Daniel Politi writes the Today’s Papers column for Slate. “Hola, Buenos Aires,” about the cultural revival of Buenos Aires, is his first story for Smithsonian.
How long have you lived in Buenos Aires? What brought you there?
I have a lot of family in Argentina so I had already visited Buenos Aires more than a dozen times. But it wasn't until early 2005 that I decided to leave Washington, D.C. and move here. I got a master's degree in journalism my first year, and haven't left since.
What change have you personally witnessed in your time there?
The changes this city—and the country—have experienced in the short time I've lived here have been nothing short of astounding. When I arrived, it was right around the time when it seemed like Argentines were finally willing to look past the 2001 economic collapse. Suddenly, all these people who had been paralyzed by the memories of the crisis started looking forward. Its memory was still very much alive, of course, but Argentines were allowing themselves to be slightly optimistic about the future. By that time, the weak peso had created a growing tourism boom that had infused the city with new energy. As a result, new businesses were springing up left and right and several neighborhoods were transformed. Recently, things have begun slowing down due to the financial crisis. Everyone's waiting to see what's going to happen. But, significantly, no one expects a 2001-like meltdown. That would not have been the case a few years ago, when any bad news was seen as a sign that the recovery was just an illusion.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Buenos Aires while reporting this story that you didn’t know before?
When I moved to Buenos Aires, I went straight to graduate school so I never really explored the expat community. When I started looking into it for this story, I was immediately surprised by the diversity of the expat community. I expected to find a lot of students or recent college graduates who just moved to the city to have a good time for a few months. And while there is some of that, there are also a lot of people doing very interesting things, from artists who are integrating themselves into the community to business owners who are putting down real roots, investing in the city and flourishing.
What was your favorite moment during reporting?
Part of what I really enjoyed was forcing myself to see the city from a tourist's point of view for the first time. So much history surrounded me that I had simply never fully appreciated. Specifically, I don't know if favorite is the right word, but certainly the most interesting moment was my visit to the Escuela Mecanica de la Armada, the most notorious detention and torture site of the last military dictatorship. I had been following its development with interest for a few years but they only recently started accepting visitors. As I state in the story, the museum isn't anywhere near finished – in fact, they've barely started it. But you can join a scheduled tour and see some of the places in the main building where the military imprisoned and tortured the so-called dissidents.
A lot of imagination is required, because the military obviously long ago got rid of all the evidence since the ESMA resumed its function as a military school after the return of democracy. But the empty rooms come alive as the guide walks you through what each space was used for. Now I recommend it as a must-see any time a friend visits the city. You have to be willing to plan in advance and jump through some bureaucratic hoops, but the effort is well worth it. No matter how many times you've heard it explained in talks, books or movies, there's nothing quite like seeing the actual place.
As a resident of the city, what do you like best about it?
You mean besides the steak and the wine? In a general sense, I think it would have to be the sense of possibility. The truth is that Argentines, and particularly Porteños (as the people from Buenos Aires are known) are famously fatalistic. But beyond that exterior there's also a sense that anything is possible. Argentines have lived through so many crises that they have an amazing ability to persevere, reinvent themselves, and adapt to a new reality. Needless to say, this has a big downside, but it also means the city constantly changes.