Saturday, April 23, 2011
Fueled by curiosity, determination, and cheap mass transit, I have been on a rampage, visiting every barrio in a quest to better understand my adopted city. It is easier said than done; even with daily exploring, the only places I know extensively (i.e, inside and out), are Palermo and neighboring Villa Crespo. Still, at minimum, I can now lay claim to having a passing knowledge of the majority of the city’s barrios.
Naturally, there are some I prefer overs others, and for reasons unique to those places. Balvanera and Montserrat, despite being unlivable due to copious amounts of crime, general neglect, and serious quality of life issues, have arguably the best architecture in the city. A Flickr contact likened the maltreatment and poor state of the buildings to seeing a King wearing flip-flops. I would tend to agree; those barrios could be the SoHo and Upper West Side of Buenos Aires. Abasto’s monopoly on Peruvian restaurants is appetizing, and makes up for an otherwise hardscrabble existence. And I like the melancholy feel to the old, tired cobble-stoned lanes in Chacarita, home to the National Cemetery. The charming, noble fir-lined side streets in Villa Crespo also pique my interest.
The bustling, transient areas surrounding major transit hubs typically leave alot to be desired. Retiro’s namesake station, Chacarita’s Frederico Lacroze, and the generally crummy Constitución neighborhood all come to mind. The first two even have shanties on the grounds of the rail stations. Shanties in Argentina, called “villas,” can often be found on ill-attended to, or abandoned fiscal land on the sites of train stations. In a jarring juxtaposition common in Latin America, Retiro’s giant Villa 31 slum is a precious few minutes from the city’s wealthiest neighborhood and main transit hub. Similarly, minutes away from the famous Avenida 9 de Julio is San Cristóbal, a neighborhood of Dominican barbershops and handsome, soon-to-be torn down old houses. In the search for cheap rents, several of my friends have moved there; still, it is bad enough for an heladero to call it “picante.”
Once is a bizarre contraption, certainly worthy of its own paragraph. One of the most centrally-located barrios, Once (named after the 11 de Septiembre train station), is also one of the city’s more fascinating, and dangerous. Walking in the graffitied-up Plaza Miserere, a center of evangelical street preachers, hot dog vendors, and illegal immigrant Caribbean sex workers, one feels as if they have been transported to..City of God. Gangs of Peruvian street thugs, called pirañas, prey on commuters using the many nearby bus, subway, or train lines. The once-glamorous buildings are caked in years of filth and neglect, and its shopping district, full of immigrants hawking usually counterfeit goods, is one of the most visually-polluted places I have seen.
In a city homogeneous by Western standards, Once is an oasis of multiculturalism; large groups of Orthodox Jews, Peruvians, and Koreans call the neighborhood home. More recently, young, single men from West African countries have been moving in, and almost exclusively, sell knock-off gold and silver jewelery. On Friday evenings, one can see something altogether entirely surreal: bearded Jewish men, dressed in traditional black suites, walking to and fro synagogues. Kosher deli’s, small book-publishing houses, cultural centers and temples (that are guarded by police and protected by barriers because of this) line the side streets, mixed in with Peruvian pollerías, and Chinese and Korean-owned markets and tintorerías.
Living in Palermo, despite the proliferation of generic, “International” bistros, and having to hear hostel kids throw up every weekend, can have its charms. First, contrary to popular belief, outside of the tandem hell that is Plaza Armenia and Serrano (and the stretch of Calle Borges that tourists ply from the subway station to the said plazas), the barrio is still a barrio. Unless Armenian churches, key repair shops, low-key parillas, and Christian book stores constitute being touristy. The touristy part is full of boutiques, yoga studios, upscale steakhouses with “mood” lighting, and furniture stores that look straight out of Berlin. Although real estate agents have tried their hardest, carving the nabe into American-named sub-sections (Palermo Soho and Hollywood; renaming neighboring Villa Crespo as “Palermo Queens”) the neighborhood is overwhelmingly porteño - albeit porteños of middle (and increasingly, upper-middle) class stature. Nowadays, “Palermo” more of a brand than anything. The name has become synonymous with a luxurious, upscale lifestyle and, judging by the number of uninspired condos sprouting up like the glass weeds they are, it appears to be working. Even still, for however many alpaca scarf-clad fashionistas listening to The Clash on large Sony headphones I see, I will see three times as many half-naked viejos hanging clothes on apartment balconies, or middle class mothers yelling "vení!" to spoiled Pomeranians.