Thursday, May 10, 2007

Why Argentina (Buenos Aires) is like the USA in the 1960s (Ken)

Everything is done by hand: demolition, ditch digging, cement mixing, and street cleaning.
In the United States machinery has replaced so much of this manual labor, or labor has become so expensive that entire industries have closed. This has destroyed cities. Baltimore, for example, where I grew up, lost almost its entire employment base and half its population when the ship yards and steel mills shut down. It was cheaper to buy imported steel and ships. Now the city is riddled with poverty, crime, and drugs. I don’t know if it will ever recover. If there is no work and no opportunity, what are people to do?

Returnable bottles
Well, we have those in the USA too. Some cities even charge deposits on cans and plastic bottles. But the bottles here are the heavy glass bottles that I saw as a kid. It is rather nostalgic to see them again. In the USA, they are sometimes collectors’ items or sold in specialty stores at a higher price.

Everything is delivered—even groceries and alcoholic beverages.
Not just pizza. Several grocery stores tried to make use of Internet ordering and home delivery of groceries. I think they are all out-of-business now. It just costs too much money to deliver things in the USA. And I don’t know of any pizza chain that will deliver beer like some do here.

Manual transmissions
The automatic transmission is practically non-existent here. I asked about it while I was in Córdoba and was told that Latinos—not just Argentines—like manual transmission because they like to be in total control of their automobiles. I like that explanation.

Air conditioning is not standard equipment in houses and apartments—even in new construction.
My friend, Tom, told me that when he bough his new apartment in Nunez, he had to order the AC. And it gets hot here. I understand why old buildings are not retrofit with AC, but I am surprised that it is not standard in new construction.

Elevator doors don’t open automatically.
This one has embarrassed me more than once. I have been stuck in an elevator that I didn’t know how to get out of. Helen and I rode the elevator up and down eight floors—twice—until I asked the portero what the trick was. “¡Empuje!” he said. We rode it up again, pushed the door, and sheepishly walked out.

There are specialty stores rather than department stores.
In the USA, it is almost impossible for shops that only sell one type of item to exist. Even the gas stations sell newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, sandwiches, groceries, and any number of other items. This is because the profit on a gallon of gasoline is so small that they need to do this to survive. Large US corporations have squeezed out the little guy and a person who would once has owned a small shop now has to work for the corporation that made his shop unprofitable. Here, a guy can still open a small shop and make a go of it.

No dishwashers, you have to defrost to refrigerator, No garbage disposals in the sink, No ice makers, you have to light the gas stove with a match each time you use it.
These are strictly matters of convenience, and, mostly, I am just whining here. I am surprised, however, to find that these things have not made their way here in great numbers yet. In many ways, however, these conveniences are energy wasters—pilot lights that constantly burn gas, refrigerators that heat themselves up every day to keep frost from building. But the refrigerators in the US have become so efficient that if ANYTHING goes wrong, you can’t correct it. Where I live in Maryland, we lose electricity frequently—sometimes for over a day. There is a drip pan in the bottom of the refrigerator that collects the water that is melted from the automatic defrost cycle. When the power goes out, the fan that evaporates it does not run. The water stagnates and stinks. I called the company and asked how to empty the stinking water. I was told that was not possible, and that I should try and throw some baking soda in it—if I could reach it—to absorb the smell. Sometimes, I feel "convenienced" to the point of inconvenience.

People dress more formally—they don’t dress like slobs in public.
Seriously, people here simply look better. You rarely see anyone under the age of 30 in exercise clothes unless they are actually exercising. After 5 months here, I am sure I will be shocked upon my return to the US if my memory of what slobs people in the USA are is accurate.

Single pane windows—with no screens
Mosquitoes here are a problem. Unless an apartment or a house has air-conditioning, it can get pretty bad. Maybe this year was just a really bad year for mosquitoes, but I think Porteños may want to consider this window screen option.

You can get stuff repaired—TVs, shoes
We don’t fix anything in the USA. Well, we fix our cars until they are paid for and the repairs cost as much as a car payment. But we don’t re-sole our shoes, put a new zipper in a jacket, or repair the DVD player—we throw it away and buy a new one. While I have been here, I have gotten shoes re-soled that I would have thrown away in the USA—and I like them. It’s not that you can’t get things fixed in the USA; it’s just cheaper to throw it away and buy something new. Why is that? It seems so wasteful.

Corner Hardware stores
This is like the specialty shops. Back in Frederick, there is still May’s Hardware, and I go there whenever I can just to give them my business. But usually, I just go to Home Depot. In Buenos Aires, there is Easy, it’s kind of like a Home Depot, but it is far away and there is a hardware store every couple of blocks here in Buenos Aires. They have just about anything you need. I am amazed that the city can support so many of them.

