Buenos Aires Is Not Paris
I’ve heard all my life that Buenos Aires is the Paris of Latin America… I’ve lived in Paris and traveled extensively throughout Latin America, but only recently made my first trip to see this well-touted “European” city for myself…
And I disagree.
Having lived for several years in both Paris and Manhattan, I can say with certainty that Buenos Aires is not a replica of Paris. I’ve never heard it compared to Manhattan, but I noticed parallels between the two. To me, BA seems an intriguing mix of both metropolises. The best of both cities can be seen throughout BA… but what’s missing is also notable.
Note: The areas of the cities I’ll compare here include only the metropolitan city centers. In the case of Paris: the area of the préfecture, which includes only the 20 arrondisements, not the banlieus (suburbs). In the case of New York: Manhattan without counting the boroughs. In the case of Buenos Aires: the greater BA area—which includes the autonomous city of Buenos Aires and the 24 adjacent partidos (districts)—which is all metropolitan, hence the shocking size comparison.
Paris is uniformity, regularity, dependability. Each block resembles the last, each building resembles its neighbor, cafés can be found with surety on every block (as if by some city mandate), and it’s compact and highly walkable at about 65 square miles (more than 11 of which are woods). The city is familiar, comfortable, like a favorite sweater you pull out in the dead of winter. Little changes—and that’s how Parisians like it.
New York is a constantly repainted canvas, each newly added layer as vital as what came before it, inextricable from its predecessor, but nevertheless its own completely new entity. It’s also easily walkable at a mere 22 square miles (Central Park takes up more than 1.3 of those miles.) Throughout most of the city, architectural style isn’t constant. A crumbling warehouse shares a wall with the hippest new microbrewery, a gothic church is nestled among 1970s townhouses, a glittering high-rise is just across the street from an impeccable art deco mansion. This unceasing re-creation is intoxicating, each city block constantly born anew—and that’s how Manhattanites like it.
In Buenos Aires, I see both of these attitudes sparring with one another—but if I had to choose one city for comparison, I’d have to give the edge to Manhattan. No one will ever call Buenos Aires uniform… as no one would say it of the country either. This is a place of frequent change, of challenge to the status quo, and of adaptability. If there is one thing porteños can count on, it’s irregularity.
While one baroque building stands stoic, unchanged for centuries, the same block is home to brand-new luxury office buildings, and townhouses that have been chopped up into residential apartments. Much like Manhattan, this city keeps the old but has no qualms with the new.
Like Manhattan, Buenos Aires is a predictable grid, first laid out by Juan de Garay with an area of about 20 square blocks in 1583 (Paris, thanks to historical circumstances, doesn’t enjoy such structure). In BA, the pattern was strictly enforced—ruthlessly, even—throughout each stage of the city’s growth.
BA is walkable. But at a whopping 1,480 square miles, nobody is walking the city from end to end unless they’re looking to set some kind of record. Rather, it’s walkable in sections—within neighborhoods, you can easily and pleasantly get around on foot. Though, notably, sidewalks are not as well maintained as those of Paris or New York… perhaps simply due to the sheer volume. Everything in the city is farther than you think it will be—whether you’re on foot or behind the wheel.
Paris’ city center remains preserved—no infrastructural initiatives have touched the city since Haussmann made his grand improvements in the 1800s, and the metro was installed in the early 1900s. I venture to say that never again will Paris be reimagined or modernized in a similar way. New York, though, is efficiency to its core; no change is too upending. In spite of the limited space, highways and byways cross the little island, and improvements are constantly being proposed. BA is likewise forward-thinking and willing to change for the sake of efficiency or modernity. Highway systems criss-cross the city, an airport is housed within the city limits, and public transportation is being extended and improved.
Paris is polished and refined… New York is gritty and visceral… BA manages to be both simultaneously. One end of the famous Avenida 9 de Julio is home to many of the city’s breathtaking embassies. This section, which could have been lifted right out of Paris’ best neighborhoods, is light and airy with its wide streets punctuated by greenery. Closer to the obelisk, however, you begin to feel like you’re in midtown Manhattan—the streets are much narrower, the space feels tight and breathless, theaters abound, hawkers call to tourists and pass out flyers advertising their stores and restaurants, streets are artificially lit by neon-backed signs and plastered with lewd posters offering “masajes.”
Of course, Paris is not all stodgy… but New York is decidedly younger, hipper, and trendier. This young trendy feeling isn’t one Paris strives for, whereas BA boasts a neighborhood with two sub-sections that could have been cut from the map of downtown Manhattan for all their youth culture and atmosphere. They even acknowledge these cut-out neighborhoods by name: Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho. (Hollywood became the most popular residential neighborhood for local TV and radio stars, producers, and writers.) These little sections of Palermo are all the rage right now. They attract young, upper-to-middle class locals, lots of tourists, and anyone looking for a good time. They are bohemian, irreverent, and home to great restaurants, clubs, and some of the best nightlife in the city.
So what’s BA missing? I appreciate the feeling of absolute freedom in a city that’s walkable from end to end, and that’s not possible here. The sprawl of the city has other consequences… some neighborhoods aren’t necessarily “self-sufficient.” In different parts of the city you may not be able to find a pharmacy or grocery store within walking distance.
While this is one of the closest things to a true café culture I’ve seen in Latin America, don’t mistake the resemblance for the real thing… After a long day of real estate tours I decided to walk back to my hotel, about 30 minutes away. I wanted to rest for a quick espresso before starting my trek in earnest, but, thinking of it as a café city, identical in this way to Paris, I passed on visiting the first café I saw, sure that another would be just around the corner. Twenty minutes later, I was nearly to my destination, and I still hadn’t found another café in which to take a quick load off.
Another thing that I found a little surprising was that, although this city looks and feels like it’s perfectly First World, you need to be prepared to be “gringo gouged” as you might in any other Latin American country. Cabs at night, for example, tried over and over to charge me unbelievable rates to go just a few blocks down the street. When I took the same route during the day the rate was 60 pesos or so (about US$4); at night some were asking 300 (about US$20) or more.
Sure, there are similarities between Paris and Buenos Aires, but I think this comparison is getting old. The city has grown and evolved… which is the antithesis of Paris. Modern-day Buenos Aires is a melting pot of influences, cultures, and aesthetics, and this is reflected in all aspects of this city. Where Paris homogenizes, making everything glossy and in keeping with the city’s original atmosphere, BA welcomes the alien, accepts all, and allows for adaptation, much like Manhattan.