In the two decades since its renovation, Puerto Madero has become a must-see for anyone who visits Buenos Aires, with tourists leisurely strolling down the wide walkways that line the converted docks of the former port. But living in Puerto Madero is an entirely different experience. There are no public schools or hospitals in the neighbourhood, few buses connect to the area, and despite the abundance of elegant parrillas, food from conventional markets is hard to come by. It is a neighbourhood where the solution to many basic living needs are nowhere to be found. Which might explain why so few people live there —inside its gleaming new towers, more than 50% of residential units sit empty.
Though Puerto Madero began its conversion long before Buenos Aires’ current mayor, Mauricio Macri, took office, Gabriela Massuh considers it to be the beginning of an urban planning style that has taken off under his government. In her book, ‘El Robo de Buenos Aires’ (‘The Robbery of Buenos Aires’), she argues that the legal machinations and powerful interests that built Puerto Madero set the tone for the next 25 years of development in Buenos Aires. Though Puerto Madero and similar developments make the city look better on paper, Massuh’s book points to a wide array of more troubling effects they have, and argues that their net effect is impacting the city on an even deeper level: they’re taking away its soul.
As Buenos Aires prepares for the mayoral runoff election on Sunday, Massuh’s book, published at the end of last year, is as relevant as ever. If, as polls predict, the election is won by Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, the PRO candidate hand-picked by Macri to succeed him, the city appears set to follow the same development patterns Massuh describes in her exposé.
The Soul of the City
As the blunt title of the book would indicate, Massuh —a philologist, journalist, and writer— doesn’t mince words. Much of her ire is directed at Macri and his ruling PRO party. But this doesn’t mean that the Frente para la Victoria (FPV), the party of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and a traditional opponent of Macri, gets a free pass. As she writes in the introduction, “If ultimately the balance tilts against PRO, this is not because the Frente para la Victoria is in any way less responsible for degrading public resources for private gain or resorting to abusive methods that smack of authoritarianism and intolerance.”
Massuh is more optimistic about Martín Lousteau, Larreta’s only remaining challenger in the election, who trails in the polls and faces criticism as his party is affiliated with candidates who are allied with PRO on the national level. Nevertheless, she is still concerned that the same planning patterns may hold sway even if Lousteau wins.
I met with Massuh in a café in Palermo. Outside, cyclists periodically passed by on the street’s bike lane, built during the Macri government. “It’s a shame,” she told me, nodding in the direction of the bike lane. “The purpose of these bike lanes should be to improve the quality of life in the city, but like all his other projects, Macri has turned them into a marketing campaign.”
You begin your book by talking about the “soul” of a city, in this case Buenos Aires. What do you mean by that?
This is very important for me, but hard to explain. My generation grew up playing in public spaces that were parks and plazas. People would bring their own chairs to sit and talk with each other on sidewalks. And there was a great mixture of ethnic groups – it wasn’t a city of ghettos. Today, public space means shopping centres. When I think about the soul of the city, I always go back to Marshall Berman’s description of the destruction of the South Bronx by Robert Moses’ freeway plans. He shows how tearing down parks and buildings wrecks social networks and lives. It may sound overly poetic, but it’s very real.
So public spaces were gradually transformed from places where people built personal relationships to centres for consumption?
Exactly. The last time there was a real feeling of integrated public space in Buenos Aires was in the 1980s. The creation of Puerto Madero, along with the cultural shift that happened in the ’90s, began to chip away at that. For instance, the park I used to play at when I was a kid doesn’t exist anymore.
How was Puerto Madero developed, and why is it so indicative of Buenos Aires’s development today?
The creation of Puerto Madero made use of a legal framework that had never been used before in Argentina. Both the city government and the national government became business partners with the development company created for the project. Their goal was to “build an urban centre based on genuine investment”, with no mention of public services. For me, it’s emblematic of development in Buenos Aires since then, since the same scheme was used in roughly a dozen other similar projects, which aren’t as well known.
You take issue with a number of projects the city has carried out under Macri. Which projects have you been most critical of?
