The Fading Away of a Neighborhood: In our bilingual column, the author asks what is lost when a traditional building is demolished

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Circumstances, the availability of an apartment, led me to live in San Telmo. My prior Buenos Aires home was a small apartment on the edge of Once. San Telmo, specifically the edge bordering Barracas and Constitución, has been my home for more than two years. Every time that I take the bus down Bolívar, through that narrow street, I marvel at the opportunity I have to know this neighborhood, to make it part of my life.

Decades from now, when I possibly have left Argentina for adventures elsewhere in the world, the part of San Telmo that will remain with me, my mental image of the barrio, will be the buildings.

The old, crumbling mansions and apartments capture my imagination. I carefully remind myself that these thoughts are none other than nostalgic, romanticized notions of a past that I, initially, knew very little about.

My blog describes Buenos Aires as a city of faded elegance. The buildings are like elderly ladies whose vigor, beauty, and riches were consumed by sixty years of despair and neglect. Yet dignity, a sense of honor, and character remain.

Coming from Tennessee, part of the American South, I had a childhood exposure to a genteel environment of antebellum plantation houses and families whose status had long been eclipsed by economic failure and historic mistakes. When I roam the streets of San Telmo I think not just of the architectural brilliance but of the families and lives that once inhabited these quarters.

We are so far removed in time from the construction of these residences that the original elegance can be easily overlooked. Some buildings are restored, outfitted with a new luster, a gleam for a new century. Others are humbled, seemingly continuing in the neighborhood’s tradition of providing housing to poor immigrants.

What I find most disturbing are not the disadvantaged huddled in once beautiful structures but the abandonment and demolition of charming buildings for the construction of modern residential towers. Of course, some will say that charm is relative but architecture is one of the defining characteristics of Buenos Aires and, particularly, San Telmo. Without this enchanting architecture, Buenos Aires would be just another large city.

Progress, oddly so often defined through real estate development, is inevitable. The impact of urban changes is only absorbed over long periods, usually decades. If I’m fortunate to live a long life, another forty years, I want to experience San Telmo in 2047 and learn whether the barrio’s essential character has survived, and in what fashion, or if San Telmo has become a posh theme park with only traces of its former self.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue my meanderings around these streets, soaking in every aspect of noise, grit, and beauty that encompasses life in San Telmo during the early years of the 21st Century.
—Jeff Barry
you can visit the author’s blog at: www.baires.elsur.org

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