Material Struggles, Imaginary Struggles

by James Scorer, Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies

via flickr by Doug88888

via flickr by Doug88888

In December 2010, thousands of people seized the area known as Parque Indoamericano in Buenos Aires, a large space of open land in the south of the city’s autonomous central district.  Demanding the right to dignified housing, the occupiers were forcibly removed after some days by the three state police forces that bear some jurisdiction in Capital Federal (Policía Federal, Policía Metropolitana and the Gendarmería).  Local vigilante groups from adjacent neighbourhoods also participated in the evictions, which eventually resulted in three deaths.

The taking of Parque Indoamericano highlights the ongoing material struggle over housing and the right to the city in Latin America, a tension that, in Buenos Aires, continues to afflict the city despite the significant advances that have been made in social housing during the centre-left Kirchner era (2003-present).  In the wake of the events of 2010, the use made of the Park by the Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires [The Government of the City of Buenos Aires], led by the right-wing Governor Mauricio Macri and staunchly opposed to President Cristina Kirchner, has underlined the importance of that material struggle over the city.

The information provided on the City’s website about the Park is an exercise in sleight of hand.  The same administration that, both via judicial means and state-sanctioned violence, uprooted the occupiers, now states: ‘El Parque Indoamericano es una causa de los vecinos que este Gobierno abrazó desde el principio’ [The Indoamericano is a cause {also lawsuit} of the neighbours that this Government has embraced from the beginning].  The statement implies sympathy for the vigilante groups, suggesting that those protesters living in the shantytown bordering the park (Villa 20) were not neighbours.

The words also draw a veil over the xenophobic comments that Macri made during the occupation about the protesters, some of whom, in turn, expressed their political affiliations by stating that they wanted to call their future settlement ‘Néstor Kirchner’ after the deceased former President.[i]  The Governor exploited the protest by stating misleadingly that the City of Buenos Aires was suffering from waves of immigrants and that the City was propping up the poorer countries that neighbour Argentina.  The city’s ongoing housing crisis can hardly be attributed to immigration, however, levels of which, if anything, have fallen rather than risen since the economic crisis of 2001.  Not only did Macri’s words reflect the growing fear that the Argentine capital is suffering from ‘Latinamericanisation’ but they also tried to massage the material realities of Buenos Aires.

The webpage of the City’s Government also demonstrates that, since those verbal interventions, Macri’s administration has invested heavily in the Park.  The public space now benefits from walkways, new lighting, tree planting, public toilets, basketball courts and football pitches, among other amenities and improvements.[ii]  The tents of the protestors, symbolic of their precarious living conditions, have now been replaced with an assortment of other, pointedly more permanent, material interventions.

These transformations embarked upon by the City take advantage of the Park’s political capital both in material terms and also to reinforce the image of the incumbent as a governor who, as his advertising campaigns state, ‘makes’ Buenos Aires.  The administration’s belief that politics (and the political imaginary) is achieved, measured and sustained via the material, therefore, not only reflects the corporate-led vision of the governor but also masks the manner in which Macri also manages and refashions the urban imaginary.

The recurring formulation of the relationship between the material city and the urban imaginary as a dichotomy between the real and the not-real is not the most effective way to analyse the intersections between the social, political and cultural landscapes of the city.  It often leaves out the imaginary altogether or, at best, relegates it to the position of an inferior cousin.  We need to think beyond such rigid frameworks of analysis and move to a conceptual position that situates the imaginary as a constitutive and structuring dimension of urban politics.  In the case of the Argentine capital, for example, such analysis could include the recent attempt to market Buenos Aires as a ‘green city’, Macri’s mobilisation of the city’s youth via rock music on the campaign trail, the City’s advertising campaign ‘Haciendo Buenos Aires’ [Making Buenos Aires], or the altogether more anomic depictions of the city-being-made in films such as Medianeras, directed by Gustavo Taretto.  Using this interdisciplinary approach to reflect on how these and other urban imaginaries participate in the construction of the city will illuminate how imaginaries mobilize the multiple material and contested infrastructures of the global urban south.  Such is the departure point for the Argentine case studies that Dr. Leandro Minuchin and I began to research in 2010.

James Scorer, Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies, University of Manchester

 

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About citiesmcr
Co-ordinator of cities@manchester

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