Buenos Aires: The Biography of a City

Buenos Aires: The Biography of a City

by James Gardner

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Buenos Aires, Argentina, recognized for its European-style architecture and lively theater scene, is a truly special place. The second-largest city in South America, it has been the home of such renowned cultural and historical figures as Jorge Luis Borges and Astor Piazzola, Che Guevara and Eva Peron. Like every truly great city, New York, London and Prague; Buenos Aires is its own universe, with its own center of gravity, its own scents and flavors, its own architectural signature-in short, its own way of being. From San Telmo's oak-paneled restaurants and brightly tiled apothecaries from 1900, and the phantasmagoric Beaux Arts palaces along Avenida Alvear and Plaza San Martin, to the parks of Palermo and the bustling bars and cafes along Corrientes and LaValle, Buenos Aires is steeped in exotic culture and history.

In Buenos Aires, Art and culture critic James Gardner offers a colorful biography of the "Paris of the South," from its origins and time as a colonial city, through its Golden age, the rise of Peron, and the Falklands War, to the present day. With entertaining asides about art, architecture, literature, food and dance, as well as local customs and colorful personalities, this is a rich and unique historical narrative of Buenos Aires.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466879034
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 924,727
File size: 20 MB
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About the Author

JAMES GARDNER is an American art and culture critic based in NYC and Buenos Aires. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic and The British Spectator. He was the art critic at the New York Post and wrote architecture criticism for the New York Observer, before serving as the architecture critic at the now defunct New York Sun. He now writes for The Real Deal Magazine, the Weekly Standard, and Antiques.

Read an Excerpt

Buenos Aires

The Biography of a City

By James Gardner

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 James Gardner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7903-4



The Geography of Buenos Aires

The past isn't past: it has merely moved. If you seek the bustling port city of nineteenth-century New York, the city that Herman Melville describes in the opening pages of Moby Dick, you will find it, improbably, six thousand miles to the south, in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. Amid ramshackle two-story houses, the old city comes to a peninsular point that strikingly recalls lower Manhattan before it was bulked up with landfill. The intuition of water — so effectively banished from the lives of most Manhattanites — is ever present there, as it once was in New York.

Fortunately, the thing one seeks is usually closer to home. This is because cities often seem to radiate, both spatially and temporally, from a central point out to the extremities. Thus what begins as an ultramodern downtown is apt to end up in water or an open field. In this sequence you can almost divine an echo of the Big Bang itself: the further out you go, the more archaic become the things you encounter along the way.

That is certainly true of Buenos Aires. The capital of Argentina was founded in 1580 when a contingent of sixty-five men and one woman, led by Juan de Garay, sailed south on the Paraná River from Asunción, now the capital of Paraguay, to establish a settlement along the estuary of the Rio de la Plata. This settlement arose near the Plaza de Mayo, between the streets now known as Yrigoyen and Rivadavia. For more than four hundred years, this area has been the spiritual center of Buenos Aires and of Argentina. One and a half centuries ago, the entire area was a place of low-lying brick houses assembled around a patio, such as you can still find, about a mile south of the center in the barrio of San Telmo. From two to four hundred years ago, it was made up of single-story adobe houses for which at least an approximation can be found in the outer barrios, not to mention the shanty towns of Villa 25 and Villa 31.

But to know how Buenos Aires appeared before Europeans settled the New World, indeed, before the first humans passed dry-shod over what is now the Bering Strait and began their millennial descent into Central and South America some thirty thousand years ago, it is sufficient to get on a train at Constitución Station and head thirty miles southeast to La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires. Midway between the two cities, if you look out the filthy windows, or better still, if you stand beside one of the doors that has been jolted open by the speed of the train, you will see before you, all the way to the horizon, the fabled pampas. Today these endless grasslands, unrelieved by a hill or often by so much as a tree, seem to be as far removed from Buenos Aires as the ice floes of the Tierra del Fuego. But in fact, the city and the province of Buenos Aires lie in the midst of the pampas, a vast plain, covering nearly 300,000 square miles, that sweeps down from the foothills of the Andes, engulfs the city and leaps over the Rio de la Plata into Uruguay and southern Brazil.

