Buenos Aires X 3

Three different versions of the city

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Nowadays, tourists who are looking for Buenos Aires experiences head for retro-rich San Telmo and trendy Palermo Viejo because those are the neighborhoods where the international travel media have been telling them they should go. Not surprisingly, both have several new boutique hotels and even more refurbished apartments for rent or sale. Located at opposite ends of the small part of this city of 3 million inhabitants that is known to tourists, they are also opposites in terms of style, essence and appeal.
Porteños (Buenos Aires residents) go to these two neighborhoods for much the same reasons as the foreign tourists. In San Telmo they expect to be entertained by colorful street vendors, living statues and assorted other characters on weekends, and in Palermo Viejo they hope to catch sight of some famous model or TV star while dining at a fashionable restaurant or shopping for clothing.

San Telmo vs. Palermo Viejo
The narrowness of San Telmo’s streets and the cobbles on several of them remind tourists and weekend shoppers that the neighborhood is around 400 years old. It was one of the city’s first parishes, but it was considered a dingy rundown neighborhood where only workers and a few artists wanted to live until the 1970s. That was when its remaining venerable buildings avoided the wrecker’s ball thanks to the campaign of architect José María Peña, who founded the Museo de la Ciudad (city history museum) and convinced the military government to issue a zoning ordinance exempting historically worthy buildings from changes to their façades and banning the construction of additional condo towers.

The Sunday flea market in Plaza Dorrego, another gift of Peña, established an antiquarian’s hub and a bohemian attitude that put San Telmo on the map for most tourists around the globe. And for the first time, porteños came to consider that oldness has some worth, at least with regard to architecture. In 2000 the municipality established a Historic City Center Board. In a move that was unrelated to the board, but was in a similar vein, the Public Works Department removed asphalt from some stretches of Calle Defensa and re-installed cobbles. And when the present city government recently began to remove them from certain streets in San Telmo, Palermo and Belgrano, it met the opposition of many residents.
Palermo Viejo in its present form is a fairly recent creation of developers who learned the San Telmo lesson that old can be chic. Here any kind of building can be demolished, but many venerable family homes have survived by being refurbished into expensive homes, hotels, B&Bs, restaurants and offices.

Known simply as Palermo when it was the unpretentious turf of Italian, Spanish and Armenian immigrants who arrived at the turn of the 20th century, the tree-shaded streets of this once-peaceful backwater changed forever in the 1990s, when the 1:1 exchange rate allowed porteños to travel abroad and discover the pleasures of modernity in food, clothing and culture in general. Property prices were still low, but not for long. Realtors and developers christened the part of the neighborhood with the most ethnic restaurants, designer shops and artists’ studios “Palermo Soho” and the one with several TV and cinema studios and radio stations “Palermo Hollywood.” The only retro tendencies that prospered were of literary origin. As the Argentine mass media rediscovered 20th-century writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, Plaza Serrano and the stretch of Calle Serrano between that square and Av. Santa Fe were renamed Plaza Cortázar and Calle Jorge Luis Borges, respectively. The latest additions are a host of new bookstores and art galleries destined to make Palermo the city’s new cultural epicenter. In the summer, a stroll around the plaza and along its most emblematic streets gives the feeling of being in a pleasant upscale US suburb where people sit at aseptic sidewalk cafes and watch the world walk by.

People who let homes or shops in San Telmo and Palermo have a problem in common: the enormous increases in rents and food prices brought by the influx of wealthy new residents and tenants (especially foreign tourists with US dollars or euros). The arrival of these newcomers, who were attracted by the fame and upgrading of these neighborhoods, has forced many longtime residents and merchants to move elsewhere, taking with them the trades that gave their neighborhoods character. A case in point is the Mercado de San Telmo (1879), a privately owned indoor market that once had more than 100 stalls that sold high-quality fresh produce at reasonable prices, but now is full of flea market-type shops and very few food stalls.
Of late, San Telmo has been flooded by designer shops, expensive restaurants and other consumer society accoutrements that have nothing to do with the people who have lived there until now. These changes are decried by residents who don’t want the neighborhood to become another Palermo. A bigger threat still is the Town Hall’s desire to turn historic Calle Defensa into a permanent pedestrian mall that aims to please tourists and shoppers, but denies residents public transport and exposes them to floods of strangers at any time of the day, and to a potentially noisy night life.

Avenida de Mayo
The new favorite of amateur photographers is Avenida de Mayo (in the Monserrat neighborhood), which has interesting Art Nouveau architecture and is the most authentically porteño of the three because no attempt has been made yet to make it touristy or exclusive.

Officially inaugurated on July 9, 1894 to give Buenos Aires a grand avenue that would have nothing to envy of those in France, Avenida de Mayo was destined to be important from the moment that Congress approved its construction in 1884. It looks French but its spirit is that of the large Spanish community that adopted it in the early 20th century.
For porteños, it is just a place to work and go about everyday life, frequent demonstrations moving between Congress and Government House allowing. And the many youth hostels that have sprung up in former hotels show that this normality, and prices that are lower than in San Telmo or Palermo, are appreciated by foreigners interested in local culture.
Many guidebooks equate Avenida de Mayo only with the Café Tortoni (Av. De Mayo 829), the dean of Buenos Aires cafes, which opened at another location in 1858. It moved to its present building with entrances on Calle Rivadavia and Avenida de Mayo in 1880, and opened on the avenue in 1893. Famed for having been the choice of famed writers and other members of the local cultural scene, and for its luxurious décor of marble-top tables, Tiffany lamps and stained glass, it makes you feel like you are temporarily an actor on a stage out of the past. The Argentine Tango Academy has its office upstairs. The Tortoni offers several tango shows every night Tuesday to Sunday. See http://www.cafetortoni.com.ar/ for the program.

But don’t forget Los 36 Billares (Av. de Mayo 1265), which was inaugurated along with the avenue in 1894 and has one of the city’s last billiard halls (which is in the basement). Upstairs it is a traditional porteño bar with a modest décor and a clientele of largely elderly people who go there to read the newspaper in the mornings over coffee with milk and croissants, and younger clients who choose the executive menu at lunch. It is not full of tourists, and you feel like you are watching a scene from the first half of the 20th century. Los 36 Billares offers tango dinner shows Tuesday to Sunday, and a flamenco show after midnight on Saturday. See http://www.los36billares.com.ar/ for details.

The Barolo building (Av. de Mayo 1370), an eclectic 22-floor tower built between 1919 and 1923 for an eccentric textile magnate, represents Dante’s Divine Comedy, with Hell on the ground floor, Purgatory in possession of the first to 14th floors, and Heaven extending from the 15th floor up to the beacon on the top floor, which symbolizes salvation. The building’s administration offers tours that leave from the concierge’s desk from 2pm to 7pm on Monday and Thursday. They last 40 minutes, cost 20 pesos, and can be bilingual if some members of the group speak English only. Evening tours can be arranged. Reservations at 4383-1065.

PHOTO CREDITS: A clothing store in Palermo and a living statue in San Telmo; Old glass siphon bottles in San Telmo; New buildings on Calle Armenia, Palermo; Cafe-restó on Calle Gurruchaga, Palermo; Avenida de Mayo; The Los 36 Billares bar and the Barolo Building, both on the Avenue, all by Bonnie Tucker.