Ten years after Argentina’s economy collapsed, its capital, Buenos Aires, called the “Paris of the Pampas,” has emerged as one of the world’s most stylish cities.
Photographs by Brian Doben
One November afternoon, on Calle Honduras, in the Buenos Aires neighborhood known as Palermo Hollywood, Marcos Ayalla is taking a break from tending shop at Eterna Cadencia, a bookstore that caters to the latest designers and most fashionable people on the continent of South America. He drains a cup of espresso and turns to go back inside.
“The neighborhood was hell on earth ten years ago,” Ayalla says. “Now, it’s almost too full of life.”
Farther down Honduras, Hollywood—with its succession of lighting and recording studios, TV stations and set design offices, ensconced in colonial palacios—gives way to the leafy streets of Palermo Soho. Life is found in abundance. There are vegan cafés, gastropubs serving space-age cuisine and coffee bars two deep with customers. A dance studio shares an entryway with a record store adorned with posters of John Lennon, Miles Davis and Arcade Fire. A minimalist electronics store displays a wall of iPads (at nearly twice the price of those sold in Apple stores in the States), and a place called Calma Chica sells handbags, furniture and rugs made from animal skins brought in from the fertile pampas just outside the city’s borders.
On Calle Gurruchaga, near the bustling center of Palermo Viejo, there’s Feliz and Bolivia, two men’s clothing stores that have expertly cut local labels that you’ll find on stylish porteños (“people of the port”).
Like lower Manhattan, Palermo is divided into several distinct zones, each with its own character: Hollywood, Soho, Viejo, Alto Palermo and Palermo Chico, the latter of which has enough urban parkland to get lost in for days. To the south, the center of Buenos Aires is crowded with tourists exploring what many have called the “Paris of the Pampas.”
In Recoleta, the neighborhood southwest of Palermo, the comparison is easy to make: The Belle Époque buildings that line the downtown streets are uniformly grand and ornate— especially the recently renovated grand-dame hotel, Palacio Duhau, which looks as though it’s been plucked straight off the Marais. Tourists and stylish locals stroll Calle Defensa, from Recoleta to the bustling neighborhood of San Telmo. They have an ease that can be found only in Latin America. When you’re here, style yourself casually.
Back in Palermo, the cafés that ring Plaza Serrano—Soho’s central square—are filled at lunch with young porteños in business casual. It’s a foreshadowing of the night to come. As alive as Palermo is during the day, nighttime is when it really shines.
was a common question for the better part of the last decade. All the life that Ayalla is celebrating in Palermo hung in the balance. “There was no reason to stay,” says Maria Michael, a young architect living in Palermo Viejo. “There were no jobs, the crime rate was really high, and we were all afraid to go out at night.”
What made the collapse so difficult for the hardy porteños is the fact that it was so sudden. Most of the younger generation had never seen such hardship. In a single year—2002— Buenos Aires went from being the most expensive city in Latin America to the cheapest. In the years immediately following the crash, the people who could manage to buy their way out of the country did just that. A large percentage landed in Spain, Chile and Brazil.
It’s been a long road back to prosperity for the porteños. Throughout the past decade, tourists in search of easy bargains have helped to re-establish the Argentine economy. Once they visited, those travelers found a quiet sophistication in Buenos Aires’ faded façades that they just had to tell their friends about. The winding cobblestone streets flanked by brightly colored buildings with antique wrought-iron balconies give Buenos Aires an Old Word European romance. But that’s balanced by a sense of wildness— both from the massive ombú trees with gnarled roots sprouting on the streets and in the myriad parks, and from steamy tango dances to be seen in bars, restaurants and dance halls.
Palermo, with its nearly 500-year-old monastery and lush botanical garden and parks, was prime for a comeback. Eventually, its leafy streets came back to life with increased vigor. The nightlife, which begins with a decadent dinner at 10 p.m.—both the steak and the wines are among the best in the world—and seems never to end, is a barometer of the city’s spirit.
“It’s a good sign when a city doesn’t want to go to sleep,” says Michael. “It means we don’t want to miss anything.”