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Buenos Aires Reinventing Itself

Martin Morrell Kicking back at El Taller in the newly chic Palermo Soho district.

Photo: Martin Morrell

Since then, six presidents have come and gone, each felled by the hobbled economy, corruption, or voter disgust. In 2002, the peso, long pegged to the dollar, was abruptly adjusted and lost 300 percent of its value, and for a while kidnappings—sometimes for as little as a few hundred dollars in ransom, just enough to pay the rent or feed a family for a week—became relatively commonplace. The gross domestic product in Argentina increased by nearly 9 percent last year, but poverty (about 40 percent) and unemployment (around 15 percent) remain high. "It is the greatest collapse of any country I can think of," says Lloyd Nimetz, an American Fulbright scholar who founded HelpArgentina, a nonprofit organization that directs foreign donations to Argentinean charities.

Last spring, President Néstor Kirchner (the English-language Buenos Aires Herald invariably refers to him as K, like a character out of a Kafka novel) arm-twisted creditors and got the $80 billion foreign debt decreased by about two-thirds. This trick will boost the bottom line in the short term, but as the Washington Post recently cautioned, "It's weird to call that progress." Locals swear that corruption remains endemic and that the votes of the poor can be bought for as little as 200 pesos. Still, porteños are masters of black humor, and from the smoky downtown cafés to the polo fields of the suburb of Hurlingham, where Tudor-style mansions straight out of a Merchant Ivory film bake in the subtropical sun, they believe it all will get better. Someday. "In ten years, it will be really good here," one old-guard hostess tells me with a weary smile, as we step into the flamboyantly gilded auditorium of the Teatro Colón opera house to attend a performance by the pianist Martha Argerich. The red velvet–lined opera boxes are populated by perfectly coiffed ladies wearing the latest haute couture and sparkling with gems. "Each president is a little bit less corrupt than the one before him."

The peso devaluation that took the country by surprise on January 7, 2002, has not only made everyone here poorer, but has also made the tourist dollar go further. At first, I feel guilty about taking advantage of this situation. At least until the dealers at the Sunday morning San Telmo flea market remind me of what bargains they could now offer, with a laugh that didn't seem so much rueful as it was accepting of the hand fate had dealt them. Vendors start setting up at about eight in the morning, in Plaza Dorrego, not far from a kink in the winding Río de la Plata, unloading cardboard boxes from the backs of trucks and carefully setting out their wares in the shade of gnarled old trees. The rows of stalls set up along the side streets have little more than cheap souvenirs, T-shirts, and snacks; the center of the square is where the treasures can be found. Buenos Aires's history of passion for all things European means that the heart of the market is a trove of Bohemian crystal that probably graced a glamorous table in the blue-chip residential neighborhood of Palermo Chico and of neatly tied stacks of vintage Chris-tofle silver plate, like the 14 place settings of forks, spoons, and knives I pick up for about $150.

More important, however, for the spirit of the city and its immediate future, the currency plunge had an unexpected side effect: it gave the creative sector of Buenos Aires a second wind. "You learn a lot at times like this," says Florencia Panelo de Pières, when I visit her one afternoon at the Alvear Avenue location of her hippie-chic home-and-fashion emporium, Cat Ballou. She and her business partner, Alicia Goñi, went into business soon after the flamboyant Menem was swept into power on the Perónist ticket. At Cat Ballou, the coral, pink, and sharp green dresses are filmy and lyrically embroidered, the sconces are made of rawhide, and the Nakashima-reminiscent furniture—slab-like tables, slinky chairs—is wrought in native woods like lapacho and cohiue and polished to a patent-leather gleam.

Like so many of the goods that are being designed or manufactured by newly converted boosters of Argentinean design, Cat Ballou's products have an earthy, sexy immediacy—a refreshing rebuke to the international fashion stores that crowd the floors of Patio Bullrich, a Trump Tower–like mall in Recoleta. As far as artisanal freedom and entrepreneurial zeal goes, Buenos Aires has never been better, according to Pières, who is a Parsons School of Design alum and married to one of the country's leading polo players, Paul Pières. "Crisis," she tells me, "is good."

