30 Mar The streets of Buenos Aires
The city is a spectacular blend of order and chaos, a contradiction that has you thrilled and flabbergasted. First off, it’s on a huge, flat coastal plain and, with no hills to navigate, the town planners could just put down a perfect grid. Long vertical avenues are intersected by long horizontal ones, with the very occasional diagonal thrown in but not a roundabout in sight. The blocks in the grid are pretty much equal in size and numbered consistently, right across the grid. So, if you are outside number 650 on one street then you just need to walk a straight line for however many blocks and you will find you’re at the same number on a parallel street. And the roads are helpfully signed with their name and the group of numbers (all in 100s) allocated to that block. The grid means you can easily identify your destination by road and intersection – we are staying at 1540 Av Dorrego between Cordoba and Niceto Vega. So navigating is a cinch, easy as pie; it’s like New York for the literate!
Secondly, and here’s where the contradiction starts, erected on this perfectly formed grid is a complete patchwork, nay hodgepodge, of architectural styles, in many cases, lack of style. Higgledy-piggledy buildings in a state of partial construction or partial collapse – it’s sometimes difficult to tell if they’re on their way up or down. Generally, these buildings are apartment blocks, not necessarily high-rise, but often being built hard against a classic old frontage that’s just managing to hang onto its space but is in desperate need to some TLC. So sad, the gradual erosion of splendid old houses to make space for cement and glass. The further out from the centre of town you go, the more you find districts with distinct characteristics and sudden boundaries. So, for example, you can be walking through the chic, tree-lined streets of Palermo, marvelling at the long-haired, long-legged portenas tottering on their platform shoes (so last year, and so retro – I remember doing a bit of tottering myself back in the day), the beautiful people, the middle classes. Then you cross a road, it just needs to be one, and you are in a whole different place with an entirely different feel: the odd burnt-out or abandoned car graces a street corner; rubbish accumulates in little mounds; stalls sell second-hand stuff, more rag-and-bone than vintage; corner shops selling fruit and veg are very often run by indigenous people rather than the more European-looking portenos; a few makeshift beds for the rough sleepers. The change is quick as you move from the kempt to the unkempt and maybe back again.
Wherever you go, you need to keep your eyes on the ground. No matter how upmarket the area, the pavements in Buenos Aires deserve a whole blog of their own. And this is the third bit of contradiction – that this fabulous grid is paved with the most lethal of pavements. If you have the misfortune to be blind in Buenos Aires, it will not be long before you’re lame too! The pavements are an abomination, as bad as some of the worst in Belgrade and Sofia that we explored last summer. More a network of potholes, cracks, raised pavings, bare earth and ditches, they are a thousand daily accidents waiting to happen.
And lastly, there’s the colour, the explosion of graffiti as well as some fabulous street art. I’m saving the latter for another blog because I am booked to go on a Street Art tour next week. Graffiti is everywhere – political, sexual, declamatory and just plain incomprehensible, it adorns the walls and buildings throughout the city, together with the ubiquitous litter. It’s a city that oozes a kind of anarchic disorder and edginess. Yet somehow its combination of order and chaos, of style and its complete absence, of dirt, grime and messy neglect, all this adds up to a city that captivates and bemuses, a restless, excitable place full of life and noise. I love it!