01 Dec 2018
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Raising the Barrio

Can the shantytowns of Buenos Aires be integrated into the city that long neglected them?
by April White

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Mayor Rodríguez Larreta (below) plans to reinvigorate the “misery towns” of Buenos Aires by providing basic public services and diverting the highway that bisects the barrio (above).
Bloomberg/Getty Images

Mayor Rodríguez Larreta (below) plans to reinvigorate the “misery towns” of Buenos Aires by providing basic public services and diverting the highway that bisects the barrio (above).
Bloomberg/Getty Images

Buenos Aires’s Villa 31 is within sight of Retiro, one of the wealthiest enclaves in Argentina’s capital. But the villa miseria—the Argentinian term for an unplanned shantytown—is a world away. The neighborhood is sandwiched between the largest railway station in Buenos Aires and its industrial waterfront. An elevated six-lane highway cuts through the heart of it all. Below the traffic, the narrow and often unpaved streets are crowded with makeshift brick and corrugated tin buildings, home to some 43,000 people. “Most porteños have never even been there,” says Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (MBA 1993), using a nickname for Buenos Aires residents. The mayor himself grew up in the city without ever visiting the community—one of a half-dozen “misery towns” across the city. “It’s a few feet away, but physically and socially, there is no connection at all.”

In August 2016, eight months after taking office, Rodríguez Larreta pledged to change that, announcing a plan to integrate Villa 31 and an adjacent area, Villa 31 bis, creating a new, formal neighborhood, Barrio 31. His first step: establishing a mayoral office in the heart of the barrio, reclaiming a building that had until recently been the headquarters of a drug dealer known as “Tarzan.” It was a symbolic gesture, Rodríguez Larreta acknowledges, but an important one. “Our biggest obstacle was the lack of credibility. For years, [residents] have had politicians going in and out, telling them they will do everything. And no one did anything.”

Villa 31 has existed in some form since the 1930s, when the squatter settlement housed European immigrants who worked on the railroads and at the port. Throughout the decades, multiple attempts at forced eviction and resettlement failed, though one late-1970s effort reduced the population to just 1,000. A decade later, the neighborhood began growing again and with it, the community’s problems. Today’s residents—predominantly young and about half immigrants from Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru—are among the city’s most vulnerable.

Rodríguez Larreta’s plan for developing the neighborhood is an ambitious one. When he unveiled his vision, 20 percent of houses in the barrio lacked a direct connection to drinking water, less than 80 percent were connected to the electrical grid, and 99 percent didn’t have access to gas for cooking and heating. These basic services will be provided by March 2019, the mayor says. That same month—the end of the Argentinian summer—two vocational schools are scheduled to open in the barrio. They will be the first public schools in a community where only about 60 percent of adults have finished secondary school. A massive construction project is also under way to reroute nearly a mile of highway. Instead of cutting through the barrio, the road will run over the nearby railroad tracks. In its place, where some of the area’s most dangerous housing now stands, Rodríguez Larreta envisions a park for a community that has had almost no green space.

His plan is also an expensive one—US$320 million, financed by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank—and a politically challenging one. It wasn’t until Buenos Aires’s former mayor Mauricio Macri was elected president of Argentina in 2015 that all the pieces for the investment fell into place. (Rodríguez Laretta served as Macri’s chief of the cabinet of ministers for all eight years of his mayoralty.) The project remains unpopular with a portion of the city’s voters, who don’t believe the government should be investing in a neighborhood that has existed for decades without contributing to the city’s tax base.

There was little other choice, says the mayor, who will most likely run for reelection next year. The city could not forsake the neighborhood, nor raze it. Relocating it was not a practical option: “The concept is to help people improve their lives in the place where they live,” he says. And it could not rely on business investment to jump-start development. That will come later, he says, after the physical and social infrastructure improvements. “We will pour the foundation.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1993, Section G

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