23 December 2006

Urban safari: into the West

What a title, huh? I had the day off work yesterday, thanks to governor Obeid's demagoginsistence that public employees should be happy and free of stress in the days before Christmas, even if that means paralyzing half the public healthcare system (and following Kirchner's similar measure on the national level), so I woke up late (that would be around 9 AM for me), had a very lazy, drawn-out breakfast, and decided that I'd go on a photo safari to one of the places in Rosario that I hadn't visited yet: the northwest of the city, which is west from my home, and particularly Barrio Fisherton. I was especially interested in getting to Estación Antártida Argentina, one of the several old train stations scattered throughout Rosario, often in places that are not so very populated today. I won't go into details about the history of the Argentine railways, which is like a summary of Argentine history in general -- enthusiasm, rapid development, faltering, abandon, and timid recovery. Our Amigos del Riel have written a lot about that.

The logistics of the safari was troublesome, since I don't have a car, my bicycle is awaiting repairs, and no single bus was good for the trip, even as Fisherton is no more than 10 minutes away from my barrio. I don't know all the lines, anyway, so making a combination was risky -- I could end up anywhere. Walking was viable, but tiresome, and I didn't want to be caught walking under the sun after 11 AM if possible. Eventually I took my little map (a clipped version of the one available at www.rosario.gov.ar), got a bus to take me to Provincias Unidas & Córdoba, and then headed west, admiring the... hmm... well, there's nothing to admire over there. As you cross Circunvalación Avenue (see above), you enter Fisherton and things start getting fancier. Along Córdoba Ave. (which is called Eva Perón Ave. in this part of town) nice bars and restaurants start to appear, along with businesses selling typically tasteless upper middle-class home decoration and quality furniture, brand clothing, and the like.

But the real Fisherton is farther west and far from the avenues: nice small houses and more than a few larger estates, silent streets lined with tall trees, sidewalks with well-groomed, intensely green grass, squeaky clean brand-new cars here and there, and nobody in sight except maybe someone walking their dog and the occasional door-to-door salesman of cheap items (those things that la señora can't be bothered to go to the super for). In Fisherton, as in the even wealthier Barrio Alberdi, common courtesy is extended only once you're ushered inside your host's home, since while you're outside walking beside those mansions you're invariably greeted by the mad howling of packs and packs of seemingly starving guard dogs (and nobody bothers with a CAVE CANEM). An adult knows enough not to approach gates and fences patrolled by such monsters, but a kid who doesn't fear the doggies appropriately will end up with one hand less should s/he try to pet them.

So I walked and walked and got to the train station. The place was abandoned for ages, but it was then restored and preserved (our Municipality likes to do that), and now there's something going on in there. From the outside, though, it looks like a British-style station transplanted into the American Wild West; the dusty solitude and the almost vertical sunlight at the time I got there reinforced that feeling.

I've grown to love old train stations; in Argentina, they encapsulate many aspects of our history in a unique way. The railways were built for the port of Buenos Aires to receive the meat, cow hides and grain coming from the Pampas and beyond, so they could be exported; that model of development defined the country and continues mostly unchanged. British companies brought the trains, inaugurating a period of dependency on foreign investment for our infrastructure, which again, remains like that today. The trains took the immigrants disembarking in Buenos Aires City to the interior of the country. In many cases, towns sprang up spontaneously around train stations and received their name; how the stations were laid out thus defined the distribution of large populations. The south of Santa Fe was (except for Rosario of course) almost completely rural up to the 1880s, and then there was an explosion of dozens of new towns around train stations, as the lines reached farther and farther west. After that there were a few decades of good economy... and then Argentina did its usual thing... and of course, when the 1990s came, what little useful infrastructure remained was swept away by the "modernization" conducted by the Predator-in-Chief and his evil bald minion. That trend can be reversed, maybe, but in the meantime the charm of the old stations remains, even as they lie dark and silent.

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