The Little-Known Gritty Cultural Hub in Buenos Aires
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
You don’t come to ordinary-looking Abasto for an Instagram snap. You come for the spirit.
By Amy Booth
Buenos Aires has plenty of districts distinguished by their splendor, where the lights of extravagant theaters and the masonry of grandiose state buildings line broad boulevards. Abasto is not one of them.
Rubbing shoulders with the neon signs and street hawkers of the Once market district to the east and the attractive stone houses of Almagro to the west, Abasto is a working- and lower-middle-class area. It isn’t one of Buenos Aires’ formal districts, but rather a barrio spread between the districts of Almagro and Balvanera. Its streets are filled with Peruvian cafes, hairdressers and small, practical shops. But what it lacks in ostentatious architecture, it makes up for in culture: Here, there seems to be a cooperative art center, independent theater or craft beer bar on every corner. And that’s despite a troubled Argentine economy.
Abasto, which means “supply” or “store” in Spanish, is named after the Abasto de Buenos Aires, an enormous fruit and vegetable market initially built in the 1890s. Its 1930s facade is a striking art deco structure of immense, concentric arches spanning an entire block. Although the market closed in the 1980s, the building now houses a popular shopping center and the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel, a nod to Abasto’s thriving Jewish community.
Argentina’s periodic economic crises have hit Abasto hard, and it’s known within Buenos Aires as a deprived area — but this, coupled with its central, accessible location, has created the perfect conditions for the burgeoning indie arts scene that exists today.
It’s almost as if Abasto filters out day-trippers who want a quick Instagram snap in favor of those willing to simply explore.
Wandering into the barrio proper, it’s like being transported into suburbs. Porteños (Buenos Aires locals) still in their work clothes walk home past faded advertising billboards. Small bakeries sell bread and facturas, or sweet pastries. In the evenings, young people relax on street corners drinking Quilmes lager. Unlike touristy districts such as San Telmo and Palermo, this is a resolutely residential neighborhood uninterested in making itself pretty for visitors; many of its backstreets are run-down, grimy even. It’s almost as if Abasto filters out day-trippers who want a quick Instagram snap in favor of those willing to simply explore.
And when you do, you’ll find a museum dedicated to Abasto’s famous native: tango legend Carlos Gardel. But probably the largest and best-known fixture is the enormous cultural center Ciudad Cultural Konex, which opened in 2006. Built in a renovated oil factory, its immense patio looks like a cross between a revamped warehouse and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, with an undulating, bright orange staircase and angular, geometric lifts designed by famous Argentine architect Clorindo Testa.
And then there’s Le Troquet de Henry, an outlandish French bar decorated with a mishmash of floor-to-ceiling cartoons and vintage furniture. Yannis Buchot opened the establishment 11 years ago, sensing that Abasto was a zone on the up. “To me, this is the most eclectic barrio in the city,” he says. “You can go to the theater here at 2 or 3 am if you want.” And people do — while the large, showy theaters along Avenida Corrientes can easily charge 1,000 pesos ($24) per ticket, Abasto events typically cost about $5. Some are a la gorra (donation-based).
Around the corner is the Casona Humahuaca, a cooperatively run bar and cultural center with an extensive series of rooms and a lush garden patio. It prints its principles on the menu like a manifesto: “[We] laugh as we work, listen to music that’s good for us, look after our plants and close the street once a year to play and dance.” According to Gustavo Minian, a member of the cooperative, “We work from a perspective of human rights, mental health, recreation and popular culture.” The Casona is emblematic of Abasto in that sense: It cares about, and engages with, its neighbors and the community.
But Minian is worried that Abasto is going through a gentrification process that will see it lose its soul. “Abasto is resisting, but it’s a cultural struggle,” he says. His concern is that as the zone becomes more popular, community-centered projects like the Casona will eventually be forced out by less inclusive, but more lucrative, commercial bars and restaurants. Buchot echoes these concerns, adding that he doesn’t want Abasto to turn into an upmarket, trendy zone like Palermo. Ultimately, though, he is optimistic. “I still believe in the area,” he says. “I have faith.”
The bustling nightlife, neighborhood cafes that haven’t changed in decades and increasingly colorful street corners show that, for now, Abasto is indeed resisting.
Go there: Abasto
- Location: On the Subte (underground system), take the B line to Carlos Gardel. It’s on plenty of bus routes too.
- Places to check out:
- Ciudad Cultural Konex: The famed improvisational percussion group La Bomba de Tiempo plays there every Monday.
- Le Troquet de Henry: The bar hosts everything from poetry readings to vintage game nights.
- Casona Humahuaca: Activities include “theater of the oppressed” workshops, Afro-Uruguayan candombe percussion classes and literary talks. The menu clearly labels vegetarian and vegan options.
- Carlos Gardel’s house: The museum is open every day except Tuesdays.
- Pro tip: Abasto can be sketchy at night — it’s best not to flash your cash or wander off drunkenly on your own.
- Amy Booth, OZY Author Contact Amy Booth