The Other Colors of La Boca

The rainbow-hued streetscape squats somewhere on nearly every postcard of Buenos Aires — those, that is, it doesn’t dominate — like some psychedelic, bizarro-world version of the city, a clownish counterpart to the stately Second Empire apartment houses lining the boulevards of Retiro and Recoleta. “The Paris of South America” this isn’t — La Boca, as the neighborhood it’s located in is called, owes its architectural lineage to instead to Genoa, whose sons disembarked on the dirty banks of the Riachuelo River, south of the city center — only now being tidied up after two centuries of industrial effluence and studied neglect — during the 19th century. Throwing up wood and sheet metal tenements plastered in the paint colors left over from nearby shipyards, they promptly set out to build a distinctly different Buenos Aires.

Long before Jorge Luis Borges complained about the forced Gallicization of his native city, La Boca was a world apart from the rest of the city. As journalist José Ceppi, nom de plume Aníbal Latino, wrote in his book Argentinos y europeos, in 1888:

[C]ommunication [between La Boca and the rest of Buenos Aires] is convenient, easy, fast, continuous, by tramway and by rail, and yet [the neighborhood] has a character so different, so special, seems to be fifty miles away. Many, even in Buenos Aires, speak of La Boca as if it were out of town, not a neighborhood that is a few steps from the main square. The contrast derives from the different architecture of its houses — and more still, the nature, character, and morals of its inhabitants.

A “few steps from the main square” (the current Plaza de Mayo) was an exaggeration, but the cultural divide Ceppi noted was not. In 1882, the neighborhood had even seceded, briefly, from Argentina, raising above the neighborhood the Genovese flag. The attempt to make the rotten-smelling but riotously colorful slum the continent’s first Italian city-state had to be repressed with a show of arms.

Today’s invaders are more likely to be led by tour guides than military commanders, blithely oblivious to the crumbling destitution of most of La Boca barrio, stumbling through that postcard street — the Caminito — and packing another, Magellanes, which overflows with overpriced food and drink. Because of this incursion, there are really three Bocas: the brightly-painted, two-block tourist cloister at the neighborhood’s heart is one. Another is the greyscaled dirge of urban poverty that stretches to the barrio boundaries, encompassing burnt-out cars, homeless encampments, and streets with enough potholes to no longer qualify as “paved”. The third awkwardly straddles the chasm between them — a transitional region of slowly decaying storefronts and brightly painted tavernas alike.

This is a liminal zone where you’re more likely than almost anywhere else in Buenos Aires to encounter the city’s rapidly-disappearing native design scheme, fileteado, or sense for what the neighborhood may have been like before the Caminito became global visual shorthand for the Argentine capital. La Boca’s colors were one far more subdued than the present hues used around the Caminito and on Calle Magellanes; it’s often assumed that the bright hues used in the paintings of neo-impressionist artist Quinquela Martín reflected the colors of the neighborhood. The truth is the other way around; Martín introduced La Boca to its now-familiar shades in the early 20th century. And while the blocks falling away from those streets aren’t necessarily representative of the 19th century neighborhood, they give more accurate clues than the garish tourist precinct.

This part of the neighborhood hosts the stinking docks down by the Riachuelo, too, and the pubs where fans gather to cheer the neighborhood’s pride — the Boca Juniors football (soccer) team — and their famous stadium, La Bombonera, which towers over all three Bocas and manages to draw healthy contingents of curious foreigners and ferociously devoted locals alike, having long served inspired neighborhood kids who spend afternoons slide-tackling one another in the concrete playgrounds dotting every other Boca corner.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Wednesday March 28 2012at 12:03 am , filed under Art and Design, History, Latin America and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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