The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

The unbuilding of informal Buenos Aires, part 3: Jane Jacobs for the entitled, Robert Moses for everyone else

In his final of three stories on the unbuilding of informal areas in the Argentine capital, Drew Reed reports on the Macri administration's plans to demolish informally occupied areas and replace them with mixed housing and green space projects, and the life of one man who has been at the centre of the struggle against these plans.

Drew Reed

Drew Reed

Cities: Buenos Aires

Topics: Integrated planning, Land, Housing, Development authority, Participatory governance, Community organisation, Informal settlements

In 1983, Argentina was living through the darkest moments of its military government. But for Alberto Lacuesta, there were even bigger problems to worry about than being tortured by the military police. His landlord had informed him that, unless he signed a new contract that required 18 months of upfront payment, he would be evicted from his Palermo apartment. As a part-time worker at a printing agency, he didn’t have the money. He looked for other apartments, but they all demanded similar conditions. His contract was about to expire. It looked like he would have to live on the street. Then someone suggested another, marginally better option: he could live in the structure of a recently evicted, half-demolished apartment complex in the northwest part of the city, in an area known as Donado Holmberg.

Alberto was not alone. Others occupants began to settle in Donado Holmberg, a narrow band of vacant residences in northwest Buenos Aires. Many of them found themselves in similarly desperate situations, and Donado Holmberg was the only option they had. But over the years, the neighbourhood slowly began to feel like home.

By the time Mauricio Macri took over as mayor of Buenos Aires in 2007, Alberto and his neighbours would find themselves fighting tooth and nail for their humble dwellings. It’s a struggle with profound implications for the future of Buenos Aires’s thousands of residents living in informal conditions, from the occupants of abandoned buildings to the teeming, shabbily constructed villas. And it’s a future in which the current residents of these informal dwellings play little part.

The phantom expressway

Like so many of Argentina’s woes, Donado Holmberg began with the dictatorship. In 1976, Buenos Aires mayor Osvaldo Cacciatore (appointed directly by the dictators) unveiled the Buenos Aires freeway plan, which called for nine new expressways to be created within city limits. Nearly all of these freeways required that large, block-wide strips of houses, businesses and other private property be seized through eminent domain. 

Three of those freeways were built or nearing completion by 1983. At that point, Cacciatore’s government turned its attention to what they considered a key addition to the burgeoning freeway network. They began seizing property for the construction of the AU3 (an abbreviation of the Spanish Autopista 3, or Freeway 3), beginning in the northwest part of the city where the freeway was to link to the Pan-American Highway, which connected to the northern suburbs.

With the fall of the dictatorship at the end of 1983, the AU3 project was shelved. But in the northwest neighbourhoods of the city, the freeway right-of-way had been almost fully cleared, leaving a wide swath of abandoned or demolished structures. From the Pan-American Highway to Congreso de Tucumán Avenue, nearly all structures had been destroyed. From there to Los Incas Avenue, most structures had been vacated but were still standing. This area, named for parallel streets Donado and Holmberg at each edge of the block-wide right-of-way, would become the focal point of home occupations.

Starting from scratch

Alberto has agreed to meet me at his new residence. When I arrive, he is already waiting for me, waving to me from the second floor balcony of his cosy, sky blue apartment complex. As an American in Buenos Aires, I suppose I'm not that difficult to spot.

He has a slight build and bears an uncanny resemblance to Robin Williams. In the sweltering heat of Buenos Aires’s January summer, he has his shirt partially unbuttoned, revealing a gold coloured crucifix necklace. He has a warm, outgoing demeanour. But as I’m about to find out, he has no patience for people who try to double-cross him.

He’s lived here for two years. This is his first house after being relocated from the complex he originally settled in 1983 in Donado Holmberg, on Mendoza Street. When he first arrived there, the apartment complex he occupied was in shambles. The plumbing, wiring, even many of the walls were gone; all that was left were beams and flooring.

