James Gardner’s new book, “Buenos Aires: The Biography of a City,” concentrates on the Argentine capital’s architecture but misses the spirit of the people of one of the world’s most alluring metropolises.
‘Buenos Aires: The Biography of a City’
by James Gardner
St. Martin’s Press, 272 pp., $27.99
The mere mention of Buenos Aires conjures images of sultry tango dancers, wide, tree-lined boulevards, smoky steakhouses and a notorious French hauteur among locals that purrs Old Europe, despite the fact that the teeming Argentine capital is a hemisphere and an ocean removed from there.
This jampacked river city of 3 million, at the edge of the endless grasslands of the Pampas, is a real head-turner and head-scratcher.
Its high-rise apartments and office buildings stretch from one end of the horizon to the other, a wall of concrete, steel, stone and humanity that seems impenetrable at first. Its major thoroughfares and plazas, lined with ornate monuments, banks and palaces, are built on a bizarrely imperial scale, evoking Rome, London and Paris, rather than any place in Latin America.
But walks along the city’s leafy older streets, say in colorful, chockablock La Boca or the bourgeois-bohemian district of Palermo with its chic eateries, boutiques, sidewalk cafes and kids kicking soccer balls in alleyways, reveal a city dripping with human-scale pleasures.
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Buenos Aires may be a little intimidating, standoffish even, but it’s got soul.
Sadly, the city profiled in art and culture critic James Gardner’s new book, “Buenos Aires: The Biography of a City,” doesn’t come close to capturing the essence of a place that seems to take satisfaction in playing hard to get.
Gardner, who splits his time between Buenos Aires and New York, seems more interested in discussing the city’s architectural heritage. He covers everything from the shabby mud houses and treeless dirt roads of the city’s days as a Spanish colonial backwater to what Gardner himself says was a largely unremarkable middle period of nondescript, derivative and poorly executed urban developments in the 1700s and 1800s. The city’s golden era came in late 1800s and early 1900s, when massive immigration from Europe, rising economic fortunes and a taste for all things Parisian resulted in a cityscape of radiating avenues and elegant blocks that Haussmann himself would’ve admired.
But what about the people who have called Buenos Aires home throughout its confounding history?
Gardner offers a decent survey of the city’s major figures, from the early, rather incompetent Spanish governors to the legendary and infamous Perons in the mid-20th century to the leftist President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who stepped down in December.
However, surely there’s more to say in this “biography of a city” about the near-disappearance of the city’s black population, which in one of the great mysteries of modern civilization went from 30 percent during the slave era in the early 1800s to about 1 percent today.
Speaking of disappearances, Gardner also doesn’t add much to what we already know about the horrific kidnapping, detention, torture and killing of leftists, dissident militants and other designated undesirables by government-backed thugs in the turbulent 1970s and early ’80s, during the so-called “Dirty War.”
Most astonishing is Gardner’s too-brief exploration of how tango, a feverish fusion of music and dance that evidently originated in the barrios and bars of Buenos Aires, influenced the social evolution of this coquettishly alluring city.
Gardner seems so fascinated with the spirit behind the city’s deliriously aspirational architecture that he doesn’t do justice to what makes the city really worth exploring, the spirit of the people who live, love, play, toil, dream and scheme in the painstakingly laid-out if crowded grid that is Buenos Aires.
It’s a missed opportunity.