Representing the Street: Buenos Aires 1900 Through the Eyes of Travelers

By Anton Rosenthal

Fuelled by waves of immigrants from Western and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buenos Aires grew at an unprecedented pace, expanding toward the pampas and developing new neighborhoods along with an enormous streetcar network and a subway line. Historians often refer to the Buenos Aires of 1900 as “cosmopolitan,” but such a characterization should be used reservedly. Certainly the new metropolis was a different animal than the colonial city from which it metamorphosized, and its diversity was evident everywhere, from a new language of the streets (lunfardo) to new urban public spaces in which strangers could encounter each other. As a recent history of the tango has noted,

“The Italians gathered in La Boca district whose painted houses reminded them of Genoa or Naples. The Spaniards, who were the second largest group, gathered on the Avenida de Mayo, while the Jews of Eastern Europe hovered around the Plaza 11 de Septiembre. The English migrants were for the most part entrepreneurs and chose to live beside their Argentine associates in and around Belgrano.”[i]

Bs As Avenida de Mayo
Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires

But a cosmopolitan city also has a connotation of tolerance if not open welcoming of the “other,” and Buenos Aires’ track record on this is decidedly mixed. To cite the most egregious example, during a significant general strike, the Argentine capital was the site of the only pogrom in the history of the Americas, the Semana Tragica of January 1919, in which hundreds of Jews were tortured, burned, raped, injured or killed by the sons of the oligarchs and complicit police, imbued with a noxious blend of anti-Semitism, nationalism, anti-anarchism and anti-Communism. The violence began in the street and jumped into the private spaces of immigrant workers and their families.[ii] The ideologies underpinning the violence did not disappear over time, but re-emerged with renewed zeal during the Perón years and again in the “dirty war” of the 1970s.

This diverse city of wonders of the early 20th century was both chaotic and unknowable. It was no longer a walkable city, and to some degree the duties of the flaneur devolved upon fictional protagonists, such as those invented by Roberto Arlt in the 1920s. Borrowing the idea of the “word city” from Peter Fritzsche,[iii] perhaps the way for residents to draw meaning from this new Buenos Aires and to become oriented to its changing spaces was to view it symbolically as a text created by newspapers and reports. Adriana Bergero noted that the rapidly expanding city was in constant movement and through listening to various contemporary discourses concluded that “Daily life in Buenos Aires between the beginning of the twentieth century and 1930—what took place in the city’s private and public domains—was absorbed into countless social texts and imaginaries that spoke of crises, fractures, and chaos from kaleidoscopic points of view.”[iv]

But was there a way for non-residents to get at least a partial glimpse of this moving object? There is a genre of texts that historians have looked at with some skepticism regarding their reliability as a source—the travel account. It is true that they often suffer from the tendencies of their time to “order” and to “other” what they see, in hierarchies that often reveal racist, sexist and nationalist attitudes, as noted by historian Ricardo Salvatore in his critique of 19th century accounts.[v] But by the 20th century, travelers had become more varied in their backgrounds and attitudes and wrote for a wider audience, and they cannot all be easily placed in the category of “ugly American.” Those who published accounts of their trips were journalists, diplomats, doctors, businessmen, architects, clergymen, engineers, members of geographic societies, novelists and adventurers. I have come to find these accounts fascinating in their attention to detail of the contours of the life of the street in Latin America, and Buenos Aires was a destination for many of them. Their perceptions, because they are foreign, do not take many things for granted that would be the case with local journalists, and so they attempt to convey many aspects of modern urban culture in the region that do not appear in newspapers. Some writers are whiny travelers whose expectations are not met by the circumstances they encounter, but others are humorous and sympathetic to their subjects and genuinely open to the practices of other cultures. Through their eyes we can see aspects of public space in Buenos Aires that may not be visible in other sources. Taken as a whole, they create yet another imagined version of the metropolis.

Bs As Calle Florida
Calle Florida, Buenos Aires

Arthur Ruhl, a music critic and war correspondent, wrote of Buenos Aires as a spectacle city, describing the largely elite ritual of the promenade, by carriage, on Calle Florida, a commercial street located downtown:

It is only wide enough for two rows of carriages, so close together that the occupants might also shake hands with one another or with the spectators on the sidewalk, and when festooned with lights, as it was when Mr. Root was there, it glares and sparkles like a ball-room. And in this glare, from the lights overhead, from milliners’ and pastry cooks’ windows, the strange procession flows jerkily by—powdery old ladies, blinking in the shelter of their broughams, tourists and sailors, quiet mothers with their children, the chanteuses from the music halls lolling back in their victorias and lavishing smiles. The young men smile back, with cynical good humor, twirling their black moustaches the while, and the line flows on past the Grand Hotel, the Jockey Club past the “Sportsman” and into the Avenida again, round and round, till dinner time comes and it melts away.[vi]

Rosita Forbes, an ambulance driver and a pilot writing several decades later, provided a view of the same space, but through a gendered lens: “Buenos Aires belongs to men. They crowd the narrow pavements and congregate in groups at street corners. They loiter on the steps of clubs and public buildings. They fill the cafes which are unusually silent, and impede the traffic with their haphazard wandering, for there is no hurry in the streets of Buenos Aires…There are no smiles in Buenos Aires till the shop-girls come out for lunch, or till that convivial hour when traffic is swept from Calle Florida and women, in twos and threes, never alone, rarely in company of a man, take possession of the scene.”[vii]


