aires to make it more homogeneous and plastic.

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