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Seeking Other Urban Possibilities: Community Production of Space in a Global South City image
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This work reflects on certain ways of producing space through hybridization of some global urban development trends and some local cultural expressions. Its purpose is to contribute to the conception of models of urbanization that make participation something more than a subordinated inclusion, whose aspiration is not to assimilate and dominate the other’s potentialities, but to collectively produce a city as a ‘meeting place’ where its value in use becomes a priority. Here, we study the process of occupation, eviction, dispossession, and concealment of two experiences of production of urban space in a Global South city: Rosario (Argentina). We focus on the Paraná River waterfront, the home of two collective subjects: okupas (Spanish word for squatter) and local artisanal fishermen. Both communities presented alternative ways of producing and imagining urban space and brought up the need to generate differences from the corporate tendencies that commodify the city, its culture, and its ways of life. They also collectively came up with new forms of producing and sharing knowledge in order to strengthen their self-organized communities. Through their practices and everyday resistance, they showed alternative possible paths and futures in a genealogy and a cartography of the urban present.

right to the city, production of space, occupation

By Diego Roldán and Sebastián Godoy


Historically, cities had harbored multiplicities (Soja, 2008). Diverse groups and individuals move continuously through urban spaces in trajectories that contemporary governmentality tries to read and codify. Sometimes, in the margins of governmental territoriality, illegible segments of the multiplicities emerge. They operate in a chaotic way in the eyes of power and become difficult to codify. The illegibility of certain practices and ways of life exposes the blind and weak spots of governmentality. The eye of power tends to disarticulate these forms of subjectivity, which considers non codifiable (Deleuze and Parnet, 1980). Every ‘administration is combined with a process of elimination’ but, through the refinement of government technologies, ‘progress allows an increasing number of these waste products to be reintroduced’ (De Certeau, 1984: 94-95).

In the case of Rosario, the second most important port city in Argentina, such logic can be found in the requalification process carried out through urban planning in its central shore (Figure 1). Since the inauguration of Centro Cultural Parque de España (CCPE) in 1992, the north and central portions of the shore entered a process of recovery and valorization. The old port and railway infrastructures were gradually replaced by new architectural modules. This operation combined heritage features, cultural institutions, gastronomic businesses, modern public spaces and high-end residential areas. From this miscellany of forces, interests, and uses guided by the convergence of urban and strategic planning and private developers, a waterfront in process of consolidation emerged. The shoreline of Rosario features temporarily discontinuous and spatially unequal interventions. The resulting multiple fragments are sutured by a line of public spaces. In this article, some of the visible threads of that urban seam are analyzed.

Figure 1. Aerial view of the central shore

Its conflicting nodes are tied by a double logic of erasure and recomposition that affects two kinds of ‘waste products’ in the area. The first kind is material: the remnants of the old railway and port interface of the city, mostly subjected to recycling and architectural heritage conservation. The second kind concerns the subjects and cultural practices that inhabit those infrastructures and their surroundings.

In this case study, two communities will be addressed: Rosario’s okupas and artisanal fishermen. Both can be considered as segments of urban multiplicities that governmentality tries to (re)encode. On the one hand, the okupas (squatters) –a diffuse cultural group concentrated in a bounded space– transformed an old railway warehouse into a cultural center fuelled by performing arts. On the other hand, a group of fishermen practiced a craft activity that contrasted with the fishery extractivism of large meatpackers and fish gatherers. They made the ravine of the Paraná River their place of socio-economic (re)production. The first ones were evicted in 1998 and the second ones almost ten years later (2007): both events are framed in a process of deployment of urban strategic planning devices on the central shore.

The cultural practices of these groups will be studied in this paper, focusing on their alternative features in relation to hegemonic urban culture. A reflection on the conditions that prevented both sets of practices from being totally codified by the municipality will be carried out. In addition to the common outcome of eviction, some links between these communities will be sought. This work aims to highlight differences and similarities as it tries to establish a counterpoint to the logic of heritage enhancement and selective valorization of the local government: a policy that focuses on the materiality and the value of the real estate market and neglects non-profitable social practices.

Field work was done separately. Each of us visited one of the communities and carried out in-depth interviews. In the case of the okupas, we could only resort to the memories of the original members who agreed to the interviews, whose lives are certainly different today. The fishermen offered an intermediate condition. Although their settlement on the central shore has declined, our informants –Nelson and Orlando– still reside in the area. This raises a hybrid situation. On the one hand, there is an evocation of community and resistance as facts belonging to a historical experience. On the other hand, the ruins of this experience continue active in the memory of the few artisanal fishermen who still inhabit the central bank. Thus, the work methodology combines ethnographic work, anthropological hermeneutics and some fragments of oral history. Besides, it relies on official documents and journalistic material related to the life of both communities and their conflict with the local administration.

