The unbuilding of informal Buenos Aires, part 1: street markets and free markets
Drew Reed takes us on a walk through downtown Buenos Aires to see how the mayor Mauricio Macri's policy of formalising informal traders is being undermined by the free trade principles he normally espouses, and a judiciary who sees through the injustice of his initiatives.
It’s 6am in Buenos Aires, and the sun is just coming up over the murky waters of the River Plate. On Peru Street downtown, long before the store owners, tour operators, and money changers arrive, street vendors are already setting up shop. In the poorer suburbs, commuters face a long trip, in many cases only possible by unlicensed van service. In the impoverished villas, closer to the central city, residents living in flimsy brick houses, some without power or water, prepare for work. These people are all part of informal Buenos Aires. Theirs is a tough existence that few would willingly choose, an existence of daily perils and uncertain futures.
As with many of the world’s cities, the subject of informality in Buenos Aires is controversial. Nearly everyone agrees that something should be done, but no one knows exactly what. Some more conservative circles favour punitive anti-informality regulations, and in some cases, stamping out informality by force. More traditionally progressive organisations tend to advocate less heavy handed measures, such as credit programmes or the expansion of public services, aimed at helping people in the informal sector to formalise.
The issue is naturally a concern for the city’s mayor, Mauricio Macri. Given his silver-spoon upbringing in an oligarchic Argentine family, one might expect him to take the more conservative position. But surprisingly, Macri’s approach to informality appears to embrace the progressive stance. In particular three recent projects initiated by his government promise to help participants in the informal economy to formalise by giving them a place in the city’s urban fabric. The benefits of these programmes feature prominently on the city’s website and advertising campaigns.
Despite these claims, a closer look at them from street level reveals a different picture entirely. Instead of helping people in the informal economy or people who depend on informal services, they have often served to make their lives more difficult. These three projects: a new market for street vendors, a terminal for unlicensed minibus operators, and a housing project for unregistered occupants of a cluster of abandoned homes on the north side of town, represent the emergence of a new urban design strategy in Buenos Aires, one that ultimately leaves little room for those it claims to help.
Setting up shop
Appropriately enough, the first of these projects began less than a block from the city hall, on the southern end of one of the city’s main pedestrian shopping areas. This is an area that had always played a key role in the commerce of the city, dating back to its earliest days in the 16th century. When Juan de Garay founded Buenos Aires in 1680 after earlier explorers failed to found a city at the same location, his initial city was built around a roughly 10-by-10-block grid, centred around the main plaza, today known as the Plaza de Mayo, at its eastern edge. This plaza became home to the Cabildo, the seat of the regional government, and a large fort on the eastern edge. North of the fort was a pier, which funnelled ship traffic into the city from Europe and from the Paraná and Uruguay rivers northwest of the city, flooding the plaza with merchandise.
The area retained its commercial importance through the ages, though the historical setting was changed significantly; the Cabildo is now a museum, and the fort, now obsolete from centuries of extending the coastline eastward with landfill, was eventually replaced by the Casa Rosada, where the president lives. Of all the streets in the central part of town, Florida Street emerged as a key artery for the city’s shoppers. Historical photos from the 1890s show it as filled with shopping stalls and horse-drawn carriages, replaced in images from the 1930s by neon signs and early automobiles.
And it was on Florida Street that city leaders began a programme that would predate international urban planning trends like “walkability” and “liveable streets” by nearly a century: they started closing it to car traffic. As early as 1911, the street was closed daily to vehicular traffic, between 11am and 9pm, later becoming a fully pedestrian-only peatonal in 1971. Today, the pedestrian walkway stretches approximately one mile from the Plaza San Martin in the north to the Plaza de Mayo in the south, including a two-block section after the street changes its name from “Florida” to “Peru” on its southern end.
Naturally, this street attracts a great deal of foot traffic and activity. Occasionally, store owners constantly worry about whether a slight increase in shady characters at night may mean the beginning of a concentrated crime wave. But its central location and walkable nature make it a natural gathering place for buyers and sellers from all walks of life. The street is a favourite of Brazilian tourists, and draws its fair share of money changers, tour operators, and professional tango dancers, with sound systems in tow, dancing for tourist donations.
