Walls and the liberal city of Buenos Aires

There’s a scar just on the middle of Buenos Aires, a long east-west line dividing the city into two parts: the cauterized one, up north; the bleeding one, down south. Its inhabitants have traditionally considered Rivadavia Avenue as the border between the wealthy capital and the unwealthy one. And there’s no need to build up a fence or dig a ditch, between the two sidewalks of this street since there you’ll see the biggest abyss known to societies: money.

On the wall: justicia. An argentinian flag floats above.
Christopher Casas / Buenos Aires, 2015

Back in 2001, Argentina suffered the worst of a long series of bumps on its economy, represented worldwide as the corralito. The government used citizens’ bank savings to pay a growing and unaffordable external debt, something that seemed too far and that is becoming a daily situation now in Europe. Since that moment, the Federal Capital, an eternal grey grid that tarnishes la Pampa, has been building up more physical and metaphorical walls. Fences that divide an enormous amount of streets, boulevards and avenues where almost 15 million people drive through every day; an overpopulated city in an unfilled country.

Famous for its theaters, for being the city with more bookshops per inhabitant, or for its vibrating cultural offer, the Argentinian capital was now a part of the neoliberal global agenda, even though it has been implementing privatization procedures since the early 90s. This “Paris of America” was transformed into a washed-up Detroit. From the milongas in Almagro to the cinemas in Corrientes, from San Telmo restaurants to Palermo boliches, Buenos Aires was well known to be a city that never sleeps. Nevertheless, it seems now that the city is about to fall into the slumber of the [north]American dream.

Buenos, muy buenos aires

Buenos Aires experienced its second urban expansion during the 90s, while its first one took place during the 40s due to a big amount of European immigrants. The first one happened to be a period of condensed urbanization - meaning that houses occupied a small amount of space in relation to the number of inhabitants-. The second one, transformed the city into a gigantic monster of highways and wide avenues, as is Los Angeles, instead. Population, in stead of living densely as European downtowns do, started living dispersed after a liberal model of urbanism called Garden City, where houses got a big yard of private use.

Following this path, housing developers have constructed enormous enclosed spaces where you can find a big amount of houses with their own private yards and services, forming walled autonomous villages. These areas are named countries or cerrados, and they have their own private security and every service you would need from the city, so there’s no reason to get out. They occupy many square kilometers on both sides of the city highways, and have been converted into golden cages where the owners just relate with other owners with a similar economical situation, all of them remaining oblivious to insecurity and decadence outside their walls.

There are more than 700 countries at Buenos Aires area, and they grow fast in other cities of Argentina, as Cordoba or Santa Fe. Houses are announced on newspapers and there is more and more people moving into those artificially rural urbanizations, escaping the insecure downtown. This insecurity can be a good argument, as much as claiming for their right to a quiet life away from crime but, how ethical is it that this right to security is for sale instead of being a right for everyone?

Further more, walls and urban dispersion fragment the city’s mobility, promoting traveling on private vehicles and transforming public spaces into reserved areas for those who can pay for their usage. This urban model is, also, highly pollutant. It uses a big amount of resources to satisfy a few people’s needs: for example, some of the countries have their own lake or golf fields provided by the public water network, while plain water hardly reaches the villas, the other face of this coin.

Not so buenos aires

So, while the rich ones use a big amount of space to lock themselves in, the poorest ones improvise their little houses in unhealthy neighborhoods, the slums called villas. They look like a game of Tetris: houses are heaped with no sense, just built as more space was needed, with narrow and dirty streets and risky balconies all over the place. Even though population census doesn’t get into these areas, it is assumed that there are at least 200 000 inhabitants, a 10.2 percent of downtown’s population in 2006 according to Infohabitat’s data.

A mechanical workshop in Villa Urquiza. By Bea Moreno.

These slums chaotically occupy the empty lands in downtown. Every space is worth something: in the narrow fringe between Retiro railways and the city’s harbor there are 40 000 people living among dirtiness and litter. It is called Villa 31, and it is the most symbolic -and maybe dangerous- among the capital’s villas, where not even Police dare go in. The Major has recently proposed to move the whole train station, since the Villa keeps on growing vertically in a big contrast with the private countries horizontality.