But Alberto was undaunted, and thankfully, so were the eight other families who had occupied the complex. With the help of local learning centres, they trained themselves in construction, electricity, and plumbing, and slowly began acquiring necessary materials. After four years of study and hard work, they were able to restore the building to liveable conditions, with plumbing and electricity.

During the early years of the Donado Holmberg occupations, many other people moved into the area as well, filling the 14-block span between Congreso de Tucumán and Los Incas avenues. They came from various walks of life. Many were drawn to Buenos Aires from the northern provinces of Argentina, hard hit by increasing unemployment. Others moved in from villas or other informal settlements in metropolitan Buenos Aires. In some cases, former tenants who had been evicted from Donado Holmberg moved back to their old homes. Others were political activists, in many cases affiliated with the Worker’s Party, managed by organisers known as punteros.

Though all occupants did not see eye to eye on all issues, they formed a close relationship with one another, born out of similar backgrounds and shared necessities. The lack of services made cooperation with other occupants all the more important. Many stayed in Donado Holmberg for considerable amounts of time. While some were able to move out of the area and back into more formal living situations, this was not possible for all residents. Those who moved out were quickly replaced by new occupants, often friends or family.

The situation at Donado Holmberg was complicated by its urban context. The narrow strip of occupied houses was located between the neighbourhoods of Belgrano and Villa Urquiza, two of the richest in the city. This meant that the occupants were socially and economically a world apart from their next-door neighbours. Though some neighbours were not above snobbish dismissals of the occupants, others were less hostile, yet fundamentally unable to understand their situation. Occupants tended to frequent the same markets, send their children to the same schools, eat at the same restaurants. These places became known as being “for the occupants”, and residents outside Donado Holmberg tended to avoid them.

But a few in the neighbourhood were willing to reach out to the occupants. In their later struggles in the mid 2000s, the Asociación Vecinos de Luis Maria Drago, a neighbourhood association named for a nearby train station, would prove a key ally. In addition, the unique and peculiar situation of the occupied homes would prove a subject for journalists, photographers, and filmmakers. In 2010, a photo essay by Rita Simoni and the documentary AU3 by Alejandro Hartmann documented the situation at the time. More recently, Victoria Gesualdi has documented the life of the residents of Donado Holmberg in La Traza (“the right of way”), a collection of photos and essays that has received coverage by many of Buenos Aires’s major news sources.

Searching for a solution

The tension generated by Donado Holmberg meant that both the occupants and neighbours were eager for some kind of resolution, though none could agree on what that might mean. Alberto argued for a plan in which the city, still technically the owner of the land, would formalise their living conditions by providing a legal framework for a more stable situation. This position made sense for him personally. In the years he had been living at his restored complex on Mendoza street, his work remained unstable. He had married and also had his aging mother to take care of. He ended up doing a great deal of the organising among the occupants to build support for his plans, and many agreed with his position.

But the city government proved reluctant to help. Through the 80s and 90s, there was no attempt by any of the various municipal administrations to resolve the issue. Looking back at this period, Alberto is cynical. “They didn’t want to do anything to help, they wanted Donado Holmberg to be seen as deteriorating,” he told me. “That way, it would be easier for them to sell the lands to private developers later.”

In 1999, after nearly two decades of struggle, the occupants won a minor victory at city hall.  In December of that year, the city legislature approved municipal law 324, whose stated purpose was to “initiate the process of providing a definitive living solution” for the occupants of Donado Holmberg. The programme offered the occupants the option of taking a line of credit, which could be used toward the purchase of homes in Donado Holmberg, or elsewhere in the city. For families wishing to construct new housing for themselves (a concept known as autoconstrucción in Spanish), the city would provide assistance for them to do so. This plan was welcomed by many in Donado Holmberg. But soon after it was voted in, it was crippled by an uncooperative administration who refused to fund it sufficiently.

Alberto sensed the distinct possibility that the government would implement this new law poorly, and realised he had to work actively with his fellow occupants if this was to be avoided. Together with 40 other families, he formed the Asociacion Civil Sembrar Conciencia (“Civil Association for Sowing Conciousness”). His goal was to organise to help carry out the autoconstrucción option of the plan for his family, and all families interested in that option.

