In what appears to be part of a wider picture of urban and economic development in the South-East of the city, in December 2011 the Buenos Aires City legislative body approved a law to build a future commercial, cultural and gastronomical centre in San Telmo.
The plans for the centre have generated controversy, dividing opinion among residents. Every Thursday, a group of teachers, students, and artisan workers meet in a small classroom under the 25 de Mayo motorway bridge in the Mercedes Céspedes sports centre. They are there to fight against the centre, which in their eyes poses a serious and deep threat to local education and social activity.
A Controversial Project in the Epicentre of San Telmo
The project, known as Feria del Sur, was voted on virtually unanimously by legislators of the PRO party and by the majority of the opposition. Out of 55, only four abstentions and one negative vote were cast. The law must be voted on twice, and since the composition of deputies in the Legislative body has changed since the first vote, the construction of Feria del Sur is probable, though not yet definite.
The construction of the centre would involve a $15 million investment from a group of four private construction companies; Lanusse S.A., Criba S.A., Servente S.A., and Crivelli Construcciones. Feria del Sur would be located between Bolivar and the half block between Balcarce and Paseo Colón, under the 25 de Mayo motorway. It would measure 16,000m2, with parking space for 266 cars. According to the presentation of the project, the centre would include “cultural, community and commercial activities” including a cinema and restaurants, as well as a graffiti wall and a gallery.
It is hoped that Feria del Sur will bring diversity, money and tourism to the barrio, upliftingand modernising the area underneath the motorway, that according to the governmnet has been “abandoned.”
Although it is generally accepted that the area still needs to be improved, its critics ask why improvement must mean radical change, instead of maintaining and upgrading what is already there.
In the proposed location under the motorway, an artisan cooperative and a community sports centre can be found. While the artisan shops hope to be involved in the project, it is still unknown what would happen to the Mercedes Céspedes sports centre. Schools in the area use the centre for physical education, and a number of local community projects operate here as well. If the shopping centre goes ahead, their space could disappear.
Unifying San Telmo and Healing the “Scar” Created by the Motorway
In 1980, the 25 de Mayo motorway was created, and for most people its construction split San Telmo in two, effectively creating two separate barrios. 20 years later, both the City Government and the private companies state that a principal function of Feria del Sur is to “unify the division in San Telmo, and involves large scale investment in the south of the City.”
Speaking to local paper El Sol de San Telmo, Eduardo Servente, from Servente S.A, deems the project a way to heal the “scar” that the motorway has created in San Telmo, a way to “cure the injuries produced by the motorway and unify the two sections of the barrio which are today separated by an inhospitable and ugly place.” The creation of a shopping centre would also respond to local preoccupation with the safety of an area that can still pose dangers: “Another issue that many people mentioned was the light and security in the area just next to the motorway, and how we could improve it.”
David Kullock, research professor and director of Urban Planning Post-Graduate study at the University of Buenos Aires believes the shopping centre would do nothing to heal the division. “These are just words. On the contrary, it would divide. A shopping centre could never be a friend to everybody – it’s a social fallacy. Of course, this would create more divides.
“This centre wouldn’t be for people who actually live in San Telmo,” he continues. “These residents aren’t the type of people who are going to use a shopping centre. Its purpose is to capture middle class people and tourists.” Kullock explains that the social effects of a shopping centre are extremely difficult to predict, but that in this instance, the project could potentially create more divides within the area.
Efrain Cruz, actively against Feria del Sur, has worked hard to develop the area, as well as volunteering in social activity locally, and is involved at the Mercedes Céspedes sports centre. For him, these claims come too late. For the last eleven years, he has been working extensively with others in the barrio to help unify San Telmo. He opened Feria Gráfica just under the motorway, a shop selling graphic art that upholds Argentine tradition. Along with the Artisan
Cooperative across the street and the creation of the sports centre, it has made people cross San Juan to the area under the motorway, which aided in bridging the divide. He is outraged by the project proposal: “This private project called Feria del Sur seems to tell us that it’s coming to do what we’ve been doing for 11 years.”
The Impact in Focus: Sacrificing Education
Cruz has not only worked to help bridge the divide and improve the area, but he has also been involved in projects aiming to help local children. Around 2,500 children from local schools in the area use the Mercedes Céspedes sports centre for physical education, and the destruction of the sports centre would leave them without a space to practise sport.
Those at the centre work hard to offer help and activities for children in the area. Local schools use the centre to offer extra classes for children who are falling behind at school, an activity the schools currently do not have space for. Groups such as ‘Club de Jovenes’ and ‘Taller de Musica’ also operate here, offering help to children from difficult or violent backgrounds, and giving free music classes to local children.
Unfairly, those at the sports centre only found out about the project through a journalist who came to ask them what they thought for an article about Feria del Sur. There is a strong feeling that they have been left in the dark, left only to wonder about what will happen to the children, the centre and the social activity that is done there. They have reached out to legislators, writing questions to ask what will happen to the centre, but they have been met with silence.
“These people just don’t care that 2,000 children will be left without a space,” says Diaz. “They will destroy everything that we have created. You can improve without destroying.”
Improvement, maintenance, investment are all welcome; they know the area is not without its faults. But what continually emerges is the sense that macrismo is leaving them behind – favouring big, private businesses and allowing their work to crumble in the wake. Moving somewhere else simply is not an option; there is no other space in San Telmo that could cater for the 2,500 school children as well as the social activities.
“There is no better place around here for what we’re doing. They’re putting in private money to a public space, when they should be investing and maintaining it,” says Ricardo Fuentes, a delegate for volunteers in the 4th district.
As it stands, it seems that only those behind the project – the government and the private companies – can see the advantages of Feria del Sur, while locals feel that investment is necessary, but that this project is not worth sacrificing a community centre and the barrio’s authentic feel.
For Kullock, a modern shopping centre in San Telmo is the “antithesis” of the backdrop of antiquity and bohemia that characterises the barrio. There is “no advantage of building this shopping centre. I think San Telmo is the worst place that they could be building it.” He notes that San Telmo has undergone much change and development over the last 20 years, and currently there are areas that need developing much more.
“They have to invent words: ‘would complement’, ‘would diversify’ – but for me we don’t need to make San Telmo more diverse, but instead we should aim to focus on its uniqueness, on its singularity.”
The second vote on Feria del Sur is on 9th May. Until then, those at the sports centre will continue to campaign against it. For now, they are distributing flyers, and talking to legislators, but they will protest if their concerns continue to be met with silence.
It is impossible to tell what the project will do for the area. PRO legislators must now decide if the change, improvement and development the project could bring to San Telmo is enough tosacrifice local work of the last 11 years, or if Feria del Sur will ultimately create a much deeper and long-lasting scar in San Telmo.
Find out what the locals think about development in San Telmo here.