The okupation

In Rosario, during mid-1990s, public space concentrated most of youngsters’ recreational activities. Towards 1996, several groups frequented the area comprised by the parks España and Colectividades. Some were looking for a place to meet and forget about their daily routines. Others, practitioners of the now called ‘Urban Arts’, found there a space for rehearsing, perfecting, and sharing their knowledge. Finally, there were those who observed the practices and exchanged information on events such as concerts and parties. The multiplicity of origins and interventions started an interaction circuit that became increasingly wider and thicker.

This kind of instinct came: ‘let’s get together, go to the park, let’s rehearse, let’s have some mates and you tell me what your group is about’. It was the only possibility (‘Pato’).

Among the multiple activities, the most striking and popular was the Fiesta del Fuego. It was a weekly gathering of people between fifteen and twenty-five years old in Parque España, on Sunday evenings. The purpose of this event consisted in sharing and mixing various performating arts such as dancing, singing and juggling. Circus and murga –two of the main disciplines displayed there– involved various handcrafted objects. After the sunset, the attendees would add fire to their performances with kindled juggling pins and igneous forms made by the effect of spitting kerosene trough torches. The light of the fire and the sound of drums created a sensorial effect that indicated the place of the Fiesta to the attendees. This space was ‘not owned by anyone, but appropriated by everyone’ (Pablo T. Hereinafter PT). The crowd was spontaneous and occasional. The gatherings, horizontal and autonomous. Sustained by the nomadic subjectivity of its participants, this eventual public space seemed stripped of all materiality.

Due to its almost absolute openness, the festive space could not shelter the only material it needed. The various objects –drums, juggling pins, stilts, and kerosene– had to be brought from the participant’s homes and returned there by the end of the activity. Some of the attendees began to explore the possibility of creating a more protected and stable space to house objects, people, and practices. Another cultural group adhered to this idea: the punk rock adepts. Like the participants of the Fiesta, they used to wander around parks and exchange information on events as well as homemade objects: music cassettes and fanzines.

Both groups laid their eyes on an old railway warehouse as a possible gathering place. Located north of Parque España and consisting of two contiguous structures, the building allowed to replicate the free space of the Fiesta in a protected way. The punk rockers added another demand: to have a place for concerts. The space met the expectations of the heterogeneous cultural group. On January 2, 1997, the building was occupied.

We had been targeting the warehouse for a while but never broke into it. We used to hang out next to it. It was behind a wall of tall grass, abandoned, and dirty. One day we finally made it inside. We began cleaning it and some decided to make it their home (‘Chachi’, hereinafter C).

About ten of them entered the building. In three hours, the first okupas were settled (Figure 2). At its peak, the building came to have several common spaces and increasingly differentiated areas. In one of the structures, a painting room and a dancing room were installed. In the other, there were ‘the bar, the Heaven [a mezzanine where a rehearsal room was set up], the Air, [another mezzanine] and below the Sky, of course, Hell burns’ (Rolling Stone, 08/1998). Some areas were destined for common use, while others were ‘okupied’ as ‘bedrooms’. A heterogeneous stream of modes of intervention, usufruct, and inhabiting persisted throughout almost two years of occupation. Although there was a core of semi-permanent inhabitants that changed periodically (between the homeless and runaways), not everyone involved in the experience lived in the warehouse. Some middle-class youngsters went there to participate in the activities and then returned to their parents’ homes and school routines.

Figure 2. Main entrance of the Galpón Okupa

The local experience explored a bond with the wider world of squatters. In the anarchist library Alberto Ghiraldo, a group of artists and activists discussed different libertarian experiences. Some of them approached the okupas with the documentary material of Minuesa’s squat in Madrid (1988). This process had been guided by the claim of housing rights and had very dense levels of organization and politicization. The anarchist activists tried to give ‘political and counter-cultural content’ to the local occupation (‘Faca’). However, the okupas stated that they had broken with the norms of capitalist society and were not going to submit to a new set of rules.

The situation in Rosario was different from the one in Madrid. Most okupas acted ‘instinctively and without knowing what was happening in other places’ (PT). They had no clear goals or foresight. Their first activity consisted in spending time, enjoying leisure and sharing anything that could be passed from hand to hand: cigarettes, beers, and food. At the same time, they had to resist the first wave of police threats, ranging from standard warning procedures to violent night actions performed by undercover agents.

After the first months, with the settling of its inhabitants, the warehouse became a cultural center. Their occupants named their home Galpón Okupa or Centro Kultural Independiente. Under this new form, it started offering free or ‘a la gorra[1] workshops to the community. The artistic nature of the Okupa separated it even further from European squatting experiences, more focused on housing needs and political demands (Cattaneo and Martínez, 2014). Dozens of instructors conducted workshops in the Galpón. With the fresh memory of the Fiesta del Fuego, most of the learning spaces focused on circus arts. The disciplines taught there included guitar, dancing, handcrafting, painting, and chess lessons.