The pampas, whose name comes from the indigenous Quechua word for "plain," have inspired widely diverging assessments. Many visitors find beauty in them. A larger consensus seems to view them as somewhat tedious, given their general lack of geographical features or inflections. But from a certain perspective, if seen at noontime near the summer solstice, they can strike the visitor with the force of a nightmare, these suffocating, infinite plains that present themselves as dumb fact, these tall grasses in which you could get lost and never be found again.

Although the flora and fauna of the pampas have long since vanished from the Argentine capital, the flatness of the pampas remains its dominant topographical fact. Buenos Aires is a city of impressive beauty and magnificent parks, but it has few natural endowments. As the historian José Juan Maroni has written, perhaps too severely: "Buenos Aires derives little beauty or aesthetic value from its natural location. It consists of two juxtaposed plains. One is aquatic, the widest river in the world, with only one shore-line; the other is terrestrial, marked by the immense emptiness of the pampas. Both plains, of nearly the same level and hue, are separated by a straight coastline with almost no relief. If truth be told, it is a wearisome scene, of infinite and depressing monotony."

Roughly circular in shape and extending over seventy-eight square miles, Buenos Aires is bounded by Avenida General Paz for twenty miles to the northwest, while its southern limit is defined by a small river known as the Riachuelo and its eastern limit by the Rio de la Plata. From one end to the other, in any direction, is roughly a ten-mile walk, and it takes three and a half hours to traverse. Whereas New York's intricately splintered, indeed tattered, territory is interwoven with water in a thousand odd ways, Buenos Aires offers a fairly continuous and uniform density of buildings and occupants throughout. In this it also differs from Chicago, which similarly rises on a broad plain and is bordered by a large body of water to the east: Chicago's center is densely built up, but once beyond that area, it instantly becomes far smaller and quieter.

Buenos Aires may lie within the pampas, but it has always viewed them as its antithesis: while the pampas are (or were) the hinterland, the home of the gauchos, or cowboys, Buenos Aires has long seen itself as the "Paris of South America," the dazzling world capital that looks out across the Atlantic to Europe. The role of the pampas in forging a national identity is spelled out in one of the great polemics of the nineteenth century, Facundo o Civilización y Barbarie (Facundo or Civilization and Barbarism) written in 1845 by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who would later become president of Argentina. The very title of the work articulates, perhaps for the first time, a dichotomy between the city, Buenos Aires, and the hinterland that has resounded through all the subsequent history of the Argentine nation. For Sarmiento, there are the pampas and there is Buenos Aires: South America, with its crude and immemorial customs, Europe with its refinement and enlightenment. "If it is not the proximity of the indigenous savage," Sarmiento wrote, "that worries the residents [of the pampas], it is the fear of a tiger that stalks him or a snake that he might step on. This fear for one's very life, which is habitual and permanent in the countryside, stamps upon the Argentine character — it seems to me — a certain stoical resignation in the face of a violent death."

In stark contrast stands the Porteño: "The man of the city wears European clothes and leads a civilized life as it is known throughout the world. In the city are laws, notions of progress, means of instruction, some municipal organization, a regular government, etc. But once you leave the city, everything changes. ... The man of the pampas, far from aspiring to imitate the customs of the city, rejects with disdain its luxuries and fine manners, as well as the attire of the city-dweller."

But although Sarmiento saw Buenos Aires as the antithesis of the pampas, in point of geographical fact it is a part of them. That is to say that the tall grasses that can still be seen midway between Buenos Aires and La Plata once extended all the way to the Plaza de Mayo. Almost all of the city of Buenos Aires sits on the pampas plateau, roughly thirty meters above sea level, just at the point where it descends toward the Rio de la Plata in a pronounced slope that is known locally as a barranca. These barrancas form a continuous fringe around the city, all the way from Belgrano, in the northwest of the city, to La Boca at its southernmost limit.

