Notes On Buenos Aires

September 25, 2011

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

September 19, 2011

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


Oh Happy Days

June 4, 2011

Coming of age in the 1970s as the revolutionary ethos of the previous decade waned, the rearguard, reactionary counter-attack came in the form of a nostalgic, totally manufactured pining for the good ol’ simple days and ways of the 1950s. These Happy Days are yours and mine (oh Happy Days). Culminating, of course, in the election of Ronald Reagan and Morning in America.

More than 30 years on and those forces haven’t budged an inch. I guess that’s the nature of reactionary thinking. Pick a period and stick with it. Talk of change or getting with it is for the kids. Pure heresy. No retreat, no surrender.

This world view manifested itself here in Toronto over the past week or so… actually, since October 25th… with City Hall’s declared war on graffiti. In their righteous march to scrub city walls clean and put on a shiny face, it seems our soldiers of blight removal eradicated a mural out the Junction way that the city had commissioned just a couple years ago. Oops. A mistake of over-zealousness? Perhaps, but there was talk the administration wasn’t crazy about the politics they perceived behind the piece.

Provincial Conservative leader, Tim Hudak, out in campaign mode with his Changebook, then got in on the anti-graffiti act. According to the CBC’s Queen’s Park coverage, in a speech he gave to the Canadian Club earlier this week, Hudak suggested that graffiti is a sign that “gangs rule here”. Yes, people. If you’re wandering around the streets of Toronto and come across any graffiti, immediately call 9-1-1, identify yourself and exact location before heading for the nearest house with a Block Parent sign in the window.

I mean, seriously. How old are these people anyway? It’s like their whole world view has been formed by the 70s movie The Warriors. No, wait. Footloose. Like John Lithgow’s Reverend Shaw Moore, they abhor and condemn anything they don’t agree with or understand. It’s the handiwork of the devil. Or gangs.

Graffiti? Gone. Ad hoc displays of public art? Get it out of here. Street festivals and charity bike rides down expressways? Leads to horseplay and unwanted pregnancies.

We’ve given the keys of power over to the Abe Simpsons amongst us. In my day—zzzzzzzz. Tiresome and irksome in our elders, straight up creepy in those we call contemporaries.

Of course, when it comes to Abe Simpson, none do a better job around these parts than our Deputy Mayor, Doug Holyday. (At least he’s of the same vintage.) Councillor Holyday was at it himself recently, yammering on about the need to clean up the streets of panhandlers and the homeless. To hear him tell it, it’s a veritable obstacle course of filth and aggressive begging out there. “I know that when I’m downtown,” the deputy mayor tells the National Post, “sometimes you have to walk around these people, they’re right in the middle of the sidewalk and you’ll run over them if you don’t pay attention.”

Sometimes we’re actually forced to walk around these people. The indignity of it! We, upstanding citizens and taxpayers, actually have to change our course slightly because people, neither upstanding or taxpayers (probably), have made the choice of living and sleeping right smack dab in the middle of our thoroughfares, and asking us, sometimes forcefully, to pay their way to living the high life on easy street.

What can we do? According to Mr. Holyday “…we’re paying millions of dollars to try to help people…” and what thanks do we get for it? Disrespectfully having our way blocked.

In my day, beggars knew their place. In flophouses located on Skid Row, safely tucked away from where the tourists and thrill seeking suburbanites came and got the wrong impression of us. Where all the buildings were scarred and marred by senseless graffiti which invariably led to senseless criminal behaviour, lewd acts and smoking of the Mary Jane. In my day, if somebody got out of line, some impertinent hobo or reprobate, not knowing their place, made me step over them as they took a little drunk nap during the middle of the day right in the middle of the sidewalk, it wasn’t frowned upon if you gave them a short, sharp boot heel to the ribs. Let them know you didn’t approve of their lifestyle.

“In my day” is how the fearful and unimaginative see the world. The past was perfect. The future dire. The present, a hand basket on route straight to hell. Everything new or different is suspect. A deviation, in all the negative connotations of that word.