The block-long stretch belonging to Peru Street has become known as a hub for manteros: artisans selling hand-crafted goods such as toys, purses, and cups for drinking mate, Argentina’s favourite beverage. Though some of these salespeople sell their goods as more of a hobby, supplementing their income with other work, others rely on the money they make there as their primary source of income. Though their presence is tolerated somewhat grudgingly by nearby store owners, and others in the area, they maintain a tightly-knit community among themselves, alerting each other of dangers and occasionally lending a hand to fellow sellers arranging or packing up their goods.
The free market mayor …
It’s time to meet Mr. Mayor, Mauricio Marcri, whose rise to political power is an improbable tale of political intrigue (his biographer and political opponent Gabriela Cerruti gives a detailed description of this history in her book El Pibe. The son of Argentine construction magnate Franco Macri, the young Mauricio at first wanted to become an engineer, receiving a degree at the prestigious Catholic University of Argentina. Soon after, he decided the only thing he really wanted to engineer were real estate and financial deals, like his old man. He went to get a graduate degree in business in New York, where he was briefly a business partner with Donald Trump in a failed condominium project. He returned to Buenos Aires in the mid-80s, managing his father’s companies.
Mauricio got his first taste of politics during his father’s frequent meetings with Carlos Grosso, briefly mayor of Buenos Aires in the early 90s, and he wanted more. But in the political world, Mauricio was still an outsider who needed to get his foot in the door. He found the perfect way to do so by running for president of Argentina’s largest athletic club, Boca Juniors, winning the club’s election in 1995. At Boca, he was relatively popular, piggybacking on Boca’s reputation as a working-class team, sharing the limelight with successful coach Carlos Bianchi, and occasionally coaxing the team’s star players to practice with him. Diego Maradona once quipped that “he plays soccer like a great engineer”.
With the political chaos generated by the country’s financial crisis of 2001, Macri saw his opportunity to transition into real politics. It was at this time that his political views matured; he began to cite Ayn Rand as his ideological role model. He assembled a team of political operatives made up of political consultants and business professionals, with the goal of winning the mayor’s office. Their first attempt in 2003 failed, stymied by the public’s recent memory of the Macri family’s bungled acquisition of Argentina’s postal service. But in 2007 they were victorious, after the previously elected mayor had to step down due to political pressure after a deadly fire at a night club, leaving the party in disarray.
Since taking office, Macri has served as a sort of lowest common denominator between several disparate political blocs: the business elite who overwhelmingly reside in Buenos Aires, as well as many of the city’s white collar middle class professionals, who prefer the centre-right Macri over the politics of the nation’s president, Cristina Kirchner. This coalition has remained solid, handing Macri an easy victory in 2011, and producing an odd mixture of policies. Macri’s PR team is first-rate, as even his opponents grudgingly acknowledge, and in addition the mayor has pursued a number of internationally acclaimed environmental and sustainable transportation initiatives. On the other hand, he also received criticism for destroying historical buildings and excessive firings of supposed ñoquis (Argentine slang for freeloading employees) in the city government.
When it comes to the city’s informal sector, Macri’s initial approach was heavy-handed. He created the “public spaces control unit”, whose stated goal was to “recuperate public space”, which in practice meant the violent eviction of people living on the street. After this programme proved unpopular, Macri realised he would need to take a new, more intelligent approach. In some cases, he worked to simply reform laws to make informal activities (such as trash collection and car window washing) more difficult. But for other types of informality more firmly rooted in specific areas, he needed a different approach. His design team began to increasingly rely on the strategy of creating public spaces intended to be used by people currently in the informal sector. This new strategy was less reliant on police enforcement, but its effectiveness in helping its supposed beneficiaries remained to be seen.
