Ciudad Mendoza | Argentina | Living in Mexico

Ciudad Mendoza

If San Miguel de Allende continues its breakneck growth, I could easily see myself continuing my flight to the South—maybe to Mendoza, Argentina. It's a pleasant and livable city of around a million inhabitants, the center of a wine and olive oil producing region half the size of Italy.

The first impression visitors get is that the place is green. This is surprising considering that it is located in the rain shadow of the Andes. There's simply not enough rain to support all those trees and vines. The bulk of the region's water comes from the Andes via the Mendoza RIver.

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The city's trees are watered by an extensive series of channels. These sycamores can find water at astonishing depths, but they can't survive on only 8-10" of rain a year. So they need supplemental water. I don't think I've ever before seen street trees that are irrigated.

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In 1861, Mendoza was leveled by an earthquake. Ten thousand people were killed, a sizable fraction of the population at that time. Much of the way the city is laid out and built is informed by this tragedy. Parks, for example, have been placed every three blocks or so to provide sanctuaries.

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City planners note: this field may not be much help during an earthquake, but kids use it for pickup soccer games, and soccer moms don't have to load them into the SUV and drive them to their games. Less traffic, more soccer. Sounds good to me.

Once you have lots of public parks, you might as well install lots of benches. Benches encourage all kinds of healthy activities.

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I'd appreciate it if someone would tell me exactly what is going on here. Whatever it is, I think I'd rather like it.

Fabián told me these are called chorizo houses. I got it right away. Sausage houses. Long and narrow. In Louisiana they'd be called shotgun houses.

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They were built to standards developed after the earthquake. Single-story buildings are more survivable. Build deep, not up. They're set on wide streets so people can run outside to escape falling masonry. And then there's those carefully irrigated sycamores: two in front of each house, to keep walls from falling into the street where people are trying to escape.

Mendoza provides housing for the poor. Projects like this one are built to get people out of the shantytowns.

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Of course, the system doesn't work. The government builds new houses and sells them cheap to the poor, who promptly resell them at a profit or rent them out, moving back to the shantytowns. It's so very hard to do good works.

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Juan Perón was here. When you see monumental public buildings like this presidencia, you're reminded of the regime.

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Massive, full of vertical lines, an oversize portico, lack of adornment; this building might have been designed by Albert Speer. I can't keep from speculating: Is there something systemic about how Italians and Germans and Spanish react to economic crises?

"Jeez, Giacomo, looks like the economy's going to hell. We better go elect a fascist."

That's of course what happened in Europe, and when the Great Depression hit here in Argentina, the Spanish, German and Italian expatriates did exactly the same thing. Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Perón; is there a pattern here?

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I see beauty in pre-war industrial design. Apparently, Argentineans do, too, because when the railway through town fell into disuse and was converted into a pedestrian walking path, they preserved the semaphores. Bless whoever came up with this idea.

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They preserved the old telephone lines, too. These poles bring back childhood memories in technicolor. They're not in use anymore, but they've been left up there to remind us what the urban landscape used to be like.

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More careful thinking has gone into the development of Mendoza than most cities, and the result is a jewel, a city that works. Wide streets limit congestion. Trees filter exhaust fumes out of the air. Wide sidewalks make walking a pleasure.

Civilization emerges in places where grapes and olives grow. It happened 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, and it happened because the agreeable climate produced abundant food, freeing time so people could do things like write the Bible. We live best in places like this. Places like Mendoza.

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