At the base of these barrancas once lay a sequence of sandy shoals and mud banks that stood between the plateau and the water. It was here, beside what is now the Casa Rosada (literally, the Pink House) — the official dwelling of the Argentine president — that black washerwomen used to gossip and sing as they did laundry in the river; here that young boys would splash around in the heat of summer; here that horses pulled carriages through the waters of the river, conveying passengers the final few hundred feet from ships that, due to the rock-filled shallows, had to remain far from the shore. In the absence of these horses, men of a requisite stoutness could be found to carry passengers ashore on their broad shoulders. Such was the life of Buenos Aires into the second half of the nineteenth century. It was the life of a vibrant port.

And yet the alert traveler who visits the city today will be instantly mystified to learn that the locals ever called themselves the Porteños, the people of the port, for he looks around and sees no port and no water. The tableland and the sloping barrancas are still there, but the water, it would seem, has vanished. Indeed, to an almost prodigious degree, Buenos Aires has banished water from its collective civic consciousness. In a perverse way, this is a remarkable achievement, given how central water once was to the merchants and sailors who lived beside the Rio de la Plata and haunted the taverns, warehouses and brothels that stood along what is now Avenida Leandro N. Alem and was once the shoreline and the river.

True, the persistent visitor will eventually encounter those sluices that stand, majestic and unused, in Puerto Madero, a man-made parcel of infrastructure that was completed in 1898 and is now less a port than a marina without vessels. In fact, there is considerable port life in Buenos Aires even today, but tourists, as well as locals, are discouraged from ever seeking it out. Starting in the 1850s, with the creation of the customs house that once stood where you now find Parque Colón, the municipal authorities built farther and farther out into the Rio de la Plata estuary. In the course of the ensuing century, they created a band of infrastructure two kilometers thick at its widest point. Today it consists of highways, railways, housing complexes, nature preserves, shantytowns and even a local airport, all of which stand between the Porteños and the water that once was so central to their identity. Rare is the native inhabitant who has ever visited those parts of the city that still function as a port and they are essentially inaccessible to mass transportation.

For the first two and a half centuries of its existence, the city of Buenos Aires was roughly one mile deep by two miles wide, as it sat on the western bank of the Rio de la Plata. The majority of its citizens lived within fifteen minutes' walk of the river, though more likely within five minutes' walk. Today many of their descendants will go for years without ever seeing the waters of the Rio de la Plata, unless they can afford to inhabit one of the high-rises of Avenida Libertador or Puerto Madero that, having turned their backs on the city itself, offer sight lines sufficiently elevated to see past the intervening layers of landfill clear to the river.

But if you have the wherewithal to make it all the way to the northernmost limit of the city, beyond Aeroparque Jorge Newbery and the Ciudad Universitaria, you will see, at long last, the Rio de la Plata estuary essentially as it must have appeared to the first Europeans who plied the river in 1512. And then many things about the city and its history may begin to make sense. Various writers have offered a depreciative assessment of the Rio de la Plata and its brownish waters, the result of mud deposits over tens of thousands of years from the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná rivers. But to see those waters shimmering in the light of a summer afternoon, as small craft glide by nineteenth-century buoys of an entirely superfluous loveliness, is to understand the almost hypnotic pull that the river must once have exerted on the earlier inhabitants of Buenos Aires. For the Rio de la Plata is so wide that it resembles a sea more than a river, and Uruguay, thirty miles east on the opposing bank, is too far away to be made out.

Today only a few fishermen frequent this place, waiting in silence for a tug at their line. But then, water — in any other sense than the most utilitarian — has become so foreign to modern Buenos Aires that the city has almost no public fountains of any beauty or importance.

It was on the western bank of the Rio de la Plata that Juan de Garay built the first permanent settlement known as Buenos Aires. Only a few days after the formal establishment of the city on June 11, 1580, he began to draw up the city's grid and thus, almost presumptuously, to impose a strict, quadrilateral order upon the fractious state of nature. The resulting blocks — perfect squares 140 varas, or 420 feet, to a side — remain intact to this day and have become a template for the extensive growth of the city all the way to what is now Avenida General Paz. Nevertheless Buenos Aires as we see it today is not a continuous grid, but a patchwork of interrelated grids that respond to variations in terrain, as well as to shifting patterns of demographics and development.