Besides the variations between those who inhabited and those who visited the Galpón, there were also different ways of intervention. The heterogeneity of the space allowed its multiplicity. Some social movements, political groups, and Human Rights organizations held assemblies and gave talks in the Okupa. The Red de Solidaridad con Chiapas approached the space when the first news of police violence surfaced. They did not know what an ‘urban squatting’ was (Pablo, hereinafter P). Once they met the okupas and their activities, Pablo and Amalia (hereinafter, A) began attending a handcraft workshop while holding assemblies –Zapatism main tool– to organize resistance strategies against future eviction attempts. The Galpón became an experimental space not only for art but also for imagining and practicing a horizontal self-organization:

The attractiveness of it was its heterogeneity. It felt like home. We thought that when things calmed down, we would begin to work on a cultural project: teaching different techniques that you wouldn’t learn anywhere else, building a self-organized community, and restoring the building (A).

However, in addition to their general rejection of rules, the okupas assimilated the assemblies to the party politics they detested. Rosario’s squat was animated by a strong anti-system vocation. Its members rejected the attempts of politicization undertaken by both the anarchists of Ghiraldo’s library and the Red’s Zapatistas. Thus, the Okupa discarded the examples of European and Latin American self-organization as a model. The local experience was build and reenacted continuously through everyday practice. Its short-term objectives were ‘to resist any order imposed on it’ (PT). This prevented the entry of any organizational ideology.

The everyday practice of the Okupa was organized in various activities. During its heyday, it functioned continuously. The first days of the week were destined for workshops and meeting. Thursdays, for plays and film series. Fridays and Saturdays were the time for live concerts, the most popular activity. Finally, Sundays were spent cleaning, cooking and sleeping. Towards mid-1998, live music made the Okupa famous among youngsters in Rosario. About seventy-five concerts took place there, performed by hundreds of bands. The genres displayed covered punk, metal, circus music and different varieties of rock.

Although renting the sound systems was expensive and there was ‘always the danger of something falling on you’ (‘Zalo’), the organizers remember the Okupa experience as an interesting moment in the local music scene. By then, the Centro Kultural rearranged its facilities to house about three hundred people per concert. A ‘three-floor stage was built in the main area’ (C) by one of the circus bands and a modest light system was set up. From bands of national importance to some guests from Mexico and Spain, the groups that passed through the old railway complex always enjoyed playing in a clandestine place. Multiple artistic practices came together in the Galpón. Juggling, punk rock, circus, and visual arts started to merge. Gradually, the disciplines practiced there lost their ‘pure’ forms. The space allowed circulation, hybridization, and experimentation. A ‘semi-permanent cast’ of street performers took shape while circulating between the Okupa, public spaces and bars. These groups relayed heavily on physical dexterity and histrionics.

Some really good street shows came out of this fusion. People knew that they could always find something to watch and enjoy in the parks during the weekends. We presented shows on Saturdays and Sundays and trained during the weekdays (‘Tati’).

The Okupa meant a new form of existence for many of its members. It granted them a freedom that had to be underpinned by permanent work. The self-maintenance in a horizontal and marginal place implied a repertoire of ‘technologies of the self’ supported by the body. Each okupa had to learn to ask for food in bars and bakeries, to stand a poor self-hygiene, and to live with a heterogeneous and unpredictable stream of people. The main difficulty laid in mediating between the individual and the collective. In a space without rules and lots of people, conflicts appeared. There were daily frictions around the dynamics of freedom and leisure.

‘This place exhausts you […] you have to live with nineteen different people who don’t think like you but are as selfish as you. The problem is that there are people who occupy the place but don’t take care of it or themselves […] Leisure consumes them’ (Rolling Stone, 08/1998).

While many worked to maintain and improve the place, others simply spent their days dirtying and consuming, without contributing to the collective work. It was impossible to force anyone to do anything since the Galpón was stripped of rules. This caused wear and tear between several okupas. The two main conflicts –the anti-ideological one and the coexistence one– became evident in the second year, when they received new members who had witnessed the European squatter experience.

We had discussions about what being an okupa meant and whether squatting in Latin America needed an ideological and counter-cultural component as European squats or had to have its own characteristics, a more artistic approach (P).

