Full text by Drew Reed in Buenos Aires For theguardian.com
In Villa Lugano, on the southwestern edge of Buenos Aires, the wide Avenida Fernández de la Cruz divides a complex that includes a golf course and a shopping centre to the south, and a public park to the north. These two areas, despite being across the street from each other, are socially a world apart.
The shopping centre attracts throngs of upper-middle-class shoppers from across greater Buenos Aires, most of whom arrive by car. The golf course, protected by a tall fence, provides a pleasant afternoon excursion for those who can afford a game. But across the street, the poorly maintained park would receive few visitors – until last February, when a section of the park became occupied by hundreds of residents of the nearby informal settlements known as villas. For many, this was the only housing option left to them.
Scenes of stark inequality are not at all uncommon in Buenos Aires. The lavish apartments of the city’s Recoleta neighbourhood and the humble dwellings of Villa 31 are separated only by the railroad tracks that branch out from the city’s central train station, Retiro. Tourists from around the world flock to trendy stores in San Telmo, while 10 blocks away in Constitución, families struggle to get by in poorly maintained, multi-family dwellings known as conventillos. But the situation has taken on a particular sense of urgency in Lugano and other southern neighbourhoods, where many of the city’s poorest residents are concentrated.
At a glance, Lugano looks like something of a graveyard for bad urban planning ideas. Due to frequent flooding, the area was virtually uninhabitable until the Riachuelo, a small river on the neighbourhood’s southern border, was diverted into a large flood canal in the 1940s. After the land became feasible for construction, city planners rolled out a series of large-scale planning schemes – many of which are regarded as failures. To the north of the shopping mall, for example, a large theme park opened in the 1980s and promptly had to be taken over by city government, before finally closing for good in 2008. A tall, spindly observation tower still stands on the park grounds, reminding residents of its better days.
The undeveloped lands in this area were slowly converted into villas by the city’s underprivileged. Generally, these settlements consist of bare-bones residences with inadequate connections to basic services – or no services at all – that have been built by the dwellers themselves using the most basic materials available: cheap red bricks. Makeshift, often unpaved streets connect the residences, giving the villas a distinctive look: dense clusters of bright red buildings connected to the grid by a jumble of wires criss-crossing above the homes.
The first villas appeared in Buenos Aires in the early 20th century and continue to expand to this day. Though the best known villa in the city is probably Villa 31, near the city centre, the largest concentration can be found in Villa Lugano. The best known of these is Villa 15, or the Ciudad Oculta (hidden city) – a name that purportedly derives from the fact the villa was blocked by large walls during the military regime of the 1970s, to keep foreign tourists in town for the 1978 World Cup from seeing it.
The concentration of villas in this area has made it the focal point of housing-related protests. In 2010, the neighbourhood’s Indoamerican Park was the site of an occupation by more than 3,000 families demanding better housing conditions, which was quickly put down by metropolitan and federal police in a raid that left three protesters dead.
On February 24 of this year, a group of roughly 300 families occupied a section of the same park near the shopping complex on Fernández de la Cruz. As with the earlier occupation, protesters sought to make their demand for better housing known to the media and public – but the protest was also practical. One occupant identified as Juan said in an interview for the news website InfoBAE:
“We really need this space … we need a solution [for our housing situation] immediately.”
The Buenos Aires government reacted with a series of flip-flops over whether to negotiate with the occupants or kick them out. But a series of judicial rulings favoured the protesters, and the occupied area began to take a more defined shape: small lots were designated with strands of rope tied to low posts. Protesters installed basic water and electrical connections, though the dwellings themselves still took the form of canvas tents and shelters. To keep spirits high, the protesters decided to name the site in honour of local hero who had become a global symbol of hope for the underprivileged: Pope Francis.
In April, the city presented a plan to convert the occupied area of the park into housing. However, the plan was criticised by Marcelo Urquiza, one of the occupants, for “not having sufficient infrastructure connections”. Laila Robledo, an urban planning consultant, believes the city has been lax in implementing an effective housing programme:
“In Villa Lugano, the same neighbourhood as the occupation, the city is spending heavily on an athletes’ village for the 2018 youth Olympics,” she says. “Why can’t they concentrate more on housing for residents of the villas?”
In May the city changed tack, targeting specific occupants said to be the organisers of the protest. However, further eviction plans have since stalled, prolonged by a June court decision that again favoured the occupants.
Villa Lugano’s occupation is not the only protest to address Buenos Aires’s housing issues. In April, activists from the Corriente Villera, a community organisation representing the needs of villa residents, began a protest calling for improved conditions. Setting up in the centre of town at the foot of Buenos Aires’s most recognised landmark, the Obelisk, they pitched a large tent and gathered volunteers from all of the city’s villas, staging a hunger strike taken in shifts.
Inside the tent, protesters hung a defiant portrait of Che Guevara – but the approach of many is more moderate. “We are all from the middle class,” says Julia Espinoza, a resident of Villa 31 who took part in the protest. “We work and take care of our families just like everyone else. But since finding a place to live in Buenos Aires is so competitive, we have nowhere else to go but the villas.”
Espinoza highlights the necessities that are lacking in the villas. “We have water, but sometimes sewage water enters into water which is supposed to be drinkable,” she says. In addition, she points out the need for better roads: “When we get sick, ambulances don’t want to come into the neighbourhood. As far as government leaders are concerned, we don’t even exist. It’s hard to believe they can think that way.”
In May, Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri called the protest “extortion” and said that the protesters “don’t represent anyone”. However, he recently agreed to some of their demands, signing an agreement that would “further the process” of improving the villas, according to a statement by Corriente Villera members. In return, after 53 days, protesters agreed to take down their tent and end the hunger strike on 13 June.
Much remains to be done to remedy Buenos Aires’s housing ills. Raúl Fernández Wagner, a professor at General Sarmiento National University and member of the housing advocacy group Habitar, says the issue runs deeper than simply providing reliable basic services to the villas.
“Right now, over 20% of housing units in the city of Buenos Aires are unoccupied,” Wagner wrote recently in the local newspaper, Página 12. “Many people say that to fix this problem, we need to build new housing, and that’s definitely important. But the key issue is fair access to housing.”
Wagner believes that the city government’s attitude toward this issue has been negligent at best. Conceding that the city has made important and necessary improvements in areas such as transportation, he adds: “If that’s the only improvement you make, you’re just promoting gentrification in poor neighbourhoods.”
As for the occupation in Lugano, barring a court ruling that favors eviction, protesters will continue to occupy the site until their situations improve – out of necessity. And this, according to many experts, means they’re likely to be there for a long time yet.