Buenos Aires Feature

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Buenos Aires Today

They say the only thing certain in life is change, and no one knows it like porteños (citizens of Buenos Aires) do. While the world panics over stockmarket crashes and bailout packages, this city's inhabitants just yawn: when it comes to political uncertainty and financial instability, they've seen it all. But there's a lesson in hope here, too. From the ashes of economic burnout a vibrant, more progressive Buenos Aires is rising. At times uncertainty can be worrying. But it can be exciting, too.

Today's Buenos Aires …

… is getting a face-lift. Cobbled streets, wrought-iron billboards, and cafés that seem untouched since 1940 are all part of Buenos Aires' trademark time-warp look. But though porteños are nostalgic, even they've had enough of exquisite stone facades crumbling (sometimes plain plummeting) through lack of maintenance. Suddenly scaffolding is everywhere, as old buildings are revamped and savvy developers transform century-old mansions and warehouses into hotels, some boutique, others behemoth (witness the ex-grain-silo Faena Hotel + Universe). Controversy shrouds some makeovers: the city government was accused of selling the historic cobblestones they replaced with asphalt, and the restoration of the Teatro Colón is way over schedule and budget. Still, like other aging local beauties, Buenos Aires' historical buildings are looking younger by the minute.

… coming to terms with the past. For years, sweeping things under the carpet seemed the official line on Argentina's last, and bloodiest, military dictatorship, which lasted from 1976 to 1983. But the current government has revoked pardons granted to high-ranking officers responsible for torture and disappearances. Memory is being inscribed on the cityscape, too. A former clandestine detention center has been transformed into a cultural center run by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, and the city's official monument to the disappeared, the Parque de la Memoria, is now complete. The anniversary of the start of the dictatorship, March 24, has been made a public day of remembrance: thousands gather each year in Plaza de Mayo to mark it.

… is full of free speech. Forget writing to your political representatives when you've got a gripe with the system—in Buenos Aires, you take to the streets. Strikes, marches, rallies, and piquetes (road blocks) have long been fixtures of daily life. They reached new levels after December 19, 2001, when the country's economy crashed. The state froze private bank accounts, and ensuing demonstrations escalated into riots after violent police responses. Although things have calmed since then, Plaza and Avenida de Mayo still fill regularly with drum- and banner-toting crowds. Sometimes they're protesting low salaries or police repression; other times they're petitioning to change laws or marking an event.

… is going global. Argentina is a long, long way from a lot of places. In the years leading up to and immediately after the 2001 economic crisis, Buenos Aires felt very isolated: first, high prices and poor infrastructure kept people away, and then political instability did. Things couldn't have changed more. And though most porteños are descended from immigrants, they just can't get over the number of out-of-towners there are today. (Thankfully, the numbers are still small enough to keep sightseeing from being a competitive sport.) And more and more of the visitors are staying: the number of exchange students at city universities has soared, and there's a thriving expat scene complete with how-to blogs and magazines. Major international bands are back to play the stages they abandoned in the late '90s. Even the urban landscape is affected: architect Norman Foster (New York's Hearst Headquarters) has a project being constructed in swanky Puerto Madero, where local-boy-gone-global César Pelli has also completed a modest—in comparison to his Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur—skyscraper. The ultimate nod to globalization came in 2008, when Starbucks opened its first branches here. But some things never change: the city's time-honored cafés are as popular as ever.

What's Hot in Buenos Aires Now

Argentineans have always been patriotic, but flags are flying higher and brighter than usual thanks to the country's 2010 bicentennary of its independence. Timetabled to coincide with the occasion were two major building projects—the restoration of the Teatro Colón and the transformation of the former central post office into a cultural center.

You've heard of "emo," but how about "flogger?" The painful-sounding name of Buenos Aires' latest teenage urban tribe is actually a contraction of "Fotolog," their favorite photo-blogging site. Members of this tribe are easy to spot around town thanks to their skintight rainbow-bright jeans and backcombed hair with extra-long bangs. A shuffly electronic dance step has been named for them, and flogger queen Cumbio—whose blog has millions of hits—has become a local celebrity.

Forget Recoleta, forget Palermo: trend spotters agree that south is the new north. Neighborhoods below Avenida Rivadavia are the ones to watch. Designers and restaurateurs are upping stakes to San Telmo, and those in the know tip run-down Barracas, packed with abandoned factories just begging for loft conversion, as the next big real-estate bubble.

Being out has never been this in. Buenos Aires looks set to become Latin America's gay capital. It's not just bars and clubs, either: we're talking travel agencies, tango schools, milongas (tango dance halls), and now Axel, a posh gay hotel. The local community has plenty to cheer about, too: same-sex civil unions have been legal since 2003, and the Marcha del Orgullo Gay (Gay Pride March) attracts thousands of revelers each November.

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