IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Spring)

2011 Buenos Aires, Argentina Letter Home

By Trustees Fellow Melanie Brubaker, with input from Kayla Chadwick, Dylan Crary, Collin Jones, Mike McCulloch, Anna Sagaser, Mike Wittner, and Liz Zimiles.

Students with Mariá on the Palermo Neighborhood Day

“¡Hola chicos! ¿Cómo están? Buenísimo. It is so wooooonderful to meet you all!!” Immediately upon arrival our energy is jumpstarted by Carolina Rovetta’s infectious enthusiasm for life, learning, IHP and, especially, for her home city of Buenos Aires. We tumble into a large coach bus and, as our bleary eyes adjust to the sky scrapers whizzing by, Carolina – a Porteña (native to Buenos Aires) through and through – animatedly tells us some basics about her city, and the Bauen - a “worker-owned” hotel where we will be staying tonight.  Not more then 10 minutes in country and we are learning about responses to the 2001 economic crisis that has drastically altered Buenos Aires, and Argentina, in the last decade.

With the aid of government subsidies, the Bauen Hotel was built in anticipation of large crowds and a booming tourism industry resulting from the 1978 FIFA World Cup.  Over the next thirty years, the Bauen would fall victim to a decline in tourism due to the military dictatorship and an increasingly destabilized economy.  Finally, in December of 2001 with the culmination of the country’s economic collapse the Hotel’s owner officially claimed bankruptcy (amidst cries of corruption) and shut its doors, leaving over seventy worker unemployed.  In March 2002, with the help of the Movimiento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas (National Movement of Recovered Businesses, MNER) the workers took over the hotel, began repairs to its interior and re-opened the doors for business as a worker-owned cooperative hotel.  Nine years later, the Bauen is a flourishing hotel business that also hosts political meetings, houses other worker-owned cooperative’s offices and serves as a physical reminder of the country’s tumultuous past.

Throughout the first week, and indeed the rest of the program, we continued to unravel the complicated and ever evolving story line of Argentina’s social, economic and political history.  Our first lecture was by Political Scientist Laura Rovelli, who contextualized Buenos Aires and Argentina in the historical landscape of Latin America. Historian Carla Horton’s photo-filled presentation highlighted how a history of European immigration, chaotic politics and forward-thinking urban plans have shaped the Buenos Aires we encounter today. “Buenos Aires may appear similar to New York or other familiar cities on the surface, but the 2001-2002 financial crisis has left an undercurrent of unease and uncertainty. Thousands of people who lost their jobs during the crisis still haul heavy carts around the city to collect cardboard and recyclables to sell as some way to support themselves and their families,” observes Julia Waterhous of Boston University. Over the next five weeks we would return again and again to the impact of the 2001 crisis on the nation and people of Argentina.   

We jumped into the program head first with our Neighborhood Day explorations.  Always a highlight of the program, we explored five barrios (neighborhoods) of Buenos Aires with impassioned local experts. Collin Jones of Harvard University described the impact of neighborhood days across three countries: “Just as in Delhi and Dakar, my Neighborhood Day visit left me with an amazing sense of community solidarity. Over the semester I’ve become attached to each of the areas I explored on Neighborhood Day.  Here, in La Boca, I was able to really gain a feel for the area, the people, the struggles they have, the problems they face, and La Boca’s potential for the future.”  La Boca is Buenos Aires’s original port area and today is home to ‘El Caminito’, one of the cities most popular tourist destinations (it is where tango is said to have originated), and the famous Boca Junior Football team, but has historically been (and continues to be) one of the lowest income areas of the city.

Liz Zimiles from Syracuse University describes her afternoon with Maria Palazón (who later in the program took a spin as our tango instructor): “My Palermo day with Maria included a general description about the wealthy and trendy population that has inhabited the area as well as how desired the area has become in the last 10 years. She was thrilled to show us around the barrio (almost forgetting lunch!) and could have continued into the evening.” Founded in the late 1500’s Palermo is Buenos Aires’s geographically largest barrio. Its popularity is fueled by the presence of the zoological gardens, family owned stores, quirky eateries and supplemented by the presence of two subte (subway) lines.

Villa 31

Turning our focus to transportation and housing in week two, we learned that much of the city’s growth was focused around train lines and a city grid that was created on what were then uninhabited plots of land.  For example, the barrio of Caballito grew up after 1912 around the termination of the train line at the market known as “El Mercado de Progresso” (the Progress Market), named for the hopes it embodied   Architect Raul Wagner and Sociologist Fernando Ostuni presented a dual-lensed overview of housing in Buenos Aires. “The insatiable desire of millions to benefit from the opportunities of the city has been met with varying government policies affecting how and where new Porteños live,” Dylan Crary of the University of California at Berkley explains. “The history of housing and the rise and fall (and rise again) of villa (informal settlement, called villas after the Spanish villa miseria or “city of misery) populations in Buenos Aires has brought to light the numerous responsibilities, benefactors, and victims of housing policy. Discussions on housing rights versus property rights sharpened my notions of the implications of ownership, and I will forever carry and more fully develop these thoughts in my own analysis of cities.”  Dylan’s thoughts echo many of our conversations and debates as to how to how Buenos Aires (and really all cities) might equitably and mindfully maneuver the realities of every growing metropolis.  

