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