Corner bakeries
The bread here is really good. There are bakeries every few blocks and they deliver fresh media lunas to the cafes all day long. When I get home, I will be eating far less bread than I eat here. In the USA, the bakeries just can’t compete.

Family get-togethers on Sundays.
This is nice. Sunday time is family time. Smoke from parrillas wafts through the city. I think I will institute this when I get home. I’ll tell my daughters that there is a standing Sunday asado. They are encouraged to attend. (Once my parrilla is finished, anyway. Charlie can come too).

Multiple daily newspapers with multiple ownership groups
In the USA, almost all the media is owned by five conservative corporations that have most USAmerican convinced that the media is biased to the left. There is very little objective news reporting, and anything that criticizes the government is criticized as being disloyal and aiding the terrorists. Newspapers are more maverick here and not afraid to criticize the government.

No wall-to-wall carpet
It amazes me that in the USA, some people actually cover their beautiful hardwood floors with carpeting that collects dirt. This started happening in the 1970s if I recall correctly

You can feed the animals at the zoo.
This is fun. You can buy a big bucket of food for a few pesos and feed almost any herbivorous animal at the Buenos Aires Zoo. Some of the cages ask you not to feed certain animals anything, but it is really fun to throw a food pellet to an elephant and watch him pick it up. I don’t know why it’s fun—it just is. You used to be able to do that in the USA, not anymore.

Cashiers count out your change in your hand.
Coin-by-coin, bill-by-bill. I don’t know whether it is a matter of courtesy or mistrust, but it is a nice touch.

People work to live rather than live to work.
I may be imagining this, but it seems to me that when I was a kid, people were not as materialistic as they are now. If your dad made enough money to keep you in a home with regular food and an occasional vacation trip, life was good. Now, there is so much emphasis on material gain that we are working more and enjoying life less. That change does not seem to have happened here yet. I hope they can hold out much longer.

Police on the corners
You see police here on the streets walking beats. I have heard many different opinions on the police here that I won’t get into here—that’s not my point. In the USA, it is rare to see a policeman outside of a police car unless he is actively engaged in hands-on police work.

People sell things on the street without a business license--even food, cooked food.
We are so over-regulated in the USA that it is almost impossible to sell a hotdog. There is a “First Saturday Gallery Walk” in the town where I live. The art galleries would put out some wine and cheese or food items for the visitors. The health department insisted that everyone get a permit and submit to inspection each and every time. The permits could only be valid for the one day, so it involved applying every month. They made it so difficult that most of people just stopped offering food. That does not seem to be a problem here. In the USA, one person gets ill and there is a lawsuit.

They spend money on public parks and public art
In the five months I have been here, I have watched many lovely parks throughout the city get renovated. All throughout the cities of Buenos Aires and Córdoba, I saw public art—and not all of it old work. New sculptures appear frequently. And the parks here are used all the time. As soon as the park near my apartment reopened, it was full everyday. There is a county commissioner in Frederick, where I am from. In a public candidate forum, I pointed out to him that Frederick spends about 17 cents per citizen on the arts while nearby Montgomery County spends $1.74. He said that if he had his way, it would be “zero.” He was re-elected.

Kids don't ride in car seats, there are no head restraints in car passenger seats, and people ride motorcycles without helmets.
This may not be safe, but it speaks to personal responsibility. In the USA, you are fined if your child is not in a car seat—not just babies, children. You are fined if you don’t wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle. In many places, children are REQUIRED to wear a helmet to ride a bicycle until age 16. I think these are matters of personal choice. I like it that people here take responsibility for their own decisions. It is like they are saying to the government, “Leave me alone and let me decide what is best for me and my family.” With People for Science in the Public Interest telling us we can’t eat Movie popcorn anymore, and the Fundamentalist Christian Right attempting to constantly legislate morality—I find this behavior refreshing.

People litter
I don’t understand this. This is a beautiful city. In the USA, we used to litter too. There was a commercial with an American Indian in a canoe. As he paddled, the river became more and more choked with trash. The commercial ended with a closeup of his face with a tear running down his cheek. There was also Woodsy the Owl who said, "Give a hoot--don't pollute!" We are better about littering now.

But I remember that, as children, my friends and I would count on it. We’d walk the mile to the country store with no money hoping to collect returnable bottles (like the one’s I mentioned above) and get enough money for some candy. We were rarely disappointed. But there is a lot of trash on the street here, and I see people just dropping their trash as they walk. It is a pity. It really does diminish the beauty of the city. The mayor even complained that it was a contributing factor in all of the flooding that happened in the heavy rains here this summer. The trash would clog the drains. He, Mayor Tellerman, has ordered thousands of trash dumpsters to be stationed all over the city to see if that will help the problem.

