Sunday, February 27, 2011

The centre cannot hold

In the upscale neighbourhood of Pocitos, between the new apartment towers where residential space sells for $1500 US per square meter, there's a vacant Texaco station that served temporarily as an encampment for homeless people. In January, on our way to see a film at the Casablanca movie theatre, we noticed that the residents in Texaco town  had completely settled in.  Three men were sitting on an old couch that they had rescued from a dumpster, while another two were busy cooking sausages (no doubt salvaged from the same source) on a makeshift open grill.   There were foam mattresses set out on the asphalt of the former parking lot, and a few stray dogs - now pets - lying on the beds.   I wanted to take a photo of the improvised domestic scene, and vowed to bring my camera the next time we headed this way.

That opportunity came a week later and here's what I found.  The Texaco station and two historic houses adjacent to it had been totally enclosed by an impermeable grey metal hoarding, and were now in the process of being demolished.  The homeless had been forced to re-locate, a fact that likely prompted a collective sigh of relief from Pocitos residents whose expensive condos happen to overlook the corner.

Texaco station, now a building site

The house next door, a classic residence, is also coming down

Make way for high-rise urban living!

Where do the homeless go when the current wave of high-rise building projects forces them out of Ciudad Vieja, Parque Rodo and Pocitos?  The poor in Montevideo are feeling the pressure of rapid urban development and have become an army of nomads, constantly shifting from park to park, doorway to doorway, dumpster to dumpster, vacant lot to vacant lot, in an exhausting, demoralizing effort to survive.

Some have replaced down-and-out desperation with bold action aimed at creating their own place in the world.   As gentrification transforms the inner city, the poor are seeking refuge on the periphery in "cantegrils"  illegal settlements ironically named after the exclusive Cantegril Country Club in Punta del Este.  Homeless families band together and occupy en masse a vacant suburban field that has either been abandoned by an absentee owner, or is tied up in legal limbo, with no clear title.  These marginal properties are measured and sectioned off into individual plots by the squatters, who construct their own shacks, and in time, organize a neighbourhood commission to oversee the shanty town.   If they manage to stay put, without police intervention, they eventually earn squatters' rights and can take legal ownership of  the land.   Several of these grassroots groups have successfully lobbied municipal government for the extension of services such as water, sewer and electricity to their communities.  It is estimated that the growth of cantegrils near Montevideo is increasing at a rate of 10% a year.  

While the trend to move to the outskirts provides a chance for families to stabilize their immediate surroundings and lifestyle, it's not a perfect fix for the basic problem of poverty.  The more marginal poverty becomes, the more it hardens and continues in subsequent generations, as prospects for improvement are reduced by ghetto culture and isolation.  

The gap between rich and poor is becoming more and more evident in Montevideo, and as the city offers less and less resources for those living below the poverty line, the disadvantaged will be forced to move on and find their own places, on their own terms.  The hinterland slum is expanding on the horizon, establishing its presence as a permanent phenomenon; just as permanent as downtown luxury apartment buildings designed for the upper echelon of society.  

Sunday, February 20, 2011


 There's nothing like February in Uruguay - a whole month of parades, costumes, drumming, dancing and singing, a masked ball, and nightly stage shows at Teatro Verano featuring comedians, choirs and clowns. The Afro/Latino version of the feast before the lean days of fasting is an all-out celebration of colour, sound, movement and symbolism.   Here's a list of basic Carnaval vocabulary that I've picked up on the street.

desfile de Llamadas:  parade made up of various drum groups and performers.

comparsas:  drum and marching corps, groups of men and women who parade during Carnaval playing percussion instruments.

candombe: style of drumming originating in Africa, combining elements of jazz, tango and samba with Bantu rhythms.

estandartes: flagbearers who lead the parade

escobero: young man with a broom or baton who performs acrobatic tricks, while sweeping away negative energy.  This character represents the energy and vitality of youth.

gramillero: an old man dressed in a top hat and tails, carrying a cane as he dances through the street.  Although a senior, this character is still spry.  

Mama Vieja: an old woman with white apron, bright turban, a parasol or a fan, who dances with sensuality and grace.

vedette: the show girl, wearing bikini and high heels, adorned with feathers, rhinestones and sequins. Based on Josephine Baker and the French Revue Negre.

murga: a troupe of men who sing in a chorus, often dressed as clowns

Negros Lubolos: groups of white men with blackened faces.   In a weird role reversal,  they sing songs expressing nostalgia for their African homeland,  their unrequited love for white mistresses and the hardships of working to please white masters.

Evening show at Teatro Verano, with a huge cast of traditional characters
Estandartes lead the parade

Vedette, star of the show

Drummer in comparse

The rhythm resounds like a heartbeat

Elaborate costumes
Plumes and beads

Gramillero and Mama Vieja

Hip-hop and samba on stage

Murga chorus member

Glitter, facepaint, sequins and sweat

To give you an idea of the intensity of the event, here's a clip of the Desfile de Llamadas 2011,  filmed as the parade passed through the Barrio Sur in Montevideo. 


