Cien barrios porteños, eh?

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.

Agnieszka, Constitución.
A hidden Racionalista building in Once
The ex. Centro Gallego. Avenida Belgrano.
A particularly cruelly-modified building in San Telmo. I believe the culprit is a small grocer.
Chocolate blanco and Chocolate Suiza-flavored ice cream. San Cristóbal.
A highly-decorated building in San Telmo.
Beautiful, English-influenced corner building in Caballito.
Woman. Retiro.
A sad-looking stretch of Avenida Rivadavia in Flores.
Residences in a relatively well-kept portion of Flores.

Brunch at Café Crespín. So good.
The man with the Che Guevara tattoo.
A beautiful Art-Déco school
VViejo fumando. Villa Crespo
Casa del Radicalismo Popular. Chacarita.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Alot of exploring recently. As it stands, I have visited an impressive 29 out of the 48 barrios de Buenos Aires. Most-recently, I have focused on the (relatively) suburban NW part of the city; Agronomía, Parque Chas, Villa Devoto, and Villa del Parque. Apart from those, attention has been given to Caballito's beautiful Barrio Inglesa; huge swaths of the southern giant, Barracas; and the gritty, rough-and-tumble barrio of La Paternal.

It takes a thief

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I love this city, and all of its quirks. For instance, in when leaving in the morning, the cacophony of hola’s, qué tal’s, and buen día locos. Then there are the sidewalk cafés: sitting at an outdoor café with a friend and debating the merit (or conversely, the lack of merit) of women, fútbol, politics or, in Argentina, pizza, is unbeatable. Far from being a restaurant snob, when I am in the mood for a quality cup of coffee and place to converse, ambiance is everything.

Reflecting that, some of my favorite places belong to the new wave of cool-but-cheap restaurants popping up in slowly gentrifying places like Chacarita, Colegiales, and Villa Crespo. Le Blé, a French boulangerie on a shady, tree-lined stretch of Avenida Dorrego, is my favorite of the bunch. Its airy interior, oversized communal tables and, most of all, flaky pain au chocolate, won me over. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the bare bones, sparsely-decorated La Piurana in Abasto, whose 18ar ¼ pollo-a-la brasa “promoción” brings me in on a weekly basis.

Recently, I came across a website run by a Mexican woman who makes tortillas and other Mexican foodstuffs in her spare time. As tortillas don’t exist here, I ordered a ½ kilo of hand-made, yellow corn tortillas. After picking them up from her office in an unassuming, un-renovated Montserrat building, I got together with a friend, Gringo Mike, and made tacos. Mike, who is from Virginia, is one of a handful of Americans I have met here. Evidenced by a pair of New Hampshire college students befriending me in a lonely, un-interesting coffee shop, I have noticed that once abroad, regional (American) and political differences melt away, and people unite under a national identity.

Still, the randomness of the city is what always does it for me. Stumbling upon a death metal club on a deserted San Telmo sidestreet, at 2:30am on a Tuesday. Or walking into a bodegón and seeing viejos in full-blown suites, cardigans and argyle-patterned pants on an 80 degree summer day, drink Basque wines in cups full of ice cubes. Or the hidden art gallery in the small house next door, with no adornment or signs announcing its presence. Or the attractive older lady in the Montserrat óptica, who fixed my Ray Bans because she enjoyed my “presence.” If “not ever knowing what comes next” was a quality, BA would have it in spades.

About the viejos, they are most common in the near-south neighborhoods of San Telmo, Constitución, and La Boca. A friend called these areas the Casco Viejo of BA. True, there always seems to be alot of older men, wandering around, overdressed for the humid Argentine summer. These barrios are also the main focal points for the city’s much-loved parillas (neighborhood restaurants specializing in comida porteña, especially large, oversized cuts of beef). But as time hasn’t been to kind to these once-grand neighborhoods, viejos, often born to European immigrants, are the only whites left. I guess that is the Argentine equivalent of White Flight. Visiting is like stepping into a real-life Grand Torino movie. The paucity of whites (along with the abundance of graffiti, derelict buildings, and the [usually non-Argentine] thugs, thieves, and pregnant teenagers) lends the southern part of the city a very..”Latin American” feel.

Last week, in La Boca, I saw a guy cross a street mid-block. Initially, I thought nothing of it, as city-dwellers routinely cross during a lull in automobile traffic. Bit-by-bit, as the man emerged, I saw drops on his shirt. But as he was still in the shadowy part of the street, I wrote that off, thinking it was part of his shirt’s design. I then walked into a market, to buy a cold drink. As I walked out of the market, I saw the man again, and as he entered plain view, the entire right side of his face was covered in blood. I guess that answered my question about the “drops” on his shirt. Or the San Cristóbal grandma, with a broken nose and missing purse, crying and screaming for police. Or the bare-footed ladrón leaving the cozy confines of his Calle Godoy Cruz slum to try and wrestle a purse from a well-dressed, middle-aged mother and daughter. I have seen more crimes take place in six weeks here than I have in my whole life in Los Angeles.

I reserve a special disdain, though, for the “trapitos.” People who, in busy areas on the weekend, extort money from drivers parking their cars, “making sure nothing happens” to their cars. You see them standing on corners wearing orange vests and swinging towels in the air; the towels are used to cover their hands when punching out the windows of people who refuse to pay them.

Relatively speaking, BA is a safe city, and it enjoys low levels of violent crime. Unlike other Latin American cities, here one can stay in posh, luxurious locales like Palermo, Puerto Madero, Recoleta, or Retiro, and - for a second - squint your eyes and pretend you are in Europe. As for the occurrences above, while they don’t define and characterize life here, as they do in Caracas, or Managua, they are apparently common enough to bare mentioning.

viene para el tango, regresa para los orgasmos

Tuesday, April 12, 2011