There is no more emphatic expression of Sarmiento's notion of the city as Civilization itself than Garay's imposition of that grid upon the rude and unruly landscape that he encountered. But Barbarism — as Garay and Sarmiento would have conceived it — was ever present and near at hand. Other than the fort that eventually rose on the Plaza de Mayo, no defensive structure ever surrounded Buenos Aires as it did Montevideo, in Uruguay, which was founded one and a half centuries later by the citizens of Buenos Aires. Without such defense, Buenos Aires stood exposed to the surrounding indigenous populations, whose menace, even though it diminished over time, remained very real into the nineteenth century. Only a few miles of grassland separated the Porteños, in their estimable grid, from the often murderous hostility of these indigenous peoples, who sometimes captured and enslaved European women and children. Some of these natives, it was believed, even practiced cannibalism. And even as this threat subsided, there remained abundant reason to fear wild beasts. As late as 1840, jaguars and cougars were still startling the inhabitants of what are now the outer barrios of Floresta and Belgrano.

Ultimately, of course, civilization won out, and today Buenos Aires stands as perhaps the most conspicuous example of a grid in urban history. Although thousands of cities around the world are laid out in this way, none of them, not even New York, pursues the logic of the grid as insistently, or over as large a territory, as does Buenos Aires. The Manhattan grid is better known to the world, but it was imposed 231 years later than that of Buenos Aires, and it stretches only from 14th Street to 155th Street. The modern Buenos Aires grid is five times larger than Manhattan's and fully fifty times larger than the grid Garay established in 1580. Now really a collection of grids, it is punctuated by parks and by interesting irregularities at the points where each of these individual grids is joined to the others.

As remarkable as the size of the Buenos Aires grid is its persistence over more than four centuries. Most cities that came under Roman rule or were founded by Rome — among them Paris, London and Verona — were similarly endowed with a grid, as were most of the cities that the Spanish inhabited in the New World, including Lima, Guadalajara and San Juan. But over the course of centuries, most of these grids went to seed, and today it takes a practiced eye to discern anything of their original form. But in Buenos Aires that pattern remains as clean and clear as the day Juan de Garay imposed it.

At the same time, the Buenos Aires grid is different from more modern grids like Manhattan's. In a sense, an urban grid resembles a massive oriental rug that has been rolled out across the surface of a city. But the Buenos Aires grid was conceived in 1580, well before the industrial revolution, while the Manhattan grid dates to 1811, when that revolution was already under way. And so, while the Porteño grid almost feels as if it were woven by hand, Manhattan's grid exhibits a machine-made regularity that, once determined, can be replicated infinitely, without variation and in the sharpest detail. But just as a hand-made rug reveals shifts in emphasis and attention that result in minute variations of surface and design, so there are telling shifts in the makeup of the Buenos Aires grid. Consider the city's historic core from Callao to Puerto Madero and from San Juan to Santa Fe. From the air, or on a map, we seem to perceive a slight wobble in the facture, the weaving, of the city's street system: these shifts, though often imperceptible to the pedestrian, go back to the very foundation of the city.


Excerpted from Buenos Aires by James Gardner. Copyright © 2015 James Gardner. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Buenos Aires as Center of the Universe
Chapter 1: Civilization or Barbarism: The Geography of Buenos Aires
Chapter 2: The Founding of Buenos Aires.
Chapter 3: The Colonial City
Chapter 4: Buenos Aires, the Capital City
Chapter 5: Independence
Chapter 6: Juan Manuel de Rosas
Chapter 7: The Rebirth of Buenos Aires
Chapter 8: The Paris of South America
Chapter 9: The City of the Masses
Chapter 10: The Postwar City (1946-1983)
Epilogue: The Contemporary City

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