Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Historical Demolition in San Telmo

Anyone who's been to Buenos Aires in the past few years realizes that the city's undergone a construction boom, with high-rise towers replacing traditional low-rise buildings in many parts of the city. This is nothing new - 50 years ago, in our Palermo neighborhood near the zoo and botanical gardens, most buildings were handsome palacetes, like the one in this photograph taken from our balcony (at ground level, it's now a fine café and the upper floors are undergoing restoration; note the sleek new apartments to its right, though). Our own apartment is part of a nine-story building that dates from 1976 and, though it has some nice touches such as parquet floors, its exterior is unremarkable.

In 1976, Argentina's vicious military dictatorship would have made it impossible to mount any public opposition to demolition of the city's architectural heritage, but that's no longer the case. Yesterday, for instance, the Buenos Aires daily Clarín reported the unauthorized demolition of the former residence of Pedro Benoit, the architect who planned the city of La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires province. The demolition went ahead despite protests by a citizens' group called Basta de Demoler (roughly translatable as "No More Demolitions"), as municipal inspectors claimed to have no authority to stop it.

The building, though, was not the only victim: The entire wall facing Avenida Independencia was covered with the landmark mural Carnaval de Antaño (Carnival of Yesteryear), one of few public nods to the Afro-Argentine population that was so notable and numerous in Argentina's early republic (a detail of the mural appears to the right). According to historian George Reid Andrews, successive censuses that systematically undercounted that population, followed by massive European immigration, soon meant that Afro-Argentines were "forgotten, but not gone."

The artists who painted the Carnaval mural, which won a prize from the city in 1990, came out in force to reproduce their work on the sidewalk near the demolished building, but the damage to the city's historic core and memory will be permanent.

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