Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sentimental Hygiene

Before anything else, apologies to the late Warren Zevon for my shameless reference to his great song, but it just seemed right.

Last week, in my neighborhood, we saw one side of the urban hygiene issue in Buenos Aires. Several neatly dressed young people set up an information table on the wooded Cerviño median strip near our apartment to explain the new city administration's plan to keep the streets clean: when to put out the garbage, where to put it, when it will be picked up, when the streets will be swept.

No word yet, though, when the city might place containers to help reduce the mess left by cartoneros scavengers when they rifle through the plastic bags left on the sidewalk in search of recyclables (piles of refuse like those in the photo to your right, taken in the historic barrio of Monserrat, are still a common sight in many parts of the city). According to one of the city delegation, barrios such as Monserrat and Palermo, with their highrise apartment buildings, would need several containers per block, and this would take up much of the parking and could block traffic.

This cartoneros issue made headlines last Friday when the administration booted out an encampment of them along the railroad tracks in the barrio of Belgrano. The scavengers had set up the camp because the Mitre railroad line has refused to provide them a special "white train" to carry their goods to their suburban pickup points. Belgrano neighbors complained because the accumulations of trash and lack of sanitary facilities caused, in their opinion, a public health hazard, and the administration agreed.

As it happened, I caught a glimpse of this as my commuter train passed through Belgrano on the way to Tigre, not enough to be able to say whether the eviction was unnecessarily forceful. Attorneys for the scavengers have filed a lawsuit, however, and today the scavengers were vigorously protesting on the Avenida de Mayo. It was noisy, with the bombo drums whose pounding sounds carry several blocks, and police were standing by just in case. Things stayed calm while I was there, but I always recommend to visitors that, if they don't understand what's going on in one of these political protests, to observe it from the periphery.

Meanwhile, any hygiene, sentimental or otherwise, is on hold.

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