After initially reaching a tentative agreement to receive funding from the government in 2000, Alberto’s share of it was unceremoniously cut off. It would take another five years of struggle, during which time all but eight of the families in the association left. A definitive agreement was finally reached in 2005, in which Alberto and the eight other families formally agreed on a new location to build their new home. The funding had yet to be secured.

As Alberto describes these events to me, I’m unaware until now that he and the other families have built this apartment complex on their own. “Did you design it too?” I ask. “Yes, “ he proudly tells me, then quickly gets up to show me the blueprints. Spreading them out on the kitchen table, he looks up and tells me, “But it almost never happened.”

“Why?” I ask.

He answers flatly, “The Macri government.”

Filling the V

The urban planning project undertaken by Mauricio Macri’s government at Donado Holmberg has been one of its most ambitious, and most controversial. It is being carried out by the city’s ministry of urban development, led by Daniel Chain. The plan purports to resolve neighbourhood tensions and provide housing solutions for occupants. But after talking with Chain, I gained a much clearer idea of what the project was about.

I was granted an interview with Chain a few weeks before I spoke with Alberto. In the reception room of the bustling ministry, Chain’s press director picks me out and escorts me down a long hallway. We turn a corner and enter Chain’s office. It’s truly impressive, a massive space housing ornate maps of the city hanging from the walls, a small kitchen in the corner, and three large couches so immaculate the thought of sitting on them and leaving an imprint of a less attractive part of my anatomy seems almost distasteful.

Chain is polite and diplomatic, yet firm in his convictions. Trained as an architect, but well accustomed to the politics of being a top minister in the Macri administration, his manner is a mixture of forward-looking visionary and gloves-off defender of often controversial policy.  “What are we talking about today?” he asks.

When I tell him I’m researching Donado Holmberg, he lights up. “The seizing of homes to build the AU3 was one of the worst decisions in this city’s history,” he says. “It left a scar, a huge gash in the urban fabric.”

He gets up and rushes over to his desk, grabbing a piece of paper and a pen, then rushing back, he plops down directly across from me on one of the couches. He sketches a large “V” on the paper, then points to the two end points. “This point represents Belgrano, and the other represents Villa Urquiza,” he explains. Then he points to the middle “This point is Donado Holmberg, a zone made less valuable by the events of the past 30 years.” He looks up. “What we’re doing is filling in the V.”

The plan by Chain and his administration calls for the creation of a “park neighbourhood” at the site. Most of the formerly occupied houses are to be destroyed, replaced by mostly market-rate condos and three “social housing” complexes, designed to house current occupants. Each new block would also incorporate a narrow band of public space (the “park” element of the plan), featuring greenery, benches, a bike path, and public art. The plan also includes a school, a community centre, and an athletic facility. Finally, two tunnels would be carved out below the commuter rail line that crosses the area, allowing a faster flow of traffic on Donado and Holmberg streets. Chain is emphatic about the importance of green space near each building, and he also stresses that his ministry recognises that “a neighbourhood is not a building”, and all actors in the area need to be accounted for.

What about the current occupants of Donado Holmberg? Chain explains that they have two options. One is to definitively agree to leave in exchange for a single payment. The other is to move into one of the new social housing complexes, with a minimum stay of two years. If necessary, they will be granted a line of credit from the Bank of the City of Buenos Aires. Also, these people must agree to certain conditions to live in social housing, which they have a hand in creating.

The plan was first conceived in 2009 and approved by the city legislature as municipal law 3396. In mid 2013, it reached a symbolic halfway point as the two tunnels under the train line, along with many other amenities, entered service. I remark that the project has taken a while to complete. Chain interjects that, when compared to other projects like the Docklands in London (perhaps he has mistaken me for English since I write for a British publication), the project has advanced quite rapidly.

