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Residents of the most disadvantaged peripheries of the Argentine capital are pushed to collaborate in the absence of municipal support. They build homes and create services that should be public. It is both admirable, and deplorable.
BUENOS AIRES – In Argentina, the increasing urgency of the urban poor's housing and public services needs has starkly revealed an absence of municipal policies, which may even be deliberate.
With urban development, local administrations seem dazzled, or blinded, by the city center's lights. Thus they select and strengthen mechanisms that heighten zonal and social inequalities, forcing the less-well-off to live "on the edge" and "behind" in all senses of these words. Likewise, territorial interventions by social actors have both a symbolic and material impact, particularly on marginal or "frontier" zones that are the focus of viewpoints about living "inside," "outside" or "behind."
The center and the periphery produce very different social perceptions. Living on the periphery is to live "behind," in an inevitable state of marginality. The periphery is a complex system of inequalities in terms of housing provision, infrastructures, facilities and transport.
Informal occupancy or squatting means undertaking autonomous processes of social productivity in a given space, mainly through occupation and often of environmentally sensitive terrains, to build small, precarious homes.
Specifically, according to recent registry figures, the Buenos Aires conurbation has 2,000 low-income neighborhoods over an area of 200 square kilometers (roughly as big as the city itself), which are home to 2.5 million people.
Living in this periphery is to live in a state of subjective stigmatization, and under the symbolic weight of living on the edge of a constructed world that excludes you and keeps pushing you into unfavorable positions.
The urban periphery is often presented as a series of zones in transition, like unresolved situations waiting for a decision. The periphery is no longer part of the city's continuously built-up fabric. Occupancy here is fragmented, even if it entails the countryside's disappearance.
The Nicole neighborhood
The Nicole neighborhood is in the hinterland of the district of La Matanza, and is an extreme example of this peripheral, marginal and "backward" living. It emerged in 1997 with the relocation of a group of 100 families from Ciudad Evita and Villa Fiorito. The district faces CEAMSE facilities (the provincial trash disposal and recycling authority) in the form of a mountain of waste, is beside the polluted Morales waterway, and has three big cemeteries around it, which isolate its territory. High-voltage pylons run through and the area suffers annual floods that provoke economic losses and a range of illnesses.
Children have died here for the pervasive filth and lack of sanitation, either through respiratory illnesses or after playing in stagnant waters or abandoned cellars.
Despite the government's efforts, in the poorest areas of the province of Buenos Aires, like in La Matanza, poverty is increasing and the army continues to help feed the people. August 21, 2020, Buenos Aires, Argentina:
Given the state's dogged absence, local residents concluded they were living in a "hopeless" place, which led them to organize themselves to turn their surroundings into something like a residential district.
The state has yet to turn up, but the families are proud of the solid homes they have built themselves.
While still putting up roadblocks in protest at their conditions, they also worked together as neighbors, to build the first little homes, communal taps and even provisional health clinics. As the autonomous building process steadied in pace, locals began to think about naming their neighborhood. Options included niños mártires — to honor the children who had died from pollution — but people chose instead a name to convey what they wanted: services. As the area has "neither buses nor schools nor anything at all" (Ni colectivo, ni cole, ni nada), NiCole or Nicole is the name that came to express the hopes of families pushed out of distant districts, and keen to recover their dignity here.
The state has yet to turn up, but the families are proud of the solid homes they have built themselves in Nicole and of better pavements, without forgetting what they still need.
The precarious terrain and social vulnerabilities of such marginal areas are an intrinsic part of the disputes of various social actors over territorial organization. Cities are consolidated through the interaction of groups competing for land access, the actions of local government, the regulation of territorial organization, rising land prices and differentiation in built-up areas. The periphery is essentially a frontier zone distinct from any non-urbanized, unfamiliar or precarious "outback" (the countryside), but still lacking the continuous fabric and services of the city proper.
Cases like Nicole show peripheral living as an expression of self-management techniques caused and sustained by municipal policies meant to regulate existing power relations, zonal differences and social distancing. We find here several socially legitimated narratives: that of order, which the state applies to spaces and activities, of power, inherent to social conflicts, and of differentiation, rooted in existing power relations.
*Tella is an architect and deputy-head of the Buenos Aires Strategic Planning Council.
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