First of all, housing. The number of high-rises has soared and yet the population of Buenos Aires has stayed the same for decades. Roughly 25% of housing units sit vacant, while the villas continue to grow. This shows that the government sees housing not as a practical need, but as a lucrative trade for its industry connections. The government has also stripped the comunas of much of their political power, hurting public representation. And they are systematically defunding public schools and hospitals. Their financing is fairly similar to the scheme set up under Carlos Menem at the national level: they sell off city properties for short-term gain. And most of that money only seems to go toward ad campaigns.
What is the PRO-K pact?
Though the relationship between PRO and FPV [also referred to as Kirchnerists, or “K”] is portrayed in the media as hostile, they actually see eye to eye quite often. The PRO-K pact is basically an agreement between the city legislature, controlled by PRO, and national legislature, controlled by the FPV. Both blocs are in bed with big construction interests, and they all agree to keep quiet so that projects get built. A perfect example of this is the Isla de Marchi, near Puerto Madero, which the national government wants to turn into a sort of mini Dubai. The national level PRO legislators don’t object in exchange for the city level FPV legislators approving PRO-backed projects. This agreement has allowed for dozens of megaprojects to be built with minimal public input.
Your book was published last October. What has changed in Buenos Aires since then?
The basic structure has remained the same. Macri has opened a few more Metrobus lines, a few more bike paths. There was a project to convert buses from non-renewables to renewables that fell through. The biggest change is that Martin Lousteau’s arrival on the scene has added a much-needed level of criticism to the public dialogue. At least it did – Larreta is now refusing to debate him.
What’s your take on Lousteau?
He has a good background in management and, obviously, economics. I find it encouraging that many of his relatives worked in public schools, as well as the fact that he studied at the London School of Economics, which doesn’t have as rigid a perspective on economic principles as, say, the Chicago School. It allows for a government that regulates more instead of allying with big business. Overall, he’s brought a level of rationality to the debate that has been lacking.
Do you have any criticisms of Lousteau?
I think he could be more firmly rooted in a social movement. He got a late start in the campaign, and despite his efforts to meet with members of the community, he isn’t as established at the base level of the social pyramid. And there’s always the risk that he could form an arrangement similar to the PRO-K pact.
What will happen if Larreta wins the Buenos Aires election and Daniel Scioli, presidential candidate for the FPV, wins his election?
Things will continue basically the way they are now. Scioli has already reached out to Larreta, basically looking to establish a friendly relationship in case both of them win.
Would Macri have a strong influence over Larreta’s governance?
I think so, via their mutual ties to Nicolás Caputo, a powerful presence in the construction industry. And don’t forget about the legislature. Many of the same principal blocs will still be in place, no matter who wins. I still can’t believe some of the legislators who went along with the PRO-K pact: Aníbal Ibarra, Gabriela Cerruti – I was really disheartened to see them do that.
What would you do to make things better for Buenos Aires?
We really have to take a serious look at public space. Macri has been very aggressive at fencing off parks and plazas. It all comes down to the desire to homogenise the social makeup of certain neighbourhoods. We need to get beyond that, it’s harmful for the city overall.
Regarding housing, is a tax on vacant units the right way to go?
I think that in the long term, the housing situation is so unsustainable that something like that is inevitable. But for the time being, it’s a complete taboo for politicians. You bring it up and you’ll be crushed. It’s one of the things Lousteau mentioned to me – he said that the situation was so bad he had even considered a moratorium on new construction to figure it out. But there was no way for him to bring it up during the campaign without serious blowback. All the major media outlets, including those aligned with Kirchner, would have come down hard on him.
How can Buenos Aires and other cities get their souls back?
It’s possible if we recognise the problem. In its current state, democracy doesn’t work very well. You get a vote and nothing more. We have to think more on the neighbourhood level, and think differently, to break away from the bland thought patterns instilled in us by political leaders and corporations. Things like alternative energy are very important. But one of the things that really gives me hope these days is the Pope. It’s good to see him taking on issues that others are afraid to touch. He’s even spoken out about the importance of good urban design to build better communities. If only his hometown would listen to what he had to say.
Drew Reed is a writer, translator, and occasional composer. He writes mainly about cities. Follow him on Twitter: @the_drewreed.