I ask him if the current occupants are happy with the plan. Right at that moment, he receives a text message and deftly pulls his smartphone out from his breast pocket. Without looking up, he replies, “Yes, they are.” As I was about to find out, that’s not quite true. Though a Buenos Aires government webpage features a video of a former occupant who praises the plan, others, including Alberto, find much to criticise.

My time is up with Chain, so we get up and shake hands. He allows me to keep his V-shaped sketch of the neighbourhood. His press director politely helps me find the way out.

A different plan

Later that day, I meet with Alejandro Liska, a co-director of the Asociación Vecinos Luis Maria Drago, at a café a half-block from Donado Holmberg. He has lived in the area 20 years and has close contact with many of the occupants through his role at the association. His group has traditionally been opposed to the Macri administration, especially in its “park neighbourhood” plan. There’s certainly no love lost between him and Chain; when I tell him I’ve just come from Chain’s office, he shakes his head and says, “That man is a pirate.”

He complains of the city government’s unwillingness to cooperate with residents, pointing out that before the current plan, the government wanted to sell all city-owned land at the site to build a glitzy real estate project called “Puerta Norte”, evicting all occupants without any assistance. Only after persistent public pressure did they include the concessions to the occupants. But Liska still finds plenty to criticise in the current plan.

Liska’s principal objections lie in the orientation of the public spaces. They are so narrow that in many cases they simply look like large gardens for the private developments. In addition, he criticises the underground parking structures planned for many of the condominiums, which given Buenos Aires’s recent history of record rains and floods, he and his group feel will be problematic. He criticises the below-grade crossings at the train line, stating that they are unable to allow buses to pass, and thus impede the effective north-south flow of mass transit in the area. He adds that there were plenty of missed opportunities for truly effective parks and green space. Pointing across the street, to a vacant lot at the corner of Holmberg and Monroe, he asks, “Why couldn’t they build a park there?”

Liska’s group had a plan of its own. It would demolish all buildings on Donado Holmberg completely, leaving behind a public park. The surrounding area would be rezoned for the construction of taller buildings, for the relocation of occupants. Tunnels below the rail line would be widened for the effective passage of buses. It’s an intriguing plan, but one that is also fraught with danger. New homes would have to be created in currently settled lots, and occupants would have to be moved there effectively — a difficult task from a bureaucratic standpoint.

I ask Liska about the views of the occupants themselves. He tells me that everyone’s experience has been different. The majority took the stipend, thrilled at the prospect of easy money. But others had developed strong ties to the area. As I would find out, cutting those ties would prove painful. One occupant remarked, “It was hard living here, but it was just as hard to leave.” Alberto’s case would be no different.

Last days at Donado Holmberg

“We’ve never had an administration that really cared about helping us,” Alberto tells me. “But the Macri administration has been particularly savage about kicking us out.”

The problems began as soon as Macri took office. His government initiated a series of raids at Donado Holmberg, specifically targeting occupants who had not signed an agreement with the city under the earlier law 324. According to Alberto, agents of the metropolitan police broke down doors and removed occupants’ possessions, dumping them on the street. Occupants were told they had to relocate immediately.

Occupants did their best to mobilise against the terror generated by these evictions. Though they did not violently resist the police, they took shifts watching for police intrusions and kept in close contact with other occupants. Eventually, Macri’s administration received enough blowback for these evictions that the government agreed to give evicted occupants minimal assistance after their eviction. Alberto remarks that officials made sure TV cameras arrived just in time to catch former occupants receiving assistance, without recording any of the evictions.

Since he had already signed an agreement under the earlier law, Alberto was safe for the moment. But this safety was short-lived, and his situation was made all the more complicated by the fact that his group hadn’t received their funding from law 324. Soon after, Macri began his push for the Puerta Norte project. His plan would essentially toss aside the commitments of the earlier law and sell all lots at Donado Holmberg to private developers. This plan was advanced in secret, with the minimum level of public notification, but some of the occupants found out and it caused a furore. Alberto found out early one morning in 2008. A group of neighbours woke him up. “Alberto,” they yelled from the hallway of his complex, ”have you heard what they’re trying to do to us?”

