Buenos Aires Tango Star Wins Fight to Bring Back Cobblestone Streets

(Bloomberg) -- The cobblestone streets of Buenos Aires have charm and potholes in equal measure. They’re as much a part of the city’s faded fabric as French balconies and bidets, but a threat to pedestrians, cars and commerce.

Now, a showdown between a preservationist tango singer and a paving-bent government has Argentines arguing over the costs and benefits of its Old World heritage. 

“For poetic reasons, we wanted to preserve this part of the city,” said Karina Beorlegui, a 48-year-old lifelong Buenos Aires resident and tango pro who recently won a years-long court battle to tear up asphalt and replace stones. “They were going to take away these beautiful streets from us.”

Beorlegui’s case raises thorny questions for the Paris of South America and the country as a whole. Some see the restoration as a waste, especially considering Argentina is mired in another economic crisis under President Mauricio Macri, who was mayor when Beorlegui sued. Others say cobblestones are not only part of the city’s soul but keep streets safe by slowing traffic. Like many Argentine debates, just about everyone agrees that nobody agrees.

Buenos Aires Tango Star Wins Fight to Bring Back Cobblestone Streets

The streets are a legacy of bygone prosperity. By the early 1900s, Argentina had vaulted into the world’s 10 largest economies, enriched by vast farmlands, a wave of European migration, an education boom and decades of liberal economic policy. Today, many Argentines have Italian names, speak Spanish and live in buildings of French architecture.

The city’s founders modeled their streets after Europe’s capitals and laid them with granite stones that weigh as much as 24 pounds. Buenos Aires has 4,000 cobbled roads, or about 18 percent of its total. By comparison, New York has cobblestones on less than 1 percent of its roadways.

As mayor, Macri made a big push to modernize the city — including paving roads to smooth commerce — and the initiative continued after he became president in December 2015. In the past six months, Buenos Aires has paved hundreds of streets, covering the middle of the road in asphalt but leaving the sides as they were.  

Beorlegui saw her beloved city being desecrated. She’s made a career of Argentine culture, singing in tango performances for more than 20 years, including shows in France, Portugal and Spain. She’s a stalwart of a community organization dedicated to her Palermo neighborhood, famous for its bohemian cafes, tree-lined streets and live music that goes until sunrise. In 2013, she had her fill of asphalt and sued the city.

On Feb. 26, after years of filings, testimony and appeals, a judge ruled that within a month the city must restore any paved areas. That means they must take up asphalt and replace it with stone. And cobblestones made of granite must be used in place of any made of concrete or other ersatz materials. Officials say restoring the 550 locations will take at least six months. 

Buenos Aires Tango Star Wins Fight to Bring Back Cobblestone Streets

“We won’t finish it in a short period of time because cobblestones are complicated to place, because the work is so manual,” said Ezequiel Capelli, the city’s undersecretary for public space maintenance. “Cobblestones are very expensive to maintain, and not very economic.”

One square meter of asphalt costs 975 pesos ($23), whereas cobblestone costs 6,827 pesos ($164), according to city filings in the court case. Placing cobblestone is arduous, requiring skilled workers who are hard to find and expensive to hire. Four blocks of asphalt can be paved in a night, whereas a single block of cobblestone takes about six weeks. 

The expenditure and accompanying controversy come amid a currency crisis propelled by deficits in yet another lurch in decades of economic and political convolutions. The country has swung from democracy to dictatorship and back, and from open trade in the 1990s to heavy protectionism in the 2000s. And it’s still haunted by a debt default in 2001, at the time the largest ever by a country.

As president, Macri has pushed pro-business measures, including carving new roadways. His government is building an underground highway through downtown Buenos Aires that’s set to open before October’s presidential election, when he is likely to face his predecessor, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. On March 6, Macri’s government bragged that it’s paved 300 kilometers of roads in Argentina, and plans 200 kilometers more in the greater Buenos Aires area.

“Argentina needs to improve the quality of its roads," Macri said Thursday at a press conference. “We need to continue this type of infrastructure investment and understand that it’s a central part of our budget.”

Argentina’s polarized politics make striking a balance of interests difficult on both the national and local levels, and the cobblestone controversy is no different.

“I agree with maintaining certain cultural characteristics,” said Cynthia Goytia, a professor of urban planning at the city’s University of Torcuato Di Tella. “But I think that decisions have to be made, thinking about the costs and benefits not just for the neighborhood’s residents, but for the whole city together.”

Buenos Aires Tango Star Wins Fight to Bring Back Cobblestone Streets

In the middle-class Villa Urquiza neighborhood, the avenue where Yael Gonzalez runs a linen shop just got paved after decades of noisy traffic. She loves the newfound quiet, not to mention the ease of driving. But on her residential block, she cherishes her cobblestones and signed a petition to stop the government from covering them.

She fears a paved street will flood during storms and entice drivers to speed. The stones are simply beautiful to look at, she said. Yet she draws the line at peeling off asphalt during the currency crisis.

“Cobblestone streets are Buenos Aires in a photo,” she said. But “if it means taking more tax dollars, don’t do it.” 

Replacing pavement is a waste of money, said Norberto Peratta, a paint salesman who drives across the city every day. “Cobblestones are very beautiful. The problem is that they’re never maintained, which destroys cars,” he said. “To protect the street, they should have protected them years ago.”

Beorlegui, who doesn’t drive in Buenos Aires, said she wants only residential streets to remain cobbled, not thoroughfares. Restoring stones, she said, “isn’t a waste of money. The waste of money was when they put down the asphalt.” 

Carlos Blanco, an architect staunchly opposed to paving roads, agrees.

“The right to heritage is a human right,” said Blanco, who leads a grassroots organization dedicated to defending historic sites. “Buenos Aires is a unique city, and it’s our obligation to deliver it to future generations with the fewest alterations possible.”

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