After living in Buenos Aires for almost a year, I had only really heard Barracas mentioned once or maybe twice. The lack of accurate information and context led to an image of a ghostly, industrial barrio struggling to survive and floating somewhere on the border of the dodgier parts of La Boca and San Telmo. That mental construction was quite enough to kill any intention to explore the neighborhood. However, when I moved from Palermo to San Telmo, I ended up with a roommate who used to live in Barracas for several years. After realizing that my apparently sane and conscious roommate continued to hold the off-limits barrio in high regard, I decided the time had come for me to find out for myself what all the buzz and bourgeois terror was about.

A Bit of History

“Barracas” can be translated into English as “shacks.” The district got its name around the end of the 19th century because of the old huts on the banks of the Matanza River that were used to store provisions like leather and cured meat. Barracas turned into an epicenter for Argentine industry when enterprising immigrants from Italy and Spain chose it as the location for their manufacturing business prospects.

If you had found your way to Barracas 15 years ago, you would have seen a rather stagnant pool of industry and production, after years of companies moving on to greener, more affordable options. The vacuum left behind by industry started to get filled by art and creative pursuits and a strange form of artistic gentrification started to take hold of the historically rough and rugged barrio.

Paseo Lanín

Out of all of the places my roommate told me about in Barracas, an astonishing mosaic street called Paseo Lanín drew me in the most. The street, located between Calle Brandsen and Suárez Avenue, has been reincarnated into a fantastic open-air art project under artist Marino Santa María’s direction. First Marino renovated the façade of his own studio (at 33 Calle Lanín) but the experiment turned out to be so successful that the city government offered financial support in renovating 35 more façades along the street. A couple years later, Paseo Lanín became an official cultural site protected by UNESCO.

The magical mosaic alley opened a new page in the neighborhood’s history. By the end of 2013, the government had launched a program aimed at revitalizing the neighborhood by making it a center for design industries within the city. The Design District project started with Centro Metropolitano de Diseño and the Central Park building. We decided to start our urban art tour with this last one.

We got off the colectivo on Calle California. It was a grey, gloomy day perfectly suited for exploring an industrial barrio. People on the street didn’t look overly friendly, but they weren’t aggressive either. The area reminded me a lot of the dismal suburbs of Moscow.

The first thing we came across was a bridge covered with elaborate patterns, an impressive work by street-art artist Pedro Perelman.

The graffiti is the product of a collaboration between the city government and local artists. Perelman is one of the winners of the Barracas design intervention contest. In addition to the bridge, modernization materialized at several local shops and restaurants. It’s kind of fun going on a scavenger hunt looking for the design inventions that took place throughout the neighborhood.  

Located right behind the bridge is a psychedelic rectangle from the Central Park building: its bright colors illuminate its otherwise boring surroundings. Unfortunately, there was no magic behind the beautiful façade: Central Park serves as a shopping mall and an office building. We discovered the Museum of Balance (Museo de La Balanza) at the entrance, but a woman in the reception menacingly hissed that it was closed, so the mysterious world of Central Park remained undiscovered for us.

Next up on our self-guided tour  was a 2000-square meter work of street art, “El regreso de Quinquela,” which is supposed to be the biggest mural in the world. Its creator, artist Alfredo Segatori, attributed his enormous piece of art to an Argentine painter Benito Quinquela Martín. As such, the characters from his canvases moved to the city’s walls. The mural is located between Calle Pedro de Mendoza and Calle San Antonio. Obviously, nobody had the slightest idea how to get there. I remembered seeing a river in the pictures I found online, so we headed down the street in search of water. The further we went, the more obscure and dodgy everything seemed: dusty old buildings of abandoned factories, lonely urban landscapes, odd characters that randomly appeared from the corners, homeless dogs. However, the thing that made the atmosphere the creepiest was the absolute and total silence that seemed to permeate the entire area. We were cautiously exploring the streets feeling like characters out of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, when all of a sudden, I noticed astonishing pieces of street art on the surrounding buildings. We were getting close!

Finally, we caught whiff of the river. A view of a crossroad with police patrols all around burst into view. We still couldn’t find the mural, which according to its alleged dimensions, should have been pretty visible. I was afraid that we were going to have to cross the river in order to see something really awe-inspiring, but then a godsend in the form of a policeman pointed to our right. Just around the corner, there it was. The curtain lifted, the audience gasped:

Even though it was getting pretty late, we didn’t give up on seeing Centro Metropolitano de Diseño: I came up to stylish looking fellows, cute girls, passers-by that seemed to have a-passion-for-design look on their faces, but everything was in vain: not a single person knew where the goddamn centro was. While roaming, I realized that all the changes that happened to the district hadn’t taken root in the lives of Barracas’ residents. The opening of a new bakery might have a bigger impact on the people living in the neighborhood than having the largest mural in the world. It’s fair to say that changes of that scale can take a couple years.

That being said, the street art masterpieces we witnessed on our way to the “El regreso de Quinquela” mural served as visual, concrete evidence of the changes occurring within the barrio. Barracas today is a magnet for young talent, eager to find new forms of expression and innovation.

Photos by Mario Martínez.