It was clear that the occupants needed to organise, and though some were daunted, many of them did. They found an ally in city legislator Facundo Di Filippo, and they attracted the attention of several activist lawyers who agreed to help them with court battles pro bono. At times, occupants showed up uninvited at closed door meetings to pressure legislators into giving them a fairer law. Eventually, they got one in law 3396, which Alberto describes as “a great improvement over what they initially wanted to do.”

But there were still several hurdles to overcome. Of the two options for assistance given to the occupants: a stipend or a line of credit for social housing, the stipend proved more popular. According to data released in 2013 by the ministry of urban development, 207 occupants opted for the stipend, while 155 chose to live in social housing (56 cases were “unresolved”). But Alberto says there’s reason to believe occupants were pressured into taking the stipend. The Bank of the City of Buenos Aires, an entity controlled by the city government, insisted that potential social housing occupants pass a rigorous screening process, a process virtually unheard of for conventional loans. In addition, the bank charged an additional 4% interest above the standard rate for similar loans. Alberto believes the city wanted to minimise the number of occupants who took the social housing option, so that more land would be available for commercial development.

At this point in my interview with Alberto, his doorbell rings. Waiting outside his apartment is Victoria Gesualdi, the author of La Traza. Alberto runs down to get the door for her, and when she comes up he introduces her to me. Though she doesn’t seem particularly interested in talking with me, she warmly converses with Alberto. Observing their relationship, I can see how she was able to paint such an intimate portrait of him and other occupants in her book.

I tell them both that I’d like to know more about Alberto’s personal experience with leaving Donado Holmberg. Victoria was with Alberto when he left, and emphatically backs up what he has to say.

While Alberto was fighting the city on behalf of the occupants, he was also fighting to secure the assistance money that had been promised to him in 2005. Miraculously, he was able to secure this funding in 2009, just before the new law was passed. He began construction of his new complex, and in 2012 it was inhabitable (though not completely finished), and he and his family decided to move out.

He is bitter when describing his final days at the complex on Mendoza Street. “I didn’t want to spend any more time there,” he tells me. “I dropped off the keys and never came back. I wanted to move on.” But as he tells me this, I can see a small tear forming in his eye, which quickly disappears. He loved that building. A passionate fighter, he made sure he and the others left on their own terms, moving to another house they built from scratch. But it was still sad for him to see it go.

The park recovers the neighbourhood

Today, roughly half of the former occupants of Donado Holmberg have left. In many cases, they are waiting to move into the social housing complexes, none of which have opened yet. In January 2014, the online news source Caminando Buenos Aires reported that Alejandro Guevara, an occupant, was delayed in his social housing relocation for over a year. Meanwhile, the city wanted to evict him from his current residence to begin construction of a new district governmental headquarters. Still other occupants (considered among the “unresolved” cases in city data) continue to resist relocation without making any agreement with the city.

A walk through the neighbourhood reveals a dizzying combination of pristine new upper-class condominiums and the haunting traces of demolished houses. In some areas, remnants of kitchens, living rooms, and bathrooms can be seen in vacant lots, or plastered to the wall of other homes yet to be bulldozed. In other areas, condo showrooms recruit new, well heeled residents to the area.

Alberto’s old home on Mendoza street is still there, and after he left, new occupants moved in. Right next door, a vision of the neighbourhood’s future rises: a four-storey social housing unit, handsomely designed, and walled off by large fences bearing the city’s logo and the slogan “the park recovers the neighbourhood.” Soon, Alberto’s old building will be demolished to make room for similar social housing.

It’s a spectacle that may soon repeat itself in other neighbourhoods across the city. Daniel Chain stated that the experience his ministry gained in the design of the Donado Holmberg project will be put to use in the city’s plans for the Olympic Village for the 2018 Youth Olympics. The design features a series of linear parks similar to Donado Holmberg.

