September 11th, 2011

September 11th Street

Posted in History, Latin America, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Between Avenidas Juramento and Olazábal, Calle 11 de Setiembre — September 11th Street — is one of the most beautiful in the upscale Buenos Aires barrio of Belgrano. Its trees arch over the rooflines of multistory apartment buildings, meeting above the middle of the street to form a cavernous, emerald archway that resembles the nave of a cathedral. No wonder visitors to Buenos Aires’ tiny Chinatown, along the congested stretch of Calle Arribeños one block north, often choose to float back to the Subte station on Avenida Cabildo via this pretty street with an improbably weighty name.

The stuff of rote history lessons — caudillos, dates, and battles — makes up many Buenos Aires toponyms, but in this corner of Argentina’s capital, they seem especially heavy with historical references. The next streets south are named 3 de Febrero (the date of a victory in battle over Spanish forces during the Argentine War of Independence) and Calle O’Higgins (for Bernardo O’Higgins, liberator and national hero of Chile). Nearby Calle Cuba, a once surely neutral name, now invites little but political and historical associations. Intersecting each is Calle Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But September 11th Street stands out among them as the most pregnant with meaning. In Latin America, as critics of US foreign policy pointed out in the years after September 11, 2001, the date held sinister connotations long before the attacks: on that day in 1973, a CIA-sponsored coup toppled the elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende, ushering in Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. That’s not been forgotten in neighboring Argentina, even if Buenos Aires has its own reasons to recall September 11th — a date of significance more than once in the city’s past.

I first came across 11 de Setiembre (or Septiembre — neither the street’s signs nor any Spanish-English dictionary have managed to agree on which is the proper spelling) on an English map, where the strightforward rendering of its name — simply “September 11” — still popped out from the page, even among the larger typefaces indicating larger and busier boulevards nearby. Other maps were more helpful in determining why the street was so titled; they rendered its full, official name: 11 de Setiembre de 1888.

The date marks the death of Argentina’s then-President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. The Museo Histórico Sarmiento stands nearby, lending credence to the theory the street may have been named in his memory. But why commemorate his death, and why with a street name? In most countries, the date of a president’s passing is rarely remembered decades after the fact, let alone after centuries — how many Americans can now recite the precise days on which Lincoln or JFK were assassinated? Nor do many countries recognize fallen leaders by naming public thoroughfares for their date of death — dates used as toponyms are usually happy ones.

Still, as last year’s funerary rites for former President Nestor Kirchner showed, the grieving of popular Argentine statesmen can produce epic emotional outpourings that straddle the line between mass mourning and street protest — historical events in and of themselves. Sarmiento’s funeral was no exception; he is still remembered fondly as an intellectual leader who vastly improved the country’s education system. In Argentina, September 11th is also Teacher’s Day.

Calle 11 de Setiembre is not the only place in Buenos Aires recalling an event that occurred on the now-dark date. Skip four miles southeast across Buenos Aires Ciudad and a very different urban environment unfolds: the somewhat rundown but lively streets surrounding the Once Subte station, where Korean immigrants mingle with indigenous South Americans from Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru.

This entire neighborhood, though formally in the barrio of Balvanera, is colloquially known as Once (“eleven”), and the vast expanse of the Plaza de Miserere, which spreads for two blocks around the intersection of Avenidas Rivadavia and Pueyredón, is informally known as the Plaza Once de Setiembre — September 11th Square. Laying along one side is the horizontal mass of the area’s namesake, the large Estación Once, officially Once de Setiembre.

These landmarks were named in celebration of September 11th, 1852 — a day revolution broke out in Buenos Aires. The revolt heralded the city’s liberation from the supposed yoke of other Argentine provinces and eventually set in motion the process that resulted in Buenos Aires’ domination of the whole country.

Its significance may be comparable to the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War — a moment when forces supporting a centralized government, backed by the wealth of an urban industrial economy, began turning back what Argentina also knew as “Confederates”: agrarian landowners fighting for greater local autonomy (and slave labor, which Buenos Aires Province banned shortly after its revolution). In effect, the contours of Argentina as a modern society began to emerge on September 11th, 149 years ago.

For all its importance in Argentine history, the 1852 revolution does not, at the time of writing, even merit its own page on English language Wikipedia. Yet the online encyclopedia does catalog, extensively, a multitude of events that have occurred on September 11ths throughout history, including several very deadly plane crashes and events both remotely (on September 11th, 1609, European explorers first laid eyes on Lower Manhattan) and more closely (September 11th, 1941 was the day the Pentagon’s cornerstone was laid) connected to the future attacks. September 11th also turns out to be the shared birthday of Ludacris, Moby, and Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad. But there’s no way to tell the complete number of ways in which the date has, and will continue to produce, different forms of meaning for different cities, countries, and individuals.

History is a crowded and contested space. The 2001 attacks need not be forgotten to be swallowed and diminished by its sweep. September 11th may not carry the associations it still does today — ten years after the attacks — once the date has passed, playing host to other memories and events, 25 or 100 times. Reinterpretations of the attacks’ consequences will likely only downsize their historical significance further. The debate over whether there was a “September 11th decade” — the extent to which the attacks shaped the events of the last ten years, or whether those events can be attributed to relatively independent decisions taken in their wake, has only just begun.

On Calle 11 de Setiembre, the street signs — like many newer ones in Buenos Aires — are topped by adspace. It’s jarring when seen there, juxtaposed with the street’s name. I was angling to photograph one when I noticed the “11” in the name has been crossed out with spray paint — and wondered whether it signified some awareness of just how strange it seemed that this street commemorated a date that was now linked to the trauma that occurred in 2001.

As I aimed my camera, a group of passersby stopped, giving me curious looks. Something about the fact that they found it strange anyone would be arrested by the sight of “September 11th” suggested that, already, the date may have already begun losing its immediate power to conjure, for people far beyond Washington, Pennsylvania, or New York, the same singular, immediate, evocative images — even if the attacks will probably not, for a long time still, if ever, require as much explanation as Argentina’s 1852 revolution, or be lost to the relative obscurity of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s death. After I told them that I was American, the onlookers nodded and, without any other expression, moved on.

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One comment

  1. Christopher DeWolf says:

    This post and the topic you’ve addressed remind me of my own experience on September 11th.

    I had just started my last year of high school in Calgary. I was walking out of the house early in the morning to catch the bus when my mom told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. For some reason, I thought of the Cessna that once crashed into the Empire State Building and assumed it was a similar incident. Then, on the bus, a friend told me the towers had collapsed. I thought he was bullshitting, but when we arrived at school, my French teacher looked upset and we spend the first period listening to Radio-Canada’s live coverage.

    The next period was English class. We had a test. The teacher said something along the lines of, “It’s terrible what happened, but life goes on, and this test can’t wait.” That struck me as odd given the gravity of what had just happened, but the rest of the day was the same. When school ended, I took the bus downtown and it was uncanny: life was going on as usual. Even the flags on top of the Hudson’s Bay Company were still at full mast. On the bus home, I listened to the conversations around me and nobody mentioned what had happened that morning in New York.

    My girlfriend told me later that there was a similarly indifferent reaction in Vancouver. That certainly wasn’t true in Montreal or Toronto, where I’ve heard that kids were sent home from school and people left the office early, upset and unsettled. But in Western Canada there was no such trauma. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of proximity, but of some kind of cultural distance, too.

    September 28th, 2011 at 5:24 am