… who opposes free markets
Despite his love of free markets, there was one market Macri wanted to regulate: Peru Street. To begin putting this new strategy into practice, Macri set his sights on the manteros operating there, right around the corner from his city hall office. In February 2012 he passed a law banning street vendors in 30 key areas, including Peru Street. At the same time, he began formulating plans to revamp the Plaza Roberto Arlt, a neglected square about three blocks away, as an artisan market. The plans called for beautification of the plaza, several official stalls to sell products, and new bathrooms. With this new market, Macri could legitimately claim to be helping artisans find a new home, instead of simply evicting them.
On 20 June 2012, the city government announced that the artisan market at the plaza was open for business. Furthermore, they announced that all artisans remaining on Peru Street would be forcibly relocated by the metropolitan police. Some of the vendors reacted immediately to this, packing up and moving to the plaza. But many resisted, continuing to display their goods on the street. Police responded in some cases by seizing the goods for sale.
The conflict reached a climax on 22 June, when artisans continued to occupy the street with displays empty of goods, protesting the eviction. Some city legislators opposed to Macri came out to show their support. Arguments broke out between opposing camps, but no large-scale violence erupted. The artisans were finally handed a victory by a judicial ruling, issued on 25 June, permitting them to stay. In the following months, fewer artisans showed up in the newer plaza. Now that they could sell their goods back on Peru Street without the imminent threat of eviction, there was no real reason for them to go to the plaza.
Peru Street today
More than a year after this incident, Peru Street remains its same old funky self. On weekdays, the street fills with a wide variety of sellers, from the relatively well dressed to shirtless hippies with dreadlocks.
I talked with one of the vendors on the street, his mate cups neatly arranged on an orange blanket, hard at work carving a design into a new mate. After explaining how he makes his products, I ask him if he would ever go anywhere else to sell. “No,” he tells me, “this is the best place to sell. There’s lots of foot traffic. And there’s a real sense of community.” I ask him about the evictions last year. He looks at me with a smile. “I was there,” he tells me. “We beat them!”
His young daughter sits next to him, watching attentively. Maybe one day she’ll be selling mates too. I decide to buy one of his cups. When I ask if he has a card or contact info to recommend him to a friend, he says he doesn’t. “Just come find me here, on Peru Street.”
Heading over to the Plaza Arlt, still in operation, the ambience is a bit more sterile. Only about half of the stalls are occupied by vendors. The once clean, bright yellow awnings above the stalls are now stained by various rainstorms. The plaza is struggling to look presentable.
I chat with a man selling reprints of pictures. It turns out the pictures are mostly from the man’s father. He delights in explaining the street scenes depicted, and boasts that a few of his father’s paintings ended up in the prestigious Museum of Latin American Art. When I ask him about the plaza, he tells me he doesn’t particularly like it. “I only come on Tuesdays and Thursdays, my slow days,” he says. “On other days I prefer to sell in Palermo. This is a very new space still, and we’re trying to figure out how to make it work.”
Only the beginning
It would seem Macri’s initial efforts to relocate informal vendors have been unsuccessful, thanks in part to an uncooperative judiciary. But the plan was also hampered in part by the fact that, ironically, it violated free market principles. Street vendors were expected to move to a poorly located plaza, where sales would be much lower. It was only natural for them to protest, not because of some hippie ideology, but because of their bottom line.
As long as the ruling holds, the vendors of Peru Street can continue to sell their goods. But this doesn’t mean that there might be new attempts to uproot the vendors at some point. Macri’s law from February 2012 includes a provision to create other similar markets, possibly as a mechanism for removing street vendors from undesired locations. And in some cases, the city government isn’t even waiting to install new markets to evict unwanted vendors. More recently, in December 2013, the metropolitan police fired rubber bullets to remove manteros in Buenos Aires’s western neighbourhood of Flores. If the ruling is overturned, Peru Street vendors might meet a similar fate.
But the failed evictions on Peru Street were only the beginning for Macri’s new design strategy. The following year, he would turn his attention to another form of informal activity with a long history in Buenos Aires, firmly rooted in the city’s central district: unregulated minibus services. To which I will turn in my next instalment.