( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE METROPOLIS OF SOUTH AMERICA, AND THE LARGEST SPANISH-SPEAKING CITY IN THE WORLD-HOW IT CONTROLS ARGENTINA POLITICALLY, SOCIALLY, AND FINANCIALLY-BUENOS AIRES FROM THE HOUSETOPS-A TOWN OF SHREDS AND PATCHES-A LOOK AT ITS CHURCHES-THE LARGEST CATHOLIC CITY ON EARTH-A SOUTH AMERICAN BOTANY BAY.
BUENOS AIRES is at once the London, the New York, and the Paris of the Argentine Republic. It might almost be called the Argentine itself, for it controls the country as no other capital does the land which it is supposed to dominate. It is an old saying that Paris is France ; she is not so much so as Buenos Aires is Argentina. There are a half-a-dozen cities in France that are independent commercial centres. Paris is by no means all France industrially, though she may be so artistic-ally, socially, and intellectually. Buenos Aires is not only the political capital of Argentina; it is her commercial and industrial capital; her financial, social, and intellectual capital. Politically, most of the Argentine congressmen are citizens of Buenos Aires. Many of them who represent distant districts live in Buenos Aires the year round, although they may now and then go to visit their constituents. Many such are engaged in the professions, most of them being lawyers. Indeed, the Argentine Republic is made up of rotten boroughs represented by Buenos Aires men; the result is that when Buenos Aires takes snuff all Argentina sneezes.
Buenos Aires owns ninety-five per cent of the factories of the Republic: it has more than three hundred of these, employing over 12,000 hands. The great volume of foreign trade, now amounting to more than $200,000,000 a year, passes through it. Its wholesale houses supply the Republic with goods. The Argentines, in fact, know of only two places—Buenos Aires and the Camp: Buenos Aires is the capital city; the Camp is all of Argentina outside of Buenos Aires.
Commercially and financially, Buenos Aires is Argentina. In it are the banks that supply the Republic with money; wealthy institutions with fine buildings, and with deposits of from $80,-000,000 in silver down. It had at one time a bank with a capital of $50,000,000, but this was closed by the failures which startled the financial world and made even the Baring Brothers, of London, totter, its depositors losing $70,000,000 by its breaking.
Buenos Aires has its stock-exchange ,where "Argentines" are bought and sold in parcels, and where stocks and bonds rise and fall as Buenos Aires thinks them good or bad. On this exchange more than $500,000,000 worth of stock (in gold) was floated during the ten years preceding 1890. When the panic came, ninety per cent of the local companies failed, and now most of the shares are not worth one per cent of their face value. Nevertheless, both city and country are in a good financial condition.
As a social centre also Buenos Aires is Argentina. Most of the money made in the camp (i. e., the country) is spent here. The city has scores of millionaires, nabobs who each own their half-million acres of land, and who count their cattle and sheep in herds of thousands. They may go to their farms in summer, but their winters are spent in their Buenos Aires palaces, where they give royal entertainments and each season pay $I,000 a piece for their boxes at the opera house.
All Argentina is increasing in population, but its most rapid growth is in Buenos Aires. The city is growing in numbers at the rate of 100,000 a year, and by the end of the century it is claimed that it will have a population of more than a million. One-fifth of all the people in Argentina live in Buenos Aires. The city grows like a green bay tree, and increases more rapidly than any city in the United States. Long ago it began to take in all available adjoining territory. When it had its great boom, just before the panic, it seemed as if the whole region about were laid out in lots ; within five years the real estate transactions amounted to more than $400,000,000. Enough land has been built upon to make a large city, and that a very solid one. The houses are not detached as ours are : they are built in blocks of four acres, each surrounded by narrow streets. Some of the sections are so crowded that in them the people swarm like bees. In others there are wide stretches of bare fields.
The city, as laid out, is eleven miles from end to end, and a ride around it is as long as from Washington to Baltimore. Within its boundaries there is twice as much ground as in Paris, and it has a greater number of stores and business establishments in proportion to its population than any town in the United States. You find stores everywhere ; there are miles and miles of them. The reason is that there are few stores outside the limits. It has not the great suburban population of our cities whose wants are supplied by their home towns, but who come into the city to do business.
Buenos Aires is a Spanish city, and the biggest Spanish-speaking city in the world. It is almost twice as large as Mad-rid and three times the size of Barcelona. Its Spanish character, however, belongs to the past, and it is fast developing a municipal individuality of its own. It will, no doubt, always retain the Spanish language, but its people will be a mixture drawn from the four quarters of the earth. To-day more than half of its citizens are foreign born and the city itself is fast losing much of its Spanish character. The houses on the new avenues, that have been recently erected,, are more like those of Paris than Madrid. The Avenida de Mayo is a wide boulevard, with an asphalt pavement; the buildings upon it make one think of the Champs Élysée, and there is a total absence of the flat, low one-story structures of old Spain. It is the same with many of the business blocks that have been erected since Buenos Aires began its rapid growth. Most of the buildings, however, are low. For a century or so there was not a two-story house in the city. The town was laid out in the Spanish style, in rectangular blocks along narrow streets. It was founded away back in 1535 by a Spanish freebooter, Pedro de Mendoza, who named it «Buenos Aires." The words mean «good air," but Mendoza did not name it thus because air here is especially good. It is not so, for the death-rate is high. More than a thousand people died here in the month preceding my visit, and the annual average of deaths is more than thirty-three to the thousand.
