There is no better way to get under the skin of any place than to sit down and have an earnest conversation with one of it’s own. In the first of a series of the different barrios (neighborhoods) of Buenos Aires I spoke with Rodrigo Salinas, a San Telmiano, student of political sciences, and professional tour guide who was raised in Buenos Aires. For years Salinas has been living in the neighborhood and has an interesting perspective on most things, his barrio included.
How long have you lived in San Telmo?
Between comings and goings for 12 years now.
What is your favorite place to eat in the neighborhood?
El Banco Rojo.
What is your favorite San Telmo drinking hole?
La Puerta Roja.
Is there some suggested reading to better understand the barrio?
No, I don’t believe that a single book can sum up San Telmo. But anyways in order to understand a bit of the essence of the neighborhood and what you can see here, El Aleph by [Jorge Luis] Borges recounts that one of the access points to the multi-universe is in San Telmo.
What are three songs that could be a soundtrack for your barrio?
Sí yo soy así by Flema would be one. Another could be Gitana by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs shows a bit more of the riffraff; and nocturno a mi barrio by Anibal Troilo that is a bit more literary.
Historically San Telmo has been an area characterized by many changes, what changes can you see the area undergoing now?
In the time that I have lived in San Telmo I have seen a lot of change. I moved to San Telmo shortly after the [economic] crisis of 2001, in that time you still felt the aftermath of 2001, it was a bit dangerous. For example I was nearly robbed on Independencia and Piedras, a very central place. Later the more neighborly part started to modify more than anything when they started modernizing and gentrifying Defensa [street]. The change that we have seen in the last few years is, well, the famous gentrification of the barrio. If they were able to put in a lot of things like Palermo, that is to get rid of the old and construct new gigantic apartment buildings, they weren’t able to do as much because they are protected by laws and there is an important movement of the neighbors. For example they wanted to put gates around Lezama Park, but the [neighbors] assembly of San Telmo opposed it and they were successful in stopping them from gating the park. The way that they were able to gentrify the place was by making it an important gastronomic center, in less than 5 blocks you have some 25 restaurants. It’s a neighborhood that changes all the time, there are book stores, restaurants that opened and then closed. You have to understand it, there are places that opened but weren’t able to prosper because they didn’t go with the idea of the neighborhood. There was a place that was very nice and swanky, it was very like Palermo and right in front was La Puerta Roja which has been in the barrio for 10 years and it worked well in San Telmo because it respected the entity of the neighborhood, it’s more bohemian than hipster. The newest changes are going this way, I would like that the new changes take a bit more conscience of this. I fear a bit that one day will become another Palermo.
Many describe San Telmo as a bohemian part of the city, in that thinking what are some of the more important artisitic movements that define the neighborhood?
The art is in the street, there are lots of murals and lots of graffiti. There are artists of all types, the time-honored like Malegria and Pol Corona, and newer artists like Mar Vez or Prima. For bohemian artistic movements what you see is lots of experimentation of the walls. There are walls which are painted, they change, painted again and somebody else paints on top. On the other side their are many artist workshops and many small art galleries. This goes with the opening and revaluation of the museums like the MAMBA, and the MACBA. On top of that you have lots of galleries like El Viejo Hotel where you can find everything. Inside that very same gallery you can find various small workshops of different artists. The other things you see a lot of are things that might not prosper, but there are lots of new book stores opening up with new proposals, more interesting book stores with lesser known authors. As an artistic movement, The bohemian side of all of this is that it isn’t all organized, they leave it a lot of times to the whim of the artists, I believe they are more characterized by being fragmentary. In the art you can also see many changes, how the phisonomy of the barrio changes has a lot to do with the artists, the things they put on the walls.
What political and social movements are active in San Telmo?
It has it all, it is a very political area, the neighbors stopped the city from fencing off Lezama Park, that itself shows much of the attitudes and the characteristics of the barrio. There was a very strong movement of the assembly in the wake of 2001 [economic crisis] in San Telmo with the people’s assemblies. Now what you see a lot of are the different locations in support of the different branches of the Peronist party. Its a neighborhood that in general is defined more by the left or the center left with the contradiction that they haven’t had much success in slowing the process of gentrification. Anyways there are many associations, like the Asemblia Popular (People’s assembly) where people can buy food and other products at affordable prices. The assembly of Plaza Dorrego is what fueled the residents to demand that they not fence off the park. Lastly there is a lot of agitation coming from the Peronist parties, more than anything the Kirchnerist parties who aim more at the youth and have various activities that happen in the neighborhood.
Tell me about something imperceptible in your barrio, something that goes unnoticed by the majority?
It’s a tango barrio. Today it isn’t really known as a tango area, but it continues to be one. Aside from the milongas, you also have the tango personalities, tango is more than a dance it is also the provacateurs and personalities. Even though these types were more popular in the 20’s today you still see them going around here in the streets. Another thing that you see, more during the night, is that this continues to be a neighborhood by definition. Even if it has started to gentrify, and become touristic with many hotels and hostels, once you stay more time in the barrio you realize that kids still play football in the streets. This makes it unique because it is a very centralized, it is very close to the downtown, but it still resists changing. It continues as a neighborhood in that sense.
What is one thing that everyone visiting San Telmo must do?
To drink a chili bomb!
If one day you were to leave San Telmo, what would be the thing that you most missed of the neighborhood?
The comings and goings of the neighborhood. The encounters with different people. To go out to the streets and know that after a bit I will find someone I like who might ask me to have a beer with them. Then we will drink and continue talking until next thing we know its 4 in the morning and we are drunk. That is priceless, you can’t find that in any other part of the city center in Buenos Aires.
What direction do you foresee the barrio moving into in the future?
The future that the neighbors decide. It depends on us.
A thousand thank you’s!