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Plaza Zabala

There's a bronze equestrian statue honouring Bruno Mauricio de Zabala in the city square that bears his name.  Zabala, the first governor of Montevideo, is credited for establishing the city as a garrison and center of Spanish control of the Banda Oriental (East Bank) of the Rio de la Plata in 1726.  The military justification for building a fortress in this location was to prevent the advance of Portugese from Brazil.  The site offered a large, protected bay for ships and a strategic lookout from Cerro, the hill that lies to the west of the city.   

The first census taken in Montevideo counted 50 families of Galician origin, 1000 indigenous people (Guarani) and a small number of blacks from Africa. It is interesting to note that by 1805, Montevideo had a population of 9400, and one third of its inhabitants were black or mulatto.  Black slaves built the stone walls, residences and public buildings in Montevideo, worked the agricultural land and served as domestic help for white Uruguayan households.  
Palacio Taranco, main entry
The Plaza Zabala is just a few blocks from the Port of Montevideo, a piece of inner city real estate that offered an ideal location for individuals connected to the shipping business.  The Ortiz de Taranco family, headed by brothers Jose, Felix and Hermenegildo managed an import/export business that supplied goods from Europe to clients all over South America.  They purchased the plot of land adjacent to Plaza Zabala in 1907 and built a grand residence there, just a stone's throw from the busy harbour.
Courtyard and formal garden facing Plaza Zabala
The Tarancos hired Charles Louis Girault and Jules Chifflot to design their new home, French architects known in Europe for their work on the  Petit Palais and the Arc de Triomphe.  One crucial specification for the layout was that the house would have to comfortably accommodate the brothers and their families in three separate apartments on the upper floor.  Completed in 1910, the residence is an opulent mansion, replete with Italian marble, rich woodwork and gold leaf decoration.  In 1925 Prince Edward VIII was a guest here.

Lavish interior of Palacio Taranco
The Palacio remained a private residence until 1943 when the surviving Tarancos sold the building to the government and it was converted into offices for the Ministry of Education.  The palace and its contents were not well cared for, and  many important artifacts, including a massive billiard table imported from Italy, went missing.  In 1979 the state designated the site as a National Monument.  Today the restored Palacio Taranco is used as a Museum of Decorative Arts, displaying a permanent collection of paintings, textiles, sculpture and ceramics.

The ballroom overlooking the terrace and gardens

A sign posted in the museum tells visitors that Jose Louis Ortiz de Taranco, age 14, arrived in the port of Montevideo in the late 1870s with 17 pesos in his pocket.   

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Plaza Matriz

The city of Montevideo includes a number of plazas that serve as focal points for community gatherings, concerts, markets and cafes.  These inviting public spaces offer places to sit and take in the energetic activity of the urban environment from an unhurried, relaxed vantage point.

Plaza Matriz, a prime spot for antique hunting and plein air dining located in the heart of Ciudad Vieja, is one of the nicest squares, with tree-lined pathways and an ornate central fountain.  The square is flanked by historic buildings including the Cabildo, the original seat of the Colonial government.   We spent a very hot summer afternoon browsing through the antique dealers' stalls while listening to a string quartet play works by  Handel, Bach and Mozart on the plaza.

My treasure hunt yielded an embroidered evening bag with a porcelain clasp painted with a romantic scene from Fragonard.  The purse is in excellent condition and the tag inside reads "Made in France."  I also bought a photograph from the man who specializes in vintage books, old prints and works on paper.  I imagine the  sitter in this portrait attending a summer concert at Teatro Solis, elegantly dressed in her frilly white gown and carrying a certain floral evening bag.   

Montevideo studio portrait circa 1907

La Corte facade
For lunch we stopped at La Corte, a trendy restaurant housed in the former Club Uruguay established in 1888.  This is where the business crowd chooses to dine, and the place is always packed at midday - inside on all three levels and outside on the plaza, too.  We managed to get a table upstairs in the loft overlooking the main floor with its exposed stone wall and Cutcsa truck decor.   The executive menu is the best deal in town, an all-inclusive entree, dessert and drink selection offered for 198 pesos (just under $10 U.S.).  Choices include pasta, beef or fish dishes served with salad or potatoes, accompanied by a glass of wine or mineral water, followed by coconut tart, ice cream or fruit cocktail for dessert.  The service is fast and courteous, delivered by a well-trained team of attractive young women who know the names of the regular customers and don't hesitate to kiss them on arrival and departure.  The  atmosphere reminds us of Earl's Tin Palace in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  

The placemat at La Corte shows an artist's rendering of the exterior of the Club Uruguay building, the facade of Iglesia Matriz, (a cathedral dating from 1804) and the edge of the park on the plaza. 

And this is how it looked as we left the restaurant and made our way down Peatonal Sarandi.