With it, we grind to a standstill, missing exciting opportunities when they arise and embracing values and notions that, if they ever really existed in the first place, are probably in need of some serious updating to their software. Like most of us. Try as you might, you can’t simply wipe clean that which you don’t like or understand.Believe me, I know. I’ve been trying to eradicate the last six months or so. No matter how much I scrub or sandblast, it just keeps reappearing in all its ugly, depressing reality.

nostalgically submitted by Urban Sophisticat


These Happy Days Are Yours And Mine

March 6, 2011

It is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile Mayor Ford’s approach to governing and his relatively young age. Just into his 40s, the Ford Nation feels more and more like one ruled by an octogenarian. Maybe it’s because the mayor’s blinkered sensibility is formed exclusively by his view out over his suburban backyard and through his windshield. City life, to his way of thinking, as depicted by the seminal documentary of the 1950s, Happy Days.

The latest manifestation of this is the mayor’s declared War on Graffiti. Signaling an about-face from an earlier decision just after the mayor was elected to target graffiti only on a complaint basis, the city issued over 150 removal notices along Queen Street in just 10 days, catching business owners and the local BIA by surprise in the process. The removal notices appear to make no distinction between your run of the mill graffiti and commissioned murals, bringing to mind a variation on that old standard, I may not know much about art but I know what I don’t like.

This follows an earlier eyebrow raiser last month when the Brickworks received notice for 13 graffiti violations. That chair of the Municipal Licensing and Standards Committee that polices matters of graffiti, Councillor Cesar Palacio, has somewhat softened his original hard line stance that graffiti is graffiti, comes as little consolation in light of the Queen Street blitz. The city’s aggressive proactive approach puts the onus on homeowners and businesses to prove that they’re not besmirching the cityscape with graffiti regardless if there have been any complaints from neighbours, belying the mayor’s claim to be looking out for the little guy.

So the mayor campaigned on a promise of taking City Hall’s hands out of the taxpayers’ pockets but seems to have little compunction in unleashing the bureaucracy on them if they don’t measure up to his artistic or community standards.

Which must be a trait of his strain of Tea Party-like reactionary conservatism. As Bill Maher said on his show Friday night, in the U.S. the Tea Party got elected on a straight forward platform of slaying government spending and debt but has quickly moved on to things like attacking collective bargaining, reproductive rights and almost everything else with a progressive stench of secularism. Mayor Ford has similarly set his sights outside of the fiscal realm. He’s trying to push LRTs underground. He’s asked the province to declare the TTC an essential service. Now this wading into public order with an ill-defined, if-I-don’t-like-or-understand it assault on graffiti, he’s revealing his inner non-libertarian and very authoritarian self.

Mayor Ford’s also exposing an attitude toward urbanism that is decades behind the times. A clean, whitewashed main street, full of mom and pops stores, soda shops and cruising the drag on a Saturday night. (No, most definitely not that kind of cruising or drag.) It is an intolerance to differing opinions and tastes, chock full of patronizing father-knows-bestism. Not to mention counter-productive and, ultimately, carrying an additional financial burden to households and small business owners. Eliminating commissioned murals clears out space for less agreeable forms of graffiti and tagging which those owning the buildings will have to constantly spend time and money dealing with. It also appropriates police resources which surely would be put to better use on more pressing issues the city faces.

All in pursuit of what? In a speech he gave to the Board of Trade earlier this year, the mayor said “It’s [graffiti] just out of control. Nobody likes it. It doesn’t help our city. I want people to come to the city and say wow this is spotless, and it is safe.” Note the mental myopia. The world seen only through his eyes. I don’t like graffiti so nobody likes graffiti. It’s stunningly monochromatic and reveals a remarkable lack of empathy. Never mind the Sunday School logic of equating cleanliness with safety. In addition to the mayor having obviously spent his youth watching the wholesome adventures of Richie, Potsie, Ralph and the Fonz, my guess is he also overdosed on regular viewings of The Warriors.

This is the danger of electing a mayor with such unsophisticated thinking who lacks any sort of wider vision for the city. He governs based purely on pet peeves and petty prejudices. Unchecked, we face four years not looking toward the future but back at an idealized past that never existed except in the minds of those like Mayor Ford.

heyyyyly submitted by Cityslikr