Just now the fog over the city is as thick as that of London. For a long time the air was so bad that lockjaw was almost epidemic. It takes a boy's bare feet and a rusty nail to produce lockjaw in the United States. Until recently one could catch it here by simply opening the mouth. No, Buenos Aires did not get its name from its abundant and life-supplying ozone. Like Cortez, Pizarro, and the other adventurous Spanish cut-throats of his time, Mendoza had a profound regard for the saints, and so he named the city after the Virgin Maria de Buenos Aires, whose aid he had invoked for his expedition before leaving Spain.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Asuncion, Paraguay, and Cordoba, a day's ride by train west of here, were far more ambitious towns than Buenos Aires. The latter long remained a settlement of mud huts, although lots three hundred and fifty yards front and three miles deep could be bought for a suit of old clothes. In the seventeenth century some of the central blocks of the city were sold for a white horse and a guitar. To-day the average value of land per square yard is over $20 and the house property is said to be worth more than $300,000,000 in gold.
When our Declaration of Independence was signed there were only 37,000 people in Argentina and only 3,000 in Buenos Aires. The colony, however, began to make money out of negroes and chiefly out of negro slaves. At that time the best families lived in thatched huts, but they ate their meals from dishes of solid silver, being waited upon by their own negroes. When John Quincy Adams was President, Buenos Aires had 22,000 people. During General Grant's first term in the White House it had less than 178,000, and when Cleveland began his second administration, its citizens numbered 535,000 ; while in 1899 it had 753,000. Its great growth has thus been within the past thirty years.
Buenos Aires is a curious city, made up of shreds and patches both as to architecture and to man. As to man, it has people of nearly every race : 300,000 of its residents are Italians, 90,000 are Spanish, about 30,000 French, and the remainder are Germans, English, or Argentines. The Argentines proper do not probably number over 150,000, and they are the only real citizens, in the sense that they vote and take part in the government. The others prefer to keep out of politics and the army, for the foreign resident here has every property right that the citizen has, with none of his military obligations.
Most of the foreigners stick to their old nationalities, although some of them would not dare to go home to vote. The Argentine is one of the few countries that have no extradition treaties; criminals from everywhere have consequently taken advantage of this, and it is said that Buenos Aires has more men living under assumed names than any city in the world. This is especially so in regard to the emigrants from Italy, and also, until recently, in regard to not a few from our own country.
A year or so ago, it is said that four Americans were chatting together in one of the cafés of Buenos Aires, when three of the crowd for some reason began to jeer at the fourth. He grew angry and said : « Well, gentlemen, you may sneer at me if you please, but I want you to understand that there is at least one county in the United States that I dare go back to without fear of the sheriff. I know none of you can say as much." This, however, is rather hard on the Americans. Years ago, be-fore we lost our merchant marine, our citizens were among the most prominent of the foreign residents of Buenos Aires, and those who have been coming in within recent years are men of high standing. Some have large interests, and at present the Americans, as a class, are much respected.
Architecturally, Buenos Aires is a patchwork city. I have rooms high up in one of its biggest hotels. The rooms are also high in price. They cost me eight Argentine dollars per day. I am on the fourth floor, and from my balcony I can see over most of the roofs of the city. Step out of the window with me and take a bird's-eye view of Buenos Aires. Below and about us lies a vast ragged plain of one and two-story houses, whose flat roofs are made of brick or brick tiles and occasionally of corrugated iron. Some of the buildings rise high above the others; the whole looks like a lot of great store-boxes jumbled together along narrow cañons, the streets. Away to the south you see a few smokestacks, the masts of ships, and some large warehouses; that is Barracas, where meat, wool, and hides are prepared for shipment to America and Europe. To the north. there is a spot of green woods; that is Palermo Park, where society goes to ride and drive every afternoon; you may see a thousand carriages there at a time.
To the east, beyond that thicket of masts and spars lining the docks, extending on and on until they meet the horizon, are the muddy waters of the Rio de la Plata, which connect Buenos Aires with the outer world. The river here is twenty-eight miles wide; in the misty air we cannot just now see its opposite banks. Buenos Aires is only forty-eight feet above the waters of the Atlantic; back of and beyond the city extends the vast plain of the valley of the river, as rich here as is the valley of the Mississippi. It is cut up by railroads and dotted with farms, some of which support cattle and sheep in herds of thousands.
As you look more closely at the roofs below, you see that many of them surround little patios or courts. There are no gardens in front or behind the houses, and the masses here live without plants, flowers, or trees. There are no chimneys; the Argentines think it unhealthful to have fires in their living rooms, though one sees here and there a black stove-pipe coming up through the roof ; but these pipes are connected with the kitchens, not with the parlours.
But what are the open spaces we see in the city of roofs? These are the plazas or parks, of which there are twelve in the city, varying in size from four to twelve acres. The one near the river is the Plaza de Mayo; it is the ecclesiastical, govern-mental, and financial centre of the city. Upon it face the cathedral, the president's house, congress, the courts, and the boisa or stock-exchange. Into it run some of the chief business streets, and from it, to the westward, extends the Avenida de Mayo, the wide boulevard of which the people here are so proud, and at the other end of which the future capitol building of the republic is to stand. The avenue has already cost $i0,000,000 in gold, and will eventually be one of the grand streets of the world. The section of the city through which it passes was in early Spanish days lighted with oil made of mare's grease; now electricity gives the same locality its illuminating rays.
The Plaza de Mayo covers eight acres ; the finest building upon it is the cathedral, which looks more like a government structure or an art gallery than a church. It covers more than an acre and will hold 9,000 people. It is, however, seldom full, although Buenos Aires is the largest Catholic city in the world. Ninety-six per cent of all the people in Argentina are Roman Catholics, but the men are not ardent churchgoers, and the women who worship at the cathedral do not usually fill it. There are in the city twenty-four other Catholic churches, besides four which are Protestant. Protestants are freely tolerated; one of their churches is the American Methodist Church, which is generally well attended, being situated within almost a stone's throw of the cathedral, in the business heart of the city.