Tuesday, March 25, 2008

We'll Always Have Paris?

Two Sundays ago, The New York Times travel section published a lengthy article on Buenos Aires that wasn't all bad, but its focus on European and North American expats stressed the "Paris-like elegance" that attracted creative foreigners to the city. In reality, the so-called "Paris of the South" is long gone, even if its mansard mansions survive as embassies, hotels and public offices. Whether that Buenos Aires ever even existed is doubtful--BA is, and always has been, a New World immigrant city.

It's remarkable that the Times' editors, even as they're preparing an article with references to "Palermo SoHo" and "Palermo Brooklyn," could fail to appreciate that it's really the "New York of the South" (though we might as easily refer to New York as the "Buenos Aires of the North"). In the 19th and early 20th centuries, both cities were forged by European immigration. The Hotel de Inmigrantes at Puerto Madero was BA's Ellis Island for European immigrants and refugees.

Though I haven't seen statistics, it's at least plausible that more Argentines have Italian than Spanish surnames (one difference is that New York's Italians had mostly Sicilian origins, while Argentina's came from northern Italy). In the Once neighborhood, BA has one of the largest Jewish communities outside Europe; the English-speaking community still has a daily newspaper, the Irish are a presence, and the Germans publish a weekly. The ostensibly traditional San Telmo neighborhood has both Danish and Swedish Lutheran churches. (The French are apparently invisible).

Like New York, with its large numbers of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, Buenos Aires also has ample immigrant communities from nearby or neighboring countries. Most tourists aren't even aware of the numbers of Bolivians, Paraguayans, and Peruvians who live and work in the city--many of them without documents. They have their own cultural heritage, but it's largely invisible to tourists except for the growing numbers of Peruvian restaurants--ranging from plain but often remarkably good to stylish and truly creative. One of the trendiest men's shops in Palermo SoHo bears the name "Bolivia" because the founder's wife comes from that country.

Likewise, Buenos Aires has its own Chinatown in the barrio of Belgrano, which has a small but vigorous Chinese New Year's celebration. Less visited by foreigners, some southern barrios have seen substantial Korean immigration.

It might be hard to find rodeo in New York but, despite its urban sophistication, that city has long had a country music and even rockabilly scene (Buenos Aires has rockabilly, for that matter, even if it's fringe). Argentina, of course, has its own rural heritage, and the music, dance and crafts at the weekly Feria de Mataderos reflect gaucho traditions. There are also folkloric peñas that embody provincial culture from throughout the country.

It's time to retire the paternalistic Francophile cliché. New York has its mansards, too, but nobody calls it the "Paris of the Eastern Seaboard." Perhaps the only category in which Buenos Aires truly competes with an over-the-hill European capital is the copious amounts of dog droppings on the sidewalks, but at least that's improving south of the Equator.

8 comments:

  1. >>>One of the trendiest men's shops in Palermo SoHo bears the name "Bolivia" because the founder's wife comes from that country.

    Perhaps he was also inspired by the success of "Banana Republic".

    As if Argentina itself weren't in the dumps, economically.

    Great post. Speaks to North American arrogance how the city isn't allowed to stand on its own two feet like New York. But then again, the last time Argentina boomed its peso was pegged to the dollar.

    Sure, calling it NY-ish or Parisian is complimentary. When buttering up San Francisco, people don't hesitate to say "European". But I think a more sinister reason people latch on to the Parisian comparisons is to illustrate that Argentines aren't running around with ponchos and spears. I'm serious. I think a ton of North Americans are totally deluded about South American culture.

    Anyway, hardly worth mentioning the tacky West Coast influence in BsAs seen in some of the "Palermo Hollywood" sports bars and the uber-kitchy bars and restaurants in Recoleta around Buller Pub (although I was definitely happy to be sipping on some of those brews).

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  2. I disagree, chileno, that the comparison with Paris is complimentary. Its' patronizing. But you're correct that many North Americans (and Europeans for that matter) are ignorant about South America.

    I also wouldn't call Argentina in the dumps economically. Most indicators are positive, especially compared with what they were five years ago. Whether they're sustainable is another question, though the government doesn't seem shy about manipulating or even falsifying statistics.

    Actually, some of BA's best, and most creative restaurants are in Palermo Hollywood, which I find a really vigorous scene. Recoleta, as you say, is the capital of kitsch, even if Buller's brews are some of the best in town.

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  3. Heh, okay I admit I was stretching a little in my characterization of P. Hollywood to mold it to the West Coast = cheesy theme. In my defense there was a sports bar pretty sure it was P. Hollywood (coulda been p.soho) that served Budweiser and I think I was delusional and expecting the Czech version and therefore severely disappointed.

    Anyway, I get your point about 'Parisian' being patronizing in a country where there's really only one big city to speak of. In US we can afford to have token supposedly-"European" cities like San Francisco and New Orleans but keep your hands off NY because it's a slugger when defining our national identity.

    Argentina's economy is on the up for sure but my impression is they've got something of Chile's superiority complex when it comes to all those "bananeros".