However, others fear that the city is also using its experience at Donado Holmberg as a model for evicting informal residents and developing prime real estate without sufficient assistance or compensation. Though Donado Holmberg area residents such as Alejandro Liska doubt this is possible, some of Macri’s political opponents have suggested it. In October 2013, city legislator Claudia Neira commissioned a report comparing the case of Donado Holmberg to the city’s most famous informal neighbourhood, Villa 31. The report claims that legislators from Macri’s party are currently considering a similar financing plan to remove the residents from that region. The report also alleges that much of that land would then be opened up to private developers, as it was in Donado Holmberg.

The new “slum clearance”

In my interview with Chain, he spoke of the viability of neighbourhoods, the importance of creating workable public spaces that enhance the interchange of diverse actors, the avoidance of creating monolithic megaprojects that destroy the urban fabric. This is an idea that the urban planning community embraced since it was first expressed by Jane Jacobs, one of the most iconic figures in urbanism, in her criticism of New York’s Robert Moses and his many slash-and-burn “slum clearance” projects of the 1950s.

It’s clear that Chain understands these concepts well. But the efforts of his department and the city government, while avoiding many of the pitfalls of Moses’s projects, fall short of living up to the goal of an inclusive city. In all of the city’s design projects considered in this series, but especially Donado Holmberg, planners have indeed sought to create vibrant urban spaces. But, whether accidentally or by design, these plans are only accessible to certain groups of people. What’s more, the actions of the government would suggest that, despite the fact that certain aspects of its programmes are a genuine benefit to members of the informal sector, many others turn a blind eye to incorporating them into the city’s urban fabric. Some would even appear to be actively keeping them out.

Many consider that good urban design ought to be made accessible to all. But the designs of the Macri administration, and other government entities it collaborated with, have not done so. They have created liveable projects, but projects that are accessible to only a select few. They’re creating a city where the urbanism of Jane Jacobs is reserved for the entitled. For everyone else, there’s the urbanism of Robert Moses.

Informal Buenos Aires will continue to work, travel and live under increasingly uncertain circumstances, with much to fear and few reasons to hope. And instead of working with them, the government all too often works to isolate, divide, and remove them altogether. Or as Chain calls it, “filling the V, removing the scar”.

The last laugh

As I’m finishing my interview with Alberto, Victoria has to leave. Alberto’s wife Inés, who has been working in another room of the apartment, comes out to open the main door for her. Inés comes back and, sensing that I’m a bit thirsty from the hot weather, offers me a glass of water.

I chat with both of them about their life in this new complex. Despite the manipulations they had to endure from the Macri government, they and the other residents of the complex had the last laugh. They’re now receiving funds from the city under both laws: 324 and 3396. Alberto talks about all the things that still need to be built, namely the elevator, which they had to contract from a special service and will be arriving next Tuesday. But overall, everyone at the complex is happy, and proud of their work.

After chatting with them a bit longer, I say goodbye. Inés gives me a friendly kiss on the cheek. Alberto goes downstairs with me to open the front door, showing me the unfinished elevator on the way out. He opens the door for me, then disappears back into the building. I’ve been talking with him for hours, and now the sun is about to set. I turn to admire the apartment building he built, its light blue exterior now set against a darkening sky dotted with radiant orange clouds.

Despite all the hardship faced by Alberto, the uncertain futures of the remaining occupants at Donado Holmberg, and the dwindling prospects for everyone in Buenos Aires’s informal sector, I’m strangely optimistic. Here is a family who has weathered a tempestuous informal existence lasting nearly 30 years, and still lived meaningful lives. “These people had to fight with the government every step of the way, yet they managed to create something beautiful,” I think to myself. “Someday, the city planners of the world will figure out they ought to be working with people like Alberto instead of against them. Imagine what we can create when they do.”

is a writer and sustainable transportation advocate. He currently lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he is a graduate student in urban planning at the University of Buenos Aires. In part 1: street markets and free markets, Reed explained how the mayor'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. In part 2: the terminal, he reports how while governments are providing new infrastructure for wealthy and middle-class commuters to enjoy their combi commutes in comfort, they are squeezing low-income commuters out at the same time.