Buenos Aires: A tale of two cities
For many, Rivadavia Avenue is the dividing line between two very different versions of the same place — the thriving north and the forgotten south
“When the City government neglects our neighbourhood it has concrete consequences: our kids are dying. Literally,” says Natalia Quinto, activist and member of the La Boca neighbourhood group La Boca resiste y propone (“La Boca resists and proposes”), an organisation that was set up some years ago after the brutal murder of Gonzalo, a 15-year-old that lived in the area.
It’s Monday, it’s a holiday and the famous surroundings of Caminito — those colourful blocks in the iconic southern barrio of La Boca in Buenos Aires City — are full of tourists enjoying a warm afternoon, taking pictures with a smile and tasting traditional porteño dishes from the tables situated in the sidewalks.
Just a few blocks away, inside the La Boca Popular Library, a tiny building filled by books in the heart of the neighbourhood, Natalia and a large group are about to start a meeting to discuss some of the problems they face on a daily basis. As occurs in most of the neighbourhoods located in the south of Buenos Aires, the clustered neighbours of La Boca have to struggle with a series of challenges that a person living in the northern areas of the city, such as Núñez or Villa Urquiza, would find hard to believe.
For many, Rivadavia Avenue is the dividing-line between two very different versions of the same city: the thriving north, with beautiful buildings, the most renowned museums, the embassies and the big and tidy parks versus the forgotten south, which faces long-standing problems such as poor housing conditions, rising unemployment rates, difficulties in access to the public health system, worsening public transport, pollution — especially for those living near the Riachuelo — well, the list could go on.
The numbers of those affected by such disparities are significant. According to the 2010 national census — the most trustworthy number of recent years — Buenos Aires City has 2,890,151 inhabitants living in an area of some 200 square km.
Of that number, a study conducted by the Defensoría del Pueblo de la Ciudad in 2015 concluded that “up to 200,000 live in the poorest neighbourhoods, most of them situated in the south.”
“In those areas, more than 70 percent live in poor housing conditions,” that report said. Meanwhile, “up to 20 percent of those living in the south do so in overcrowded houses.”
As a contrast, in the city there are up to 65,000 houses and apartments in suitable conditions to be inhabited which are vacant.
“In 2006, La Boca was declared by the authorities to be a neighbourhood facing an ‘environmental and urban emergency.’ This means that the City acknowledged the problem of poor housing conditions and — after a law was passed — they provided some funds to try to deal with the situation. But that only lasted one year. Since then 10 years have passed and we are in the same situation as before,” explains Quinto.
Places to lives aren’t the only problem, the conditions of the existing structures also pose problems.
“It’s not by chance that in December or in July in our neighbourhood the number of houses that burn in tragic fires grows. It has to do with the very poor conditions those people are living in,” Quinto adds.
Journalist Martina Noailles, from the 25-year-old newspaper Sur Capitalino, says La Boca “has more than 400 conventillos (tenement buildings). If no-one helps these people to live in better conditions, the fires and the accidents will keep taking place.”
Running contrary to these problems are the evictions of existing occupants. Sadly, often in the southern neighbourhoods desalojos (“evictions”) — and the forced, sometimes violent removal of people occupying old houses — are common.
“The evictions are a consequence of increasing and unstoppable real-estate speculation. For the authorities some of the southern neighbourhoods are a continuation of the bubble of Puerto Madero. And that is sponsored by the government, by giving the so-called entrepreneurs benefits and tax exemptions when they supposedly come to invest in business ventures related to art — as La Boca, for instance, is now in the so-called Art District. By this they are leaving the market to act freely without any control,” Noailles explains.
“This drives up the price of land and makes people in the formal and the informal market pay more rent. For a room in a conventillo, where families have to share the bathroom with up to 10 other families — people are paying from 3,500 to 4,500 pesos per month. It happens to me as well, next month I’ll be paying 9,500 pesos for the rent of my apartment and I know that if I lived in another neighbourhood, I’d pay 5,500 or 6,000,” Quinto said.
Noailles agrees that the odds are stacked against families living in such precarious situations.
“It’s curious and at the same time sad that nowadays you can find real-estate adverts that say that a conventillo is on sale with 10 families inside. This means someone can come and buy a property with people living inside. The real-estate agencies assure that the evictions are very simple, that after a trial lasting 90 days people will be out,” Noailles describes.
Housing problems, however, are not just exclusive to the south of the city. The northern areas — albeit with a different set of problems — are also struggling on that front.
In 2015, a study commissioned by the City government established that rent prices were growing faster than any measure of inflation and wages, including in the more expensive areas such as Palermo and Recoleta, where they grew even higher than the City average.
Many porteños are finding themselves priced out of the market and — as the Herald reported in July — many non-governmental organisations have been noticing an increase in the number of homeless families over the last year, in both in the north and in the south. Although there are no official statistics on this matter, for those who walk everyday through the city streets, the increasing number of people living in parks, sidewalks or in the entrance of public buildings is evident and of increasing concern.