    For example Chile's economy is the best in the region, sure, but it's still unable to distribute wealth so Inequality is around Bolivia's levels, and a bunch of destitute African countries. But it doesn't stop pockets of gentrification in Santiago where they fetishize "Mapuche Fashion" similar to the exoticism of a clothing store called "Bolivia".

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  4. Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood are pretty easy to distinguish--the latter is north of Avenida Juan B. Justo. I spent a lot of time there in my recent stay, and found it better paced and less flagrantly commercial than Palermo Soho.

    I presume your comparison of Chile's income distribution to Bolivia's and Africa's is hyperbole. It's true the statistics are dramatic, but poverty in Chile (though it's a serious issue that many prefer to avoid) is far less dramatic than in Africa.

    Chile does have the advantage of consistency in its economic policy, and that's helped it avoid the dramatic fluctuations that Argentina--which always seems to be making things up as it goes along--has suffered. In fact, Argentines in general are far more circumspect about their country than in the past and many of them even express their admiration for Chile--Argentina's confidence took a huge hit in 2002 from which it hasn't entirely recovered.

    Meanwhile, Chilean tourists are pouring into Buenos Aires and other parts of Argentina. As the Argentine economy's recovered, some Argentines have begun to return to Viña del Mar for their vacations, but the last several years have still been the "revenge of the Chileans" who, for so long, had to handle a trans-Andean invasion force every summer.

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  5. >>>I presume your comparison of Chile's income distribution to Bolivia's and Africa's is hyperbole.

    Not really. Chile's Gini Index - a measurement of Inequality - is at 54, which is among the worst in the world, according to the World Bank. Swalizand, for example, is at 50.4, which is better than Chile.

    Don't confuse this with poverty, which is a different measure from inequality. Chile can have worse inequality but better quality of life, less poverty, etc. But still you can't deny a huge swath of Chile's population is economically depressed, indebted, stressed etc. They may not be destitute, but their lives are hardly a walk in the park. One economist estimates that 80% of Chileans are just scraping by.

    Wealth needs to be distributed in Chile at better levels than those of impoverished third world countries. That's all.

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  6. We're getting tangential to the original post but, although your point is well taken in a sense, it's misleading in another. Gini coefficients are imperfect indicators of poverty and in fact the standards of poverty are changing. Time was, land ownership and wealth correlated highly in Latin America, for instance but that's no longer the case--many wealthy people have little or no land, and even for those who do it's not necessarily the source of their wealth. Indeed, land ownership is probably more a function of wealth than wealth is of land ownership.

    What's most disturbing about Chile's economy to me is the dead-end jobs--women and men who spend their entire lives as housemaids or gardeners, and those who serve as human parking meters on the municipal payroll.

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  7. Well, use of but one indicator is inherently misleading to a certain degree, which is why I made a point of saying "Don't confuse this with poverty..." - my understanding of the Inequality measurement is that it's completely independent of poverty. So, like, you could have a fantasy country where the poorest of the poor were pulling down 100k yearly but if the richest were making 500x that, it'd still have high Inequality, zero Poverty.

    But there's still lots of poverty in Chile. The Economist even concedes:

    Using the relative yardstick favoured in many European countries, 27% of Chileans would be poor, according to Juan Carlos Feres of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

    That land ownership is a more obsolete determinant of wealth doesn't seem to matter as long as the old, faintly-feudal system of societal organization reverberates strongly in today's exaggeratedly unequal society. The legions of maids and gardeners tending mal gusto McMansions of the nuevo ricos in La Dehesa still seem virtually prohibited from dreaming of more than a DVD player that'll take them 18 months to pay off.

    Yes, muy tangential ;-) But I figured since I'm pretty much the only one commenting I can indulge a little bit. Surprised you don't have more readers, considering the quality of this blog is head-over-heals above most out there...

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  8. Chileno, you can't really compare Bolivia's income inequality to Chile's. While Bolivia's Gini index (60.1) may look similar to Chile's (54.9), it is really not. When comparing income inequality, looking at the Gini index alone isn't enough. A more palpable measure of inequality is calculating the ratio of household income of the richest 10% to that of the poorest 10%, and that of the richest 20% to the poorest 20%.

    According to the UN's Human Development Report Office (which uses data from the World Bank), Chile's richest 10% make 33.0 times what the poorest 10% make. In Bolivia this is 168.1. Chile's richest 20% make 15.7 times what the poorest 20% make. In Bolivia this is 42.3.

    According to the latest Casen government poll (2006), the Gini index in Chile is 54.8. But when you recalculate the Gini index adding in State subsidies (monetary, education, health care) —that is, measuring how Chileans actually live— the number goes down to 48.5. Similarly, when recalculating richest 10% to poorest 10%, the number goes down from 31.3 to 13.1, and the 20/20% goes down from 11.6 to 6.8.

    Typically data from the UN, World Bank don't take into account State subsidies in international comparisons, so the reality is always a little more equal. Or in the case of Chile, substantially more equal.

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