Bridget Gleeson writer + illustrator

An ode to my barrio

Parisian architecture, Peruvian street food, handsome gentlemen in three-piece suits, crowded bookshops, glamorous old cafes… what’s not to like about living downtown?

(Actually, there’s a lot not to like about the neighborhoods around the center of Buenos Aires: the protesters marching around the plaza day and night, the squeaky brakes on passing buses, the garbage heap around the corner, the teenage boy who’s often peering into my living room from his balcony across the street. But, for me, the charm outweighs these obstacles.)

I’m here – hold onto your hats, now – to pledge allegiance to the neighborhood of Congreso.

This is not a popular preference among locals, to say the least. Most  porteños wouldn’t dream of living in the congested center of the city – they prefer the leafier, more affluent neighborhoods and suburbs in the northern area of Capital Federal. But, man, I’m from the suburbs. I don’t want peace and quiet, I want crumbling buildings and tango bars, access to public transportation, street parades, quaint passageways lined with bakeries and button shops. I want a butcher and a Chinese laundry on my block. (And by George, have I got both of those right now! Plus a fabric shop, an antiques store, an empanada takeaway counter, four cafes, three farm stands, a shoe-shiner, and an independent theater. A knife sharpener on a bicycle actually rings the doorbell on a regular basis.)

Yep, this month I’m renting a little place just north of Plaza Congreso, one of many apartments I’ve lived in here in Buenos Aires. Fine timing, considering the interesting piece in this week’s New Yorker in which Nicholas Lemann discusses the benefits of living in the center of a big city (listen to the author discuss the topic here, and kindly overlook his somewhat offputting references to ‘pre-collegiate’ and ‘post-collegiate’ girlfriends.)

To get more city-specific about it, for many of us who weren’t born here, Buenos Aires’ downtown – and, going slightly further out, the barrios of Montserrat, San Cristobal, and San Telmo – is where we find the old-fashioned elegance and gritty charisma that satisfy our imaginations of Argentina’s capital city.

It’s where we find a little bit of this –

(that’s the El Niño Bien milonga at Centro Región Leonesa)

It’s where our morning coffee and medialunas are still affordable on the cafes along Plaza Congreso, and where the waiters still wear tuxedoes –

(that’s breakfast time at 36 Billares.)

It’s the place where we can dine alongside the businessfolk for a mere 28 pesos (about $7) per person, drinks and dessert included (I do adore menus ejecutivos) –

And where people live in apartments that look like this –

And where you can roll a baby stroller right up to one of the historic cafes on Avenida de Mayo for an early evening glass of Torrontés. They love babies around here –

I could talk about the ladies across the street who do my laundry in two hours (washed, pressed & folded) for a few dollars or the guy who saves me a kilo of brussel sprouts at the Bolivian market when they get a new shipment in. But let’s not get carried away.

Though I’d recommend checking out the view from my current bedroom –

(now that’s what I’m talking about.)