NEW OFFICES, OLD PROBLEMS
In 2015, aiming to propel the south and “help promote its development,” the headquarters of the City government moved from its historic building located in front of the Plaza de Mayo, to a new and modern one in Parque Patricios. The place was originally sketched in to host the central offices of Banco Ciudad, but later the City administration — then headed by mayor Mauricio Macri — changed its plans.
“We are making history. This is a big step (which will) keep developing the south of the city and transform Buenos Aires in a city with equal opportunity,” said Macri during a speech at the opening of the impressive building designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster.
Neighbours, however, beg to differ. A group consulted by the Herald said that the government expected many people “from the middle and high classes to move to the area” after offering them and real-estate investors loans through Banco Ciudad. The residents say that has not happened and for now, the City government is the only one renting offices in the area.
That kind of market, of course, is based on employment and income, and this is where the differences between the north and the south of the City are underlined.
According to official figures, disclosed by the City through its Dirección General de Estadística y Censos, the unemployment rate in the City rose to 10.5 percent in the second quarter of 2016 — two points higher than the same period a year before. In the northern areas, the jobless rate was 6.1 percent, while in the south it was almost double that, 13 percent.
Official statistics also show that the average income of a family in the north is 53 percent higher than the south. While in the City as a whole the average of the so-called “total family income” (ITF) was 22,202 pesos, for those living in the north it soared to 27,019 pesos. In a clear contrast, in the southern areas ITF stands at closer to half that — it reached up to 17,717 pesos during the first half of this year.
“This year more people came to ask me how to get access to comedores (foodbanks and soup kitchens), families that weren’t used to going to this kind of places to get some food. I’ve been working for more than 20 years in the zone and this only happened during the crisis of 2001,” said a social worker serving in the so-called “Barrio Chino” of La Boca, who wished not to give her name.
She added that she was worried about those visiting because the comedores “are closed at night, during the weekends and in the summer.”
Last week, City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta delivered a speech praising the opening of an emergency room in the long-delayed and long-awaited Hospital Cecilia Grierson, in the neighbourhood of Lugano.
“We are making an effort to balance the City and this goes together with the development of this area,” Larreta said during his remarks.
Built in 2005, the hospital has still not been finished and it has been announced that it will be fully completed by 2020. From its location the hospital is supposed to provide healthcare to Commune 8, which includes the neighbourhoods of Lugano, Villa Soldati and Villa Riachuelo, the poorest areas in the City with growing populations and increasing social problems.
According to experts, up to 42 percent of people living in that zone only have access to public healthcare and the only public hospitals near there are the Santojanni, in Mataderos, and the Piñeiro, in Bajo Flores. Both these institutions face serious problems — and they’re more than 50 blocks away.
The other southern public hospital is the prestigious Argerich Hospital close to the Parque Lezama, that — according to one anonymous social worker who works there — “has collapsed”.
“For almost three years all programmed surgeries have been suspended due to lack of medical supplies,” she said adding that in the neighbourhoods without public hospitals the City offers the so-called “health centres.”
“I work in one of them and the problem we have is the lack of professional workers. Now we have no mental health experts, for example. And month-by-month I see an increase of demand: people that no longer can pay for private medicine come to the public system,” she adds.
According to experts and those who work in the northern hospitals, such changes are also being felt in that part of the City and they can also be easily noticed, but most of the population living there are registered in the prepaid medicine system.
In 2012, a group of neighbours living in Recoleta joined together to protest “insecurity” and crime.
Lucas Schaerer, member of La Alameda organisation and one of the activists behind the group Recoleta Insegura, implied that crime in the more well-off areas tended to be more organised than impromtu. He felt, for example, that crime and most of its instances in the northern neighbourhoods of the City are related to sexual exploitation and drug- dealing.
“Luckily after many years of struggle the infamous brothels close to Recoleta Cemetery were mostly closed down,” he adds.
In the south, however, with less skyscrapers and less private security, crime can be of a different nature — and a threat can even come from those meant to protect.
For her part, Martina Noailles believes that the main problem in the south of the City remains the same as it’s been for some time: the violence of the police.
“The harassment by police forces of poor youngsters in our neighbourhoods is constant. One of the worst was the case of Lucas Cabello (a 20-year-old who was shot and severely wounded by a Metropolitan Police officer in 2015 outside his home). Thanks to the cooperation of the local neighbours we could unveil (the truth and counter) the official discourse of (Governor of Buenos Aires Province) María Eugenia Vidal and the police chief who linked the incident to an attack of gender-based violence,” she said.
“For us it is very hard to see our children die violently. They are people with rights, with friends, with families. It’s life that we lose year after year. And in many cases it enrages us because they are avoidable losses. Our aim is that these things don’t end being naturalised by society. We will never resign to that idea,” concludes Pablo, a teacher and member of La Boca resiste y propone.
Such conversations emphasise just how different day-to-day life can be for porteños in the nation’s famous capital. The experiences of those living on either side of the Rivadavia show us that — for most — Buenos Aires is a tale of two cities.