Villa 31: Buenos Aires’ emblematic slum


Unfortunately, I didn’t take this photo.

I must start by confessing my ignorance. The terrible truth is: I had no idea that there was a slum in Buenos Aires before I got here. And a more amusing truth is: I didn’t know I was passing by this slum when I actually got there.

La Villa 31 is the most emblematic slum of Buenos Aires. Some sources say that it is not the biggest slum, but because of its history and because of its very central location, it has grown very famous in the country.

It dates back from 1932 and it is situated right by the central train station. It is only a couple of blocks away from the poshest neighbourhood Recoleta, and this is my best excuse not to have imagined just one second that I was walking by the edge of a growing slum. I guess that any foreigner will have been caught by surprise like I was. The slum grows contantly ; at the moment, its main market occupies the plot of land between the Retiro train station and the central bus station (where I was going).

I must add that for those who know Lille, in France, and its biggest, most popular market called the Wazemmes market, the edge of the Villa 31 market would even look familiar.

But enough with this attempt to defend myself. I want to draw a brief presentation of the Villa 31, which I find a particularly interesting case of disputed land in the very heart of a city. I will come back to it in later posts. In order to only shoot some bullet points for the moment:

– La Villa 31 started in 1932 (Great Depression) – it can claim as much history as any other district in Buenos Aires.

– “Villa” actually stands for “villa miseria”, the Argentinian equivalent of the widely known “favelas” in Brazil.

– I read that it had between 26 000 and 80 000 inhabitants.

– Demolition or urbanisation? The local government is still hesitating between the two options (which might both be undertaken).

– An urbanisation project pending: it was introduced as local legislation in 2009, and it is due to be completed by 2015.

– The Villa is partly built on deserted plots of land from the national railway – property of the State. It adds one more protagonist to the negotiation table.

– The very successful refurbishing of the Puerto Madero district (if gentrification can be called a success in urban planning) is a tempting example to follow for the local authorities.

– The right to the city is an interesting concept, which is being implemented in Latin America (at least, Brazil is giving it a try). It can be related to the existence of slums in the heart of the city. The right to the city would be a possible solution to recognise people who have no choice but to live in a city (to work in the case of rural or foreign migrants for example), but who cannot afford it. It would be worth trying to translate it to a European context.

The concept or idea of slum is of course not new to me. But its actual palpable reality in a city which I start to know well, raises a lot of questions that I would like to try and answer in the next few weeks. In particular, I would like to make sense of the contrast between the situation here and the one I know from Europe, and France in particular. Having Paris or Lyon as some sort of home cities to refer to for comparison, it is hard to imagine that the poorest outcasts of society would live in individual houses in the city’s historical centre; while the richest live at the northern border of the city in sky-rocketting towers. At home, I would say that it is the other way around (banlieues).

+ Very good article in the Global Urbanist, 30 April 2013 on connecting the Villa 31 to the main underground network:


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