On the outskirts of La Plata in a town called Berisso, there is a quiet, sleepy street called New York. Grey cobbled stones line the road, those at the side submerged in water as the drains fail. The only way for water to escape is through cracks in the side of the road, where a trickle disappears into the darkness below. This street seems to be frozen in time, harking back to other, more popular days, when the giant meat factories were still open…
Businessmen from England opened two meat production factories – Armour and Swift – between 1909 and 1915, creating a surge in demand for immigrant labour in Berisso. At the centre of the industrial hub was New York street, which by the 1930s had come alive with a mixture of different cultures and tongues; there were Italian, Spanish, Greek, German, Syrian and more, giving the city the name “the Provincial Capital of Immigrants”. The beds in the town were called “warm beds” as when one worker got up to work, another who had finished his shift took his place to rest.
Little of that warmth remains now: as the factories closed one-by-one in the 1980s, workers left the area in search of a life elsewhere. Squatters found refuge in the empty houses, and life on the street began to change drastically.
Slightly off New York on a scratchy dirt road lies the old Swift factory, now part-used for metal works and textiles. Memories of the old factory, much of it abandoned, linger: an abandoned lift shaft now full of refuse, ship parts strewn around the inner courtyard, graffiti at the entrance depicting immigrants arriving by boat from many countries. Nature is now reclaiming the place for its own, small trees and plants burst from cracks in the side of the building, eagerly reaching for the sun.
A small plaque proudly claims New York to be the “kilometre zero” of Peronism. On 17th October 1945, some 10,000 workers led a march from here to Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to participate in a rally demanding Perón be released from prison. The day is now remembered as “loyalty day” and the birth of Peronism. At one end of the street a bust of Juan Domingo Perón and his wife “Evita” continue to watch all who enter.
A bar called Raíces, one of the few buildings without shutters, hides a completely different world. Guitars and chairs hang from the ceiling, a stage is set up for live performances, and reggae music fills multi-coloured surrounding. Just like the meat factories the bar was founded by an Englishman in 1918; now it is owned by Graciela, a Berisso local who has been running it for four years. “The name of the first owner, Thomas Dawson, is still in the entrance to the bar,” she says.
Graciela describes how the Swift factory changed the area by ensuring that there was a supply of essential resources such as light, electricity, and water. She adds that there used to be a tram line in the street, although now the only trace of it are the tracks embedded in the cobblestones. “The bar has given the zone a much needed push forward,” she says. “We didn’t use to open up at midday but now we do as it is worth it.”
Outside, men work on their cars, a job in demand given that most vehicles parked on the street are missing a tyre, a bonnet, or even an engine. Dogs roam the area, most old and sleepy, excited to see strangers for once.
The façade of each house varies from one to the next; one is boarded up with corrugated iron, the next has beautiful architecture and a mural but inside there is nothing as the roof has caved in. Kids play football outside closed shops, once a major attraction for workers and their families.
Colourful graffiti covers the walls, street artists remembering the rich history of the street, one that led to “Calle Nueva York” being named a ‘National Historic Landmark’ in 2005.
At the other end of the street are four new container cranes, painted a bright orange and blue. Right across from them is a huge business car park, the huge open space and mundane architecture of the building grating against the authentic feel of the town, quickly pulling dreamers out of their time travelling fantasy.