IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Spring)
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2012 Letter home from Buenos Aires
Text and photos by Trustees Fellow Maggie La Rochelle, Sam Asker & Elsy Compres
Einstein said, “If you can’t say it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Well, folks, this is going to be a long letter.
How does one come to “read a city?” We’ve just finished our last stop, last case study, last act of Cities Spring 2012, with the culminating role of the urban form played enigmatically by Buenos Aires. How does one finish a program of such immense activity and content? How does one “wrap-up” IHP?
Our experiences in Buenos Aires exemplified the themes of contradiction and contestation that have emerged repeatedly throughout the trip. The program’s faculty Sally Frankental’s approach to understanding identity and social practices as “messy,” “situated,” “multiple,” and “dynamic” were so apropos so often in Buenos Aires that they become jokes among the group. Indeed, as a space mutually constructed by competing forms of meaning, generated by so many people living drastically different realities in a high density urban space, the city would have to be a little contradictory.
Take the fact that 11 years after Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis, Argentines are still deeply skeptical of the peso and prefer to have their assets in 1) property, 2) US dollars, or both. The pragmatic private real estate industry therefore requires that most homes be paid for in US dollars. But the national government has just passed a law making US dollars increasingly difficult to obtain, in order to try and protect the peso. So what do people do? If they want to buy a house in their own country, they can’t use their country’s currency to do it.
Or take the example that this is a city whose villas (informal settlements) are world-famous, with populations in the tens of thousands.
The most famous, Villa 31, has more than 50,000 residents. In some villas, the monthly cost of living for an informally constructed apartment now surpasses that of a unit built to code in outer Buenos Aires. Villas remain essentially unzoned and unacknowledged by city government, despite the fact that many are directly adjacent to new, high-income residential and commercial developments. What do we make of such geographically stark contradictions?
“We do not naturalize poverty here,” said our country coordinator Carolina Rovetta during discussion one day. She said this in part to explain the preponderance of protest marches in the streets, which we noticed were happening on a weekly (or even daily) basis and at all hours. She also expressed this to explain the crime and violence that visitors to the villas experience with increasing frequency and certainty. Though the violence is misplaced and unjust, the message it sends is a manifestation of Carolina’s statement: we will not be ignored. Our own experience in Buenos Aires suggests that the villas are increasingly important sites for the politics of social and economic inequality to be contested and indicated in Buenos Aires. The longer the government ignores them, the more irrepressible they’ll become.
Third, digging further into why the villas exist leads us to the history of housing (and social housing) in BA, a topic covered extensively via guest lectures and our own research on Neighborhood Days and in case studies. While early social housing projects were designed thoughtfully (backyards sized to the range of a mother’s call to her kids, for example), there simply weren’t enough of them. From what we can tell, public support for everybody’s right to a middle-class lifestyle persists...passionately. Footprints of entire housing developments are designed in the profile of the beloved Evita, who remains a cultural symbol of the good life all Argentines deserve. Yet middle-class Portenos (including Carolina) must move farther and farther from the city center in order to obtain affordable housing, lengthening their bus commutes to two or more hours into downtown where commercial and economic activity is still concentrated. “The question is,” Carolina said one day in lecture, “does Buenos Aires have enough room for me anymore?”
Housing and transit are inevitably linked. While train and metro systems run plentifully, it took students only a few days of getting to and from their homestays in Belgrano, Palermo, and other areas to school downtown to realize that the transit infrastructure is lopsided. The majority of metro lines are built to send all bodies toward the center of town, despite the expanding network of activity in all directions and further eastward every year. North-south movement via metro east of downtown is impossible. The bus remains the best option, and a new Bus Rapid Transit line now runs in Buenos Aires, described by many Portenos as salvific.
Recognizing the pressure that increasing inequality in housing access places on local transportation systems, some transportation planners are attempting to study the effectiveness of bus systems that carry most BA residents around the city. Yet, according to guest speaker and planner Marcelo Lascano, planners have trouble convincing political officials, who would rather focus on trains and planes, to assign buses enough importance to fund research on them.
Overall, it seems that understanding housing, transit, and politics in Buenos Aires necessitates reading them in the context of deeply contested hierarchies of colonialism and elitism. As Sam Asker put it in one of her blog posts, “BA has been an experience very distinct from that of the other two cities in the sense that it feels defined by a “cosmopolitan” or “European” identity in a way that neither Delhi nor Dakar did. There is a heavy European influence, originating in colonization and perpetuated by a global idea that to be European is to be elite.” This is not to say that Delhi and Dakar are not also postcolonial, but that the impacts of Spanish colonialism and European influence post-World War II are indelibly etched into the physical and social geography of Buenos Aires.
The importance of understanding the impact of globalization on cultural norms and practices is also paramount. It is not enough, necessarily, to think about Buenos Aires at the scale of the physical city, because its culture and politics have been so heavily influenced by people and governments beyond its borders. This also makes Buenos Aires a fascinatingly diverse place to be. It’s messy, confounding, and fantastic!
As a student on IHP in 2005, it was only at the end of the semester that I realized my learning experience on IHP was never actually intended to be a finished product. This is not to say that stories can’t be told, lessons learned, and new knowledge articulated, but rather that the program is intended to be a catalyst. It is intended to inform, to critically engage, and to render dynamic the construction of knowledge about people and places in the world.
If we view IHP from this catalytic perspective, then crisp, stratified notions of “summing up” learning, “finishing” the learning experience, or saying goodbye to each other at the end of the final city begin to feel suspiciously unnatural. This is not just because these are hard things to do. We’ve spent virtually every day together for four months, in four very different contexts. The burden of responsibility for critical inquiry does shift when we say goodbye. Each of the 38 of us must shoulder the burden of this poignant learning experience alone for a while, whereas throughout the program, the onus of criticality was borne by us all: we were a team.
We have learned how to question the frameworks underlying basic assumptions about our own political and economic situations by seeing the ways in which actors in Buenos Aires, like the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD), attempt to construct new, dignified community economies from formerly disinvested and subsidy-dependent shells.
We have learned how to overcome feelings of cultural entropy or fear and pursue new, connective experiences with different people in different places. We have significantly lowered the threshold of our willingness to take on challenges. And we can move onto and into new learning communities with a deeper knowledge of how people work together. We built strong, authentic relationships, not just with each other, but with our homestay parents, country hosts, and new friends abroad.
It feels unnatural to say goodbye because it is unnatural, if we conceive of cities and people as linked to one another in relationship, with real continuity and real consequence beyond proximity. This certainly is a responsibility. It will require renegotiation and transition. But it is also, of course, a blessing, taking the form of the best kind of blessing: a skill set for how to see the world as one of pluralism and possibility.
Duration: Spring, 16 weeks
New York City, New York, USA; Delhi, India; Dakar, Senegal; Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...
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