Bs As La Prensa
La Prensa, Buenos Aires

Travel accounts also offer some information on the ways in which urban space shifts between the public and private realm. Harry Franck, who worked as a gopher for the American consul general in Buenos Aires, observed of the elite cemetery of La Recoleta, “This is a crowded cement city within a stone wall, as much a promenade and a show-ground as a last resting-place. Men sit smoking and gossiping on the tombs; women take in one another’s gowns with critical eye as they turkey-walk along the narrow cement streets between the innumerable family vaults…Everywhere reigns a gaudy luxury wholly out of place in a city of the dead. The self-respecting corpse must feel as if he had been set up in a museum instead of being disposed of in a sanitary and inconspicuous manner.”[viii] More surprising to me was this account of the very public space created by the headquarters of a newspaper office: “One of the leading daily newspapers, La Prensa, which has the handsomest newspaper building in existence, displays its patriotism by devoting a large part of its home to public uses. At its own expense it provides physicians and a consulting room, where the poor can have medical attention free, a law office where those who cannot afford to pay for it can have legal advice, an excellent museum of the manufactures and products of the country, a free technical library for the use of students, a large hall for public meetings, a charming salon des fetes, in which literary, scientific and charitable entertainments are given.”[ix]

Bs As Racetrack.jpg
Racetrack, Buenos Aires

Although these accounts primarily take the form of travel essays, they no doubt served more adventurous readers as guidebooks as well, and so some of the descriptions center on spaces of interest to tourists. James Bryce visits the racetrack in 1912 where he encounters the well-heeled in all their finery. “Betting on horses is the favourite amusement, and the races the greatest occasion for social display. An immense concourse gathers at the racing enclosure and fills the grand-stand…. Nowhere in the world does one get a stronger impression of exuberant wealth and extravagance.”[x]

Bs As promenade.jpg
Promenade, Avenida Los Lagos in the Palmero neighborhood, Buenos Aires

Many writers comment on the nightlife, from the docks to the opera house, and some cannot resist the impulse to denigrate immigrants, anarchists, and the poor who walk the streets selling goods and living in squalid conditions. In general, their gaze is from a distance and they may not be particularly reflexive about their position as privileged guests. J.A. Hamerton, an active complainer, did not apparently see the irony in this observation: “And what has never ceased to irritate me was the rudeness with which the passers-by stared at me and at each other. I was prepared for them feasting their eyes on the odd women, but man scrutinizing man was new to me. They inspect your neck-tie, study the style of your hat, stare at your boots! They gape at you, so that you wonder if you have forgotten your collar or if your suspenders are hanging down! You are reassured, however, by their gaping at each other for no obvious reason. It is merely a vulgar habit, probably acquired by the gapers when they first arrived from the hill villages of Italy or the desert towns of Spain, when any person decently clothed was novelty to them.”[xi]

For all their considerable shortcomings, the travel accounts do provide some useful takes on the changing spaces of Buenos Aires as it grew from a colonial backwater into a global city. They suggest a city in search of order yet one experiencing overlapping worlds, an incomplete modernity, and constant struggle between social groups.

Anton Rosenthal is associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.  His most recent article is “The Streetcar and the Urban Imaginary of Latin America,” Journal of Urban History, January 2016, 42:1, 162-179 and he has a forthcoming article from the Journal of Urban History entitled “Sin Cities: From History to Sociology to Urban History, An Interdisciplinary Journey in Teaching.”

Featured image (at top): Buenos Aires. Lago De Palermo, between 1890 – 1910, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[i] Mike Gonzales and Marianella Yanes, Tango: Sex and Rhythm of the City (Reaktion Books, 2013) 25.

[ii] Adriana J. Bergero, Intersecting Tango: Cultural Geographies of Buenos Aires, 1900-1930 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008) 263-266; Victor A. Mirelman, Jewish Buenos Aires, 1890-1930 (Wayne State University Press, 1990) 61-65.

[iii] Peter Fritzsche, Reading Berlin 1900 (Harvard University Press, 1998).

[iv] Bergero, 2.

[v] Ricardo Salvatore, “North American Travel Narratives and the Ordering/Othering of South America (c.1810-1860), Journal of Historical Sociology, 9:1, March 1996, 85-110.

[vi] Arthur Ruhl, The Other Americans (Scribners, 1908) 220.

[vii] Rosita Forbes, Eight Republics in Search of a Future (Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1933), 109-110.

[viii] Harry A. Franck, Working North From Patagonia (Grosset and Dunlap, 1921) 19.

[ix] H.W. Van Dyke, Through South America (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1912) 204.

[x] James Bryce, South America: Observations and Impressions (Macmillan, 1912) 318.

[xi] J.A. Hamerton, , The Real Argentine: Notes and Impressions of a year in the Argentine and Uruguay (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1915,) 47-48

One thought on “Representing the Street: Buenos Aires 1900 Through the Eyes of Travelers

  1. What a histories and pictures about the city of those times. I am relatively young however I enjoy as much as any elder could enjoy by viewing such footage.


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