One place where the new Buenos Aires is very much on display is in Palermo Soho. Three years ago it was better known as Palermo Viejo, or Old Palermo, a humble working-class neighborhood where modest little houses stood alongside auto-repair shops and mom-and-pop grocery stores. Rents were cheap, as little as $50 a square foot; life was hard but simple. As in all gentrification stories, first the artists moved in—and trend seekers and assorted iconoclasts followed. Teresa de Anchorena, a former secretary of culture and a scion of a grand local family (one of their many mansions is now the Foreign Ministry), was one of the earliest to see the area's potential, having moved there more than 20 years ago. In her high-ceilinged living room, paintings by contemporary Argentinean artists like Luis Felipe Noé and Miguel D'Arienzo hang on the walls, and a 19th-century Chinese cabinet sparkling with mother-of-pearl inlay, a legacy from a grandfather, stands in a corner. "People in Buenos Aires used to never leave the neighborhood they were born in," the elegant Anchorena says over a cup of antioxidant tea. "This is amazing when you consider that this city would be nothing without its history of immigration."

Along with their food, love of bel canto, and surnames, Italian immigrants brought with them a preference for narrow, one-story homes, known here as sausage houses. This building style continues to define the architectural stock of Palermo Soho and the nearby Palermo Hollywood, which is filled with restaurants. To the district's credit, the developers have kept that reassuringly human scale intact. No building here can be more than 36 feet high, and instead of making questionable architectural statements, the shop owners here seem content to remodel and restore rather than destroy. The sneaker giant Nike set up a boutique in a sausage house, for example, and its designers sensitively preserved the walls' original peeling paint and wallpaper, which can be glimpsed behind a wire-mesh overlay.

Palermo Soho remains modest in appearance, but over the past three years, more than 90 shops and restaurants have blossomed along the shady streets, from sleek little cafés like Mark's to fashion boutiques launched by independent Argentinean designers such as Cora Groppo and Malu and Carla Ricciardi to furniture shops offering Conran-like essentials (Calma Chicha) or gaucho-inspired wares (Arte Étnico Argentino). Down the street from Cora Groppo's store is an innovative accessories shop called Humawaca, the brainchild of two porteña architects who have created a line of highly covetable leather goods, including attaché cases of cowhide and minimalist backpacks inspired by the iconic butterfly chair of college dorm fame (created by Argentinean architects Jorge Ferrari Hardoy, Antoni Bonet Castellana, and Juan Kurchan). In fact, except for that branch of Nike, visitors would be hard-pressed to find a store that isn't a celebration of a culture in the midst of discovering itself.

Across town in the Belgrano quarter, Fernando Trocca, the executive chef of the see-and-be-seen restaurant Sucre, an outpost for socialites, media types, and business tycoons, altered his menu in response to the continuing economic woes. "I couldn't afford to import foie gras and French wines anymore, so I started looking for ingredients we had right here, in this country," he says. On a busy Friday night, Trocca leads me into the brooding concrete bunker, like a Donald Judd sculpture, that sits in the center of Sucre's dining room, a warehouse-style space whose upper reaches are slashed by a midair, metal catwalk. (It leads to the restrooms.) The "bunker" is actually the wine cellar, and once the door closes, the cacophony of Buenos Aires's fête-set chowing down on dishes such as Patagonian lamb and grilled salmon tartare with green-apple foam subsides to a minor hum. In the dim light, Trocca, a crop-haired, bespectacled man who once oversaw the kitchen of the now closed Vandam in New York City, disappears behind a wooden rack and reemerges with a bottle for a client. It's an Argentinean red, and there's a lot more where it came from. Out of 10,000 bottles on hand at Sucre, the majority are regional vintages, the sort of quaffs Trocca seldom used to stock and his label-conscious clients rarely deigned to order. Elsewhere in town, champagne aficionados are bypassing Dom Pérignon for a bubbly méthode champenoise Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend made by Catena Zapata, a century-old winery in the foothills of the Argentinean Andes that enjoys a luxe reputation here and abroad. Argentinean wine has been winning prizes beyond the country's borders for as long as anybody can remember, and now, it's canchero here.

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