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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Chacarita is Buenos Aires’ quirkiest neighborhood. Get there soon.

Facón, a tourist’s dream shop, offering textiles, artwork and other items that are sourced from local masters as well as some high-design items in the Chacarita neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina on April 18, 2024. Strolling through this once-traditional nook of the Argentine capital, the author found Art Deco houses on cobblestone streets, decadent churros and pizza slices, and whimsy around every corner. (Sarah Pabst/The New York Times)

By Seth Kugel

To become a city’s coolest new neighborhood, there are certain prerequisites: a crop of cafes that toe the line between cozy and snobbish, chefs combining the innovative with the Instagrammable, and shops so sincere that they are doomed to close when rents rise, which they inevitably will.

But then it must also have quirks. Chacarita, long seen as a low-slung, low-profile neighborhood in north-central Buenos Aires, Argentina, has plenty.

There’s the cafe that doubles as a museum of photography and triples as a jazz club. Two cavernous, mysteriously indistinguishable pizza halls, both opened in 1947, stand side by side near a subway stop and serve thick-crusted slices draped with mozzarella and onions. And then, in Chacarita’s southwest flank, a cemetery has elegant monuments to 20th-century tango legend Carlos Gardel and pioneering aviator Jorge Newbery amid vast fields of simply marked, working-class graves. It plays a pretty good second fiddle to Recoleta Cemetery, one of the top 10 tourist attractions in Argentina and housing the pantheon of the country’s revered former first lady Eva Perón.

Just a 10-stop subway trip from the Obelisk downtown — the fare recently raised to 125 pesos is still under 15 cents even at the official market’s rate of 878 Argentine pesos to the dollar — totally walkable Chacarita is one heck of a great place to shop, eat and simply wander for a few days, which I did this year, both on my own and with my then-19-year-old nephew, Leo, who was studying, or more accurately, “studying,” in Argentina.

Irresistible shops

Chacarita, which means “small farm,” is so-named because its land once served as a kitchen garden and recreational site for Jesuit school students. It eventually became a transportation hub and working-class neighborhood, roughly 100 square blocks. I was utterly charmed by Chacarita’s cobblestone streets, lined with colonial-style single-family homes with interjections of art deco and brutalism. They were the very opposite of late-game Monopoly board monotony, with heavy wooden doors featuring old-fashioned mail slots labeled “CARTAS” and wrought-iron window guards framing the snouts of pet dogs and cats variously curious and agitated by infrequent passersby.

Although many commercial streets still have a working-class vibe, Jorge Newbery Avenue does not. The street, named for the aviator, is the hipster center of gravity, with shops, cafes, vermouth bars and one vegan restaurant, Donnet, serving a tasting menu for about 19,000 pesos per person that revolves almost entirely around mushrooms.

Several Newbery shops are irresistible. What I thought was a bakery because the name means the Pastry Chef’s Boutique, La Botica del Pastelero turned out to be a delightfully mammoth bakers supply shop, selling artsy marble-cutting boards, creative cookie cutters and lots of utensils.

While La Botica is a baker’s dream, Facón is a tourist’s. The shop’s owner, Martín Bustamante, has set out to show that Argentina is much more than Buenos Aires (and the vineyards of Mendoza and the penguins of Patagonia), offering items that are sourced from local masters as well as some high-design items. For 60,000 pesos, I took home a soulful yet playful scarlet-red wooden horse with a wispy mane created by Juan Gelosi, an artist from north-central Tucumán province.

Burned onions and dulce de leche

The old-school side of Chacarita is worth a wandering, for its more down-to-earth vibe and cheaper eats. Santa Maria’s fugazzetta slice, draped with mozzarella and just slightly burned onions, is 1,600 pesos and well worth it; a churro filled with dulce de leche from Fábrica de Churros Olleros — about 60 years old and looking its age — is only 350. But I particularly enjoyed my steak and fries lunch, costing 3,400 pesos, at Colonia 10 de Julio, the sort of place where the floor looks grimy even after it has just been mopped.

Our best dinner was at Lardito, a legitimately ballyhooed spot with an around-the-world-in-small-plates vibe. At communal tables festooned with lavender and white wildflowers, Leo and I ate beef tataki (thin slices of lightly seared sirloin with oyster vinaigrette and topped with an egg yolk and cauliflower foam) and ceviche for 45,000 pesos. The price did not include wine, which diners choose in the restaurant’s mini wine shop — perfect for those who are better at selecting cool labels than obscure grapes.

Battling against developers

There were plenty of signs the neighborhood might be on the road to post-hipster glass-and-steel condos — literal signs. Dozens of “NO AL NUEVO CÓDIGO URBANÍSTICO” (“No to the new zoning code”) — posters hang on residences in protest of a 2018 zoning code overhaul that facilitated the building of apartment buildings in residential neighborhoods, among other things.

My final morning, I met María Sol Azcona and Laura Nowydwor, two women with the organization, Amparo Ambiental Chacarita, which, loosely translated, means “Protect Chacarita’s Environment.” We met in a fancy cafe, which they were quick to point out was overpriced and dotted with foreigners.

Listening to them detail their battle against real estate developers was both hopeful — they helped introduce new legislation last year that would scale back the 2018 code — and depressing. The pair showed me how easy it was to use the city’s 3D online app to seek out what blocks of the neighborhood were ripe and legal for building.

Nowydwor, who studied geography at the University of Buenos Aires, has mapped out 300 construction projects in the neighborhood, including 15 houses that have been demolished. Real estate developers have joined tourists in wandering residential streets.

“You see them walking around, ringing doorbells,” said Nowydwor, “telling the residents ‘We’ll pay you 3 million dollars’ for a 150-square-meter property,” the equivalent of about 1,600 square feet. “Then they build 40 apartments and sell them for $200,000 each.” (Properties in Buenos Aires are often sold for cash in American dollars.)

Luckily, they did not throw me and other visitors under the bus.

“The problem isn’t tourism in and of itself,” Azcona said. “It’s that a big part of the city is being thought of and planned for the sake of businesses. And tourism is a kind of business.”

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