Notes On Buenos Aires

Just shy of a week spent in Buenos Aires, I wouldn’t even try to pretend to have a handle on the place. They speak Spanish there, a language I am unfamiliar with aside from the barest of essentials. ¿Dónde ésta… ? Por favour. Lo siento. Lo siento muy, muy, muy.

One glaringly apparent fact was that European connections still run in the Argentine capital. So deep that it’s hard to get your head around the fact you’re in South America when you’re in Buenos Aires. Another easy observation was they sure do love their meat. Sports are also near an obsession. Pics of football, rugby and tennis feature heavily on the front pages of their daily newspapers.

Yeah. That’s all I got. But in my defence, the wine was also plentiful, so my note taking had something of a rosy and, at times, hard to later transcribe glow to it.

I will tell you this, though. Buenos Aires is a city Mayor Rob Ford would hate. Sure, cars are kings of the road, more than ably filling the ample space given to them throughout the city (an admittedly non-European trait to the place). Pedestrians must be on their toes even with the apparent right of way at green lights. Buses are the only surface form of public transit with nary a streetcar in sight. The rest is buried on 6 subte lines underground. And cyclists? Forget about it. What on-street bike lanes there are are riddled not just with potholes and crumbling asphalt but eruptions of infrastructure demise. The rest have been relegated to off-road public spaces.

Despite all that pro-Ford urbanism, Buenos Aires is not what you would call orderly. It’s messy. Parts of it have clearly seen better days. From my hotel balcony I looked across the street at an abandoned Belle Epoque (I’m thinking) building, broken windows and strewn furniture abound. Streets have buckled. Sidewalks cratered. Cobblestones jut and sag, making for a concentrated stroll through the San Telmo neighbourhood. On any given day, a protest or two can close down a street and snarl up traffic even more than usual.

And the graffiti? Our mayor wouldn’t just have a war on his hands in Buenos Aires. It would be a protracted struggle of epic proportions with the very real possibility of the nuclear option being used. (In fact, the mayor’s reputation as an anti-graffitist may have travelled beyond this city’s limits as some graffiti on the streets of Buenos Aires looks eerily familiar.)

Of course, little of these signs of urban decay will be what I will remember from the trip. It is the vibrancy and vitality of life on the streets that makes Buenos Aires so fascinating. Despite the architectural grandeur and precision of its spoke-like design, the city operates at a very human scale. Buildings tend to inspire rather than overwhelm. There’s a certain seamless transition travelling from one neighbourhood to the next. Even though the grandest of boulevards are used as an inter-city freeway, the street life along them, while somewhat diminished by fast food joints and low end retail, has not been quashed.

It is impossible and somewhat unfair to make a comparison at this level between Buenos Aires and Toronto. The climate is more conducive to being outside in Buenos Aires. Two-thirds of porteños live in apartment buildings which increases demand for inclusive public spaces. Not just malls (although they are present) and retail outlets but open and accessible green spaces. The streets aren’t simply routes for travelling between home and work.

Interestingly, Buenos Aires is also transforming its waterfront. Puerto Madero bestrides the city’s business centre as well as a couple of its older, more downscale (although certainly experiencing a degree of gentrification) neighbourhoods. Cranes dot the old port’s landscape without a ferris wheel or monorail in sight. Instead, it’s a mixed use development of businesses, retail and residential. Can you say, Hello Waterfront Buenos Aires? Ballooning home prices suggest that mixed income housing may not be part of the plans but a Sunday stroll along the boardwalk (including the crossing of a fancy pedestrian bridge) reveals unfettered access to much of the street level public space.

History looms large in Buenos Aires, much larger than it does in Toronto. Some of it spectacularly grand, some of it much less so. (Did I mention the cars? A major autoroute bisects the heart of the city, vividly reminding us of what could’ve been with the Spadina Expressway.) There is also an undercurrent of fiscal instability here that only the truly misguided and most exploitive in Toronto can see in our finances.

Yet, Buenos Aires appears to be meeting their challenges with boldness rather than panic. Investment in public spaces is in evidence throughout the city. The subway is undergoing expansion. Despite a very recent rocky past and a somewhat worrisome immediate future — given our dim global financial outlook – you get no sense of submission or retreat in the face of the so-called ‘realities’ we are told we need to face.