Through site visits and case studies, students were exposed to a variety of housing problems and solutions, from Nordelta, a massive ten-by-ten mile gated community, to Villa 31, an informal settlement next to the city’s central train and bus station.  Anna Sagaser of Swarthmore College described her day-long site-visit to the Buenos Aires suburbs.  “My group’s visit to Nordelta, a gated community near an old river town called Tigre north of Buenos Aires, really made me think about how some people have so much while others, close by, have so little. Inside the gates of Nordelta, the houses were enormous, with identical garbage cans at the ends of their car-filled driveways.  There were picture-perfect playgrounds and parks for the people lucky enough to live inside. Everyone owned cars, since there is no other transport option. The whole place seemed to assume their privilege to use the environment and the city as they please. After visiting Nordelta and some of the villas in Buenos Aires, I am still left wondering how some can have so much more than others.”    

In case study groups, students confronted more challenges of urbanization, industrialization and migration through five distinct yet interrelated topics.  Students studied the urbanization and redevelopment of villas; environmental degradation of the Riachuelo river basin; the redevelopment of the old port, Puerto Madero; the treatment of urban waste; and the use and appropriation of public space.  In many of these areas students encountered communities that were self-organizing to fill in the spaces where government plans fell short.  In Villa 31, students met with elected neighborhood representatives who are crucial in maintaining a local representation in the process of formalizing this informal shanty town.  Mike Wittner of Bard College said, “Walking through the villas of Buenos Aires for my case study (they’re”), I was moved to see that it was anything but. I expected tents on top of one of another, sewage, that heaviness in the air I’d come to know all too well from informal settlement visits in Dakar and Delhi. What I saw instead were locally-owned shops, houses with beautiful art inside, lots of people walking down a busy street just as if it were Avenida Santa Fe (one of Buenos Aires’s main thoroughfares).    

One of the major differences between the main street in the villa and Santa Fe was that in the villa, I noticed more people seemed to be smiling.” In this villa, and through the local governance structure, the residences of Villa 31 are able to raise a single voice and harness power from within what one might expect to be a marginalized community.

Buenos Aires church

Another powerful example of collective action against a backdrop of lost faith in government and economic reforms is the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (Unemployed Workers Movement) in La Matanza (MTD La Matanza).  MTD chapters exist across Argentina, and our group spent a day with the members and organizers of this cooperative in the La Matanza barrio.  Dylan Crary shares his thoughts on the MTD La Matanza and our visit there, “Self sustaining economies are possible. I was blown away by how the MTD had created a micro-economy where the goods from the collectively owned bakery are donated to the running of their pre-school; broken-down computers are donated to the computer refurbishing project, fixed, then donated to the newly created primary school. The MTD La Matanza is a place where community members come together to build a school, the teachers are hired from the barrio and the parents play a role in creating the school curriculum for their children. It is fascinating. The MTD allowed people to find dignity in work, but also fulfillment in each other.  It’s a system really worth exploring more to see how it could function elsewhere.” Many of us were inspired by the visit and left wondering if a small scale community collective can possibly offer solutions of problems of employment and empowerment on a larger scale.

Our days were filled with serious issues of urban life – our nights punctuated with dance which Argentines treat very seriously, and our weekends with serious immersion in the delights of the city of Buenos Aires.  Carolina organized an evening of tango lessons for our group and an outing to a performance of the Fernandez Fierro Orchestra, a tango rock band. Additionally, students watched Flamenco and Tango shows, meandered though weekend markets, attended Easter and Passover observations, and dinned at amazing eateries across the city.

Of course one cannot talk about Buenos Aires with out touching on the many wonderful host families who welcomed us with open arms.  Of her host family, Kayla Chadwick of Trinity College felt that “I connected to them on a whole new level.  Part of this, of course, was being able to speak a bit of Spanish, but most of it had to do with the level of familiarity and hospitality they extended to me.”  Anna Sagaser shares her host family experience in Buenos Aires and throughout the program saying:  “All three of my homestay experiences were different and wonderful in their own ways. In Delhi, we all spoke English and I had two host sisters in their 20s who were who were so much fun. We would talk about everything from clothes and movies to racism in India vs. racism in the US. In Dakar, my host family included grandparents, aunts, uncles and lots of children all in the same house, and it was amazing  be able to participate in their daily lives while getting to know them through broken French and English or playing games.  In Buenos Aires, we struggled without a shared language but my host mom spoke slowly and we worked together to get to know each other. Overall, host families have taught me to be flexible, try new foods, and do the kinds of everyday things I usually don’t think about – like showering or washing my clothes – in completely new ways. Homestays have shown me how much people have in common even if their lifestyles are very different.”

Leaving host families at the end of the fourth week, we packed our bags and headed to the campo (the country) for four days of reflection and synthesis before heading home.  After four metropolitan months many of us were thrilled to encounter an open farm landscape with room to run and beautiful sunsets.  For four days the ranch was dotted with students walking and talking in small groups; thinking about home, about the semester, and about the deep friendships that connected this group of 35. “This program’s greatest strength was undoubtedly the 35 students that traveled, learned, and laughed for four months together.” Mike McCulloch of Lafayette College, talks about his time with the group, “In New York we often heard that this group appeared to lack any ‘bad apples’ that could damage the learning, laughter, and experiences that lay ahead. After the program has come to an end we have grown in many ways but the apples never spoiled. From Marshall’s nice-boy ways to Eliza’s hand gestures aiding her verbal contributions, the group will be missed the most from a semester full of so much.”  The group gave a personal, powerful and moving presentation on our final day of program and over lunch we said our thank-yous and goodbyes.  It has been a wonderful semester full of deep learning, new friendships, adventure and understanding.

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Credits: 16

Duration: Spring, 16 weeks

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Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

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