Day by day, the villa inhabitants take public transport to practice peddling, collect paperboard to sell later, or other low qualified jobs that middle and higher class people reject. When the day is over, they get back to the villas and have dinner in the, commonly, one and only room of their houses. Even though there are public politics available for these citizens and it is a fact that the slum children attend school, the government of Buenos Aires has never improved the facilities of these neighborhoods nor tried to build better houses or amenities.

Argentinean villas, as Brazilian favelas or any other kind of slum even in Europe, comprehend the hidden face of the liberal urbanism, which distributes population based on its potential incomes. In the same way the capitalist production model promotes job specialization, the neoliberal cities promote their neighborhoods specialization: the rich ones focus on fun and wellness while the poor ones focus on delinquency.

Sweeping under the carpet

But, what is there, between the richest and the poorest ones? Buenos Aires’s downtown, where the middle class sags. This urban center is losing population, relegated to be a place just for tourists and bureaus, populated by people moving daily from dormitory towns. A plasterboard stage full of economic activity but empty of human usage.

But this area is not only facing emptiness and insecurity -even windows and balconies are fenced-, it also faces a common danger: gentrification. This process happens when businesses move in mass to a cheap district, so that the rents grow as fast as new activity does, and yet the original inhabitants have to move out since they cannot afford living there anymore. Palermo district, for example, used to be a popular neighborhood, but nowadays its businesses look more like Berlin’s Kreuzberg or New York’s Williamsbourg. The city government has reinforced this process by renaming neighboring areas as Palermo Hollywood, Palermo Chico or Palermo Viejo. Tourists, foreign residents and rich youngsters move massively to these areas.

And, what if a social problem comes to these enriching districts? Then the administration sweeps it under the carpet. A good example may be the situation of city parks: the increase of robberies at night or the big amount of homeless people sleeping in them caused neighbors’ protests. Whilst an inclusive policy may have been to provide homes for the those sleeping there, or to provide education and resources to those perpetrating crimes the solution of Buenos Aires’s Major was to fence the parks. From 2013 to 2015, every green area in the city has been fenced and its hours of use restricted. Imagine that we had a sick tree that needs sulphating and, instead, we decide to chop it, that’s what liberal policies do. The only exception is Parque Lezama, in popular San Telmo, since the neighbors themselves aggressively protested against the fence.

This same neighborhood, San Telmo, concentrates a big amount of patrimony, so hotels and tourist services have been growing up rapidly during the last decade. Parrillas and tango shows occupy the space that years ago belonged to poor sailors and shipyards workers. Thousands of visitors buy on its street markets while Almagro, the true cradle of tango, slowly flags under the administration’s disregard. Crossing 9 de Julio Avenue, the Montserrat district is said to be the next hipster area, so Universities have moved their faculties there and Royal States start buying old flats pushing the prostitutes back to the dangerous Constitución district.

Illustration by Klifton Kleinmann.

The gap between districts increases since investing in these enriching areas means to stop investments in the needy ones. Flores, Barracas, Boedo and other southern districts’ decadency is hidden by luxury Puerto Madero, a big carpet of modern skyscrapers near the river that welcome business people and visitors. A lack of concern for the ordinary citizens crystallized in a contemporary showcase facing La Plata.

This urban inequality is not just a metaphor, the Encuesta Anual de Hogares (Annual Housing Survey) reflects this growing abyss: almost 100% of Retiro and Palermo -northern- population’s got a private health insurance, while 43% of Flores -southern- have access only to public healthcare. 57% of Recoleta -northern- children go to a private school, while 92% of Barracas -southern- attend public schools. These same statistics apply to unemployment, to home ownership or to the quantity of migrants in a district, separating them into poor country migrants and rich country ones. The result of this multiple variables equation is only one: the poorer a district is, the more it needs amenities and the less it gets provided. This result, whether we like it or not, are starting to scratch the sweeping-under carpet.


Encuesta Anual de Hogares, Gobierno de Buenos Aires survey. Available online.
Info Habitat urban data system. Available online.

For more information

Contested Cities urban research network.