Embracing the city as an asset, warts and all (and the warts in Buenos Aires, like the very best of its elements, dwarf the problems and blights Toronto faces). To be nurtured and developed not to be exploited and sold off for a quick but wholly unsustainable boost to the books. It’s something you can feel wandering around the place. The city as an ally not an enemy.

If I’ve brought nothing else back from Buenos Aires, that’s a sentiment I hope to retain. Just with a little less meat and malbec.

sleepily submitted by Cityslikr

More Strutting And Fretting

A quick follow-up to my post from last month about graffiti and my friend, Crazy Stanley.

He received a Notice of Violation in the mail from the city, instructing him to ‘eradicate’ some graffiti that had been put up on his garage door in the back alley of his house. Failure to do so would mean further inspection charges of $94 for the first hour and $55 for every hour after that, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie.

Crazy Stanley decided to do some further inquiring into the matter with the city and actually got on the blower with somebody there. Talk about your customer service, right? In a nutshell, he was told that there were gangs and prostitution operating in the neighbourhood.  The man from the city had seen it on video camera footage himself. Video cameras located in the back lanes.

I says, hold on, run that by me again. Video cameras located in back lanes? Since when do we have video cameras in our back lanes? Am I being hopelessly naïve? When did we start installing video cameras in back alleys? I’d seen them at alleged hotspots, looking down on us with their cold, 1984 stare. But in back alleys? Who decides in which alleys? What is it with law and order types and their surveillance cameras but yet we can’t have an intelligent discussion about photo radar. And if they have the money to be installing video cameras, where’s the funding at to plow my alley in the wintertime?

So many questions but Crazy Stanley was talking to me.

“… the graffiti isn’t just simple tagging,” Mr. City Man said,” but signature pieces by different gangs. To tell other gangs to keep clear of this neighbourhood because they have guns. Or that you can buy drugs here. Like we all haven’t seen The Warriors before.” Yes, Crazy Stanley is of that vintage.

“More to the point, Stanley,” I tell him, “if they’ve got all this surveillance going on, why aren’t they arresting the drug dealers and prostitutes? Cleaning the alleys up themselves.”

Stanley is slow to respond. “Well… that’s a bit extreme. You don’t want to be buying your pot from complete strangers…” But his eyes brighten as an idea lights up over his head. “You’d think with video cameras they’d be able to spot the taggers, track them down and make them pay to clean it up.”

You’d think.

Somehow the small/anti-government contingent just don’t see the disconnect between their political beliefs and promotion of a surveillance state. It really doesn’t get government off our backs. No more than ‘eradicating’ graffiti will bring about the end to the bigger crimes of drug dealing and prostitution. It’s just waste of what we are told are precious financial resources. Pure gravy, to use the parlance of our times, in the pursuit of looking like something’s being done while accomplishing next to nothing.

frustratingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat

Don’t Cry For Me I’m In Argentina

Here’s the kind of municipal politics obsessive I’ve become. When the possibility of a September trip to Buenos Aires came up earlier this year, I desperately tried to plan it when things weren’t going to be happening around City Hall. I thought I’d nailed it for next week, when I might miss the Executive Committee meeting but not one at council. Alas, for whatever reason, they changed the date of the council meeting and now I’ll be missing that one too. I’d kept my itinerary close to the chest but clearly news leaked and the powers that be pulled the old switcheroo in order to avoid my baleful watch.

So now I will be unhappily ensconced down in South America while the fireworks fly up here in Toronto. That can only mean I’ll be drowning my sorrows in vats of Malbec and pounds and pounds of beef. Tango myself to distraction.

Then I realized that with such an… activist, let’s call them, administration busy as beavers down at City Hall, the fireworks are always going to be flying. There will never be the ideal time to be away. Hell, if you don’t ever want to miss a beat, you’d have to set up camp down in Nathan Phillips Square and I think Mayor Ford is looking to make that type of participation illegal.

Argentina beckons, people. I’ve resisted too long. But I leave knowing vigilance is strong. I sense this will be a good week for those of us opposing what the mayor is attempting to do to this city. I will revel in it upon my return.

Rage on!

— Porteñoly submitted by Cityslikr