You can open the windows on the subway cars.
I was amazed to see this. In the USA, the people are so frightened of law suits that all the windows in any moving public vehicle are sealed. In Argentina, if you get hurt doing something stupid in an open subway window—it’s your own fault.

People protest against the government--Imagine!
Maybe they protest a bit too much, but who am I to say? My point is that in the USA, we don’t protest enough. I know that many USAmerican will disagree with me, but . . . how did we let this president get us into this Iraq mess. Did we protest? No, we re-elected him.

To summarize, the things that are different here, and that remind me of the USA in the 1960’s, all seem to relate to two factors: huge corporations and rampant litigation.

Huge corporations have put small businesses out of business. Health care cost—again related to huge corporations—have raised labor costs so high that we have displaced and marginalized entire sectors of society: the under-skilled and undereducated. We are so afraid of a lawsuit that our freedoms and ability to make personal decisions have been diminished.

In another 40-50 years, will the same thing happen here? I hope not. I hope that Argentina learns from our successes—but also learns from our mistakes and prospers without losing that sense of personal rights and responsibilities.


Gavin said...

Ken - When you post something like this you should make it known that these are your impressions and generalizations of Buenos Aires (not Argentina). You're right about some things but are totally off base on others. Also, you have to compare Buenos Aires to New York, not Maryland. Go to Manhattan. How many big department stores or even big grocery stores are there? Also, in the 1960s Americans worked to live? I wasn't alive, but to my understanding that wasn't the case. I could go on and on. I would be a lot more comfortable with the post if you prefaced it with, "As someone who likes to generalize, I would say Argentina reminds me a lot of the U.S. in the 1960s." Keep up the blog!

Ken and Helen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ken and Helen said...


Fair enough. But I didn't grow up in New York--I grew up in Baltimore. And yes--there was more of an attitute that work was something you had to do to live. Your job was not your identity--your family and friends were.

That is what I see here in Buenos Aires--and what I saw even more of in Cordoba. That is a good thing--in my opinion.

If I am totlly off base on some other of my observations, please explain. It is not my intent to offend, simply observe and respond.


pedroC said...

In his latest post this blogger discusses your post, I thought you might find it interesting.
I'd like to say that I've enjoyed your blog, and wish you all the best in the future.

Ken and Helen said...

Yes, I saw it. It seems that I have hit another nerve like when I commented on the canned peas. As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I am not making any value judgements on what I observe, I just think it is interesting and that my readers--especially North Americans--will find it interesting as well.

Luis said...

Hi Ken,

Sorry for posting my reply so late... I just read it and I found it very interesting.
I'd like to add that what you said regarding big corporations eliminatingthe little guys is totally tru here as well. Perhaps we haven't reached the point where you are in the USA, but this is definetely a trend.

For example, I lived all my life in Olivos (a couple of miles north of Capital Federal) and everything used to be very different when I was a kid (I'm 37 now).

A father with a small capital would invest in a shop (of any kind) and feed a familly with it.
We had bakeries (thousands!), shoe repair shops, tv and radio repair shop, small markets (almacenes) owned by argentines or spaniards (now the only ones you find are chinese). You can still find them, but pretty decimated...
There are one or two for every ten in the old days.

Many people used to argue that this trend is good for everybody, because large stores sell goods in large quantities by less money.
I believe this is only true to some extent.
When the little guys are gone, the large ones own the market, and then they charge whatever they want.

I really miss the sense of comunity we had in the old days. The lady in the almacen would let you pay latter if you didn't have money. This is IMPOSSIBLE today!

Although let me tell you that after the big crisis (2001) there was some kind of come-back of those litle shops that were gone in the eighties and nineties, such as repair shops.
I'm affraid that as soon as the economy improves, they will be gone again...

Sorry for my english...
And good luck in up there!

Jeepman65 said...

I really appreciated your blog. Materialism has really gotten a hold of the world. Not just in Argentina, and USA. Most people arent happy with earning enough to fund two vehicles and a roof over your head. I also appreciated the point you made about the subways with the sealed windows. In the US, it seems, that one is allowed to be stupid and get away with it. People filing law suits for eating too much fast food, law suits because someone spilt hot coffee while driving, etc. Personal responsibility seems to have been lost forever. Everyone wants to take risks, or do something stupid and expect someone else to pay the price. I also agree that the US has become very overregulating. Street vendors have to wear a permit around their necks to show their 'legit'. In my city I would require a permit to cut down a tree that I planted in "my" property. Finally I also appreciated your comment on small mom and pop shops being put out of business by the mega companies. yes lower prices are good, but what price are we going to have pay in the long run with all the dollars sent to china for cheap production? Its a vicious circle. Sorry for the long comment, I really appreciated your blog!


Anonymous said...

All what you wrote is true!!! I realized that when went to Argentina, and looked for apartment for rent in Buenos Aires. I just only wanted one single carpet!!