Sunday, January 20, 2013

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Some things don't change much, even though forty years pass by.  In 1972-73 we lived above a Greek restaurant at 2016 Mass. Ave in Cambridge, Mass. That apartment was over 100 years old, had seen better days but is still standing. Now we are staying above a pizzeria at 1787 Billinghurst, just above one of the main streets, Santa Fe, in Buenos Aires. The two apartments have alot in common. The noise of the city never stops, buses, taxis, horns and screeching brakes.  The smells of food cooking, diesel and the heat of mid summer in a humid, sea level city with millions of people moving fast at all hours.  We hear conversations from the street below, shouts and laughter.
Most of the Argentines came from Europe, with a huge percentage from southern Italy.  The same people who populated Boston, the North End, Cambridge and Somerville, had cousins who fled to Argentina in 1890-1914, looking for prosperity and a better life.
The building we are living in today was built during that turbulent time.  It was beautiful then and still is very attractive now.  But if these walls could talk?  What a lot of trouble the people of this city have seen over the past 100 years.
I am reading an excellent book, Buenos Aires, A Cultural History, by Jason Wilson.  He writes that between 1895 and 1912 the population of the country doubled (3,954,911 to 7,570,400).  Fifteen different steamship companies sailed into this port, bringing immigrant workers and taking back full loads of frozen beef, wheat and soybeans to feed Europe.  The people who built this six story apartment building were rich, they owned vast ranches in the Pampas.  They rented living quarters to the new middle class.  The poor lived south, near Boca in squalid slums, block after block of flats with no running water or electricity.  This was where the anarchists, the socialists and the communists gathered, rabble rousing a following to take away the property of the landed gentry, the ones Evita Peron later called "the oligarchs."  In 1909 one of the anarchists assasinated the Chief of Police.  By 1919 the struggle between capital and labor reached the breaking point, the police came down hard in raids in "la semana tragica" to root them out, killing thousands, deporting some of the leaders back to Russia or Italy.  But up near Santa Fe street there were fewer radicals. This was where the small merchants, with enough income to live a clean middle class life, but not enough to own a factory or a ranch, would stake their claim to the future.  Then the world wars, one and two, followed by a great depression and social upheaval again. Depression helped the populists regain power and in 1946 Juan Peron was elected and the balance shifted in favor of labor, the capitalists were under siege for a decade. During the 1960's and 70's presidents came and went and policies raced from one extreme to the other. Peron returned from exile in Spain, died shortly thereafter and then the military took over and conservatives began to arrest the radicals and perhaps 30 thousand of them "disappeared." The pendulum swung once more.  Then in the late 1980s and 90s democracy bloomed, the economy boomed, followed by a huge collapse in 2000 hyperinflation and depression.  25 percent unemployment and hunger for many of the people.  A commodities driven boom in the period 2002-2011 but then inflation hit 26 percent and the economy turned sour. Today our taxi driver, Hector, told us he had been a supervisor in a pharmaceutical business for twenty years but in 2002 lost his job, lost his home, lost everything and is now surviving as a cab driver. The city is beautiful.  The apartment building we are staying in is grand.  The facades ornate. But change forced out one family after another.  Political and economic instability has rocked their lives for five generations. The people of Argentina will survive.  But how many stories of sleepless nights, fear and sorrow could be told by these walls.  Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.  Dale

1787 Billinghurst Street

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