As there was no explicit project, there were differences among the okupas about what to do and how to live in the Galpón. Many ‘valuable people’ left. They did not understand the nature of the squat: ‘squatting was not enough, the space had to be won’ (C). Thus, the Okupa lost the critical mass it needed to resist the external pressures. ‘Resist’ was written on the skin of several of its inhabitants and on some of its walls. This resistance had a limit. During a year and a half, the local government attempted to evict the Galpón six times. However, the structure belonged to an administrating agency of railway assets (ENABIEF). On June 29, 1998, a Federal Judge issued an eviction order. A local lawyer and the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH) took the case and requested an extension. For the okupas, the local authorities had ‘washed their hands’: they acted as if they owned the property.

‘For a year or so we were negotiating in good faith with second-line officials believing that the municipality was the owner of the warehouse. We knew nothing of this until one day a delegation from the federal court came […] in the meantime, they made us wander through dozens of offices’ (Página 12, 12/08/1998).

The order was postponed until August, when the National Gendarmerie evicted the Okupa. The operation was fast and efficient. The remaining few okupas avoided any confrontation and abandoned the building when threatened. They said to the press: ‘There was no physical violence, but we were pressured by the way they came armed and equipped’ (La Capital, 08/13/1998). They camped outside the building for a few days as a requiem for their cause and their lost space. Finally, they scattered.

In a few weeks, the municipality took charge of the property. The first Strategic Plan (PER 1998) –presented during the conflict and inspired by Catalan designs– provided for the recreational and cultural recycling of the old railway facilities located next to the Paraná. The PER aimed to consolidate Rosario as a ‘pole of cultural attraction` (El Ciudadano, 10/30/1998). In addition, it called for the ‘cultural industry’ to be promoted through ‘public and private initiatives’ (PER 1998: 256). The CCPE had pointed the way six years before: to produce singular spaces distributed along the central shoreline that function as cultural centers open to the public, with the help of private investment.

Following the PER guidelines, the building was given to the Academia del Tango. Despite the lack of sponsors, Casa del Tango was inaugurated in October 1998. The lack of private investment and the insolvency of the public sector delayed its definitive opening for six years. With musical and audiovisual proposals, Casa del Tango replicated part of the spirit of the CCPE, adding a bar and a restaurant (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Casa del Tango

When Casa del Tango was inaugurated, the history of the Okupa was still recent. A month before the eviction, the news of the suicide of María Soledad Rosas, a young Argentine woman who lived in a squat in Turin, shook the national media (Caparrós, 2006). Journalists sought to amplify the biography on Rosas and went after her ‘Argentine cousins’ (Clarín, 08/30/1998). In that search, the okupas from Rosario appeared. By then, they were the only ones resembling European squatters. The national media invaded Rosario. Given their sudden visibility, the okupas attempted to publicize the cultural activities carried out in the Galpón. They did not talk about housing deficits or social demands: they preferred to emphasize culture, art, and collective creation open to everyone. Images of the Okupa and its inhabitants were replicated in newspapers, magazines and television screens. Active and mobilized, the okupas organized open talks and ‘ollas populares[2]. Those were their last acts of resistance.

However, this process of dispossession was marked by incomprehension. Local officials never understood what was happening in the Galpón, why some people lived there when they could live somewhere else, and why others visited it with such sense of belonging. Officials tried them like indigent:

A social worker and three municipal officials came. They tried to negotiate with us as they would with a family in a slum: they offered us some sheets and mattresses to convince us to leave. But they found a lot of strange people from different backgrounds, some educated, a heterogeneity. The okupas stood before them and began providing a bunch of arguments that absolutely dislocated them. Speechless, the officials left in anger, without finishing the mediation (P).

The okupas were part of the urban cultural fabric but, at the same time, they broke with it. They fed on the remains of the old railway and port city but produced something new with them. The horizontality was debated between the individual and the collective. They were and they were not a community. They were and they were not sons and daughters of a peripheral postmodernity. They had no codifiable demands. They were the illegible in the urban flow.

The municipality had integrated other autonomous experiences to it cultural organizational chart in a much gentle way. The Municipal School of Urban Arts (EMAU) was located south of the former Okupa. It used to be also occupied by artists but, in this case, the local government hired them and transformed that place into an official school for urban arts. Some former okupas were gradually hired as well to perform as circus artists in various official cultural projects. However, the Galpón Okupa and its activities were not included in the cultural and urban revitalization plans indicated by the PER. Significantly, the municipality assimilated several of the artistic languages, but preferred to substitute the space that made them possible with a ‘House of Tango’. Perhaps this happened because these practices had emerged from a logic that was in the antipodes of the mercantile culture supported by Strategic Planning (Peck, 2015). Self-organization, horizontality, resistance to urban rhythms, and non-monetized circulation of knowledge and objects, were not codifiable for neoliberal governmentality. The condition of possibility of this illegibility was that the Galpón Okupa had been the point of gravitation of hybrid languages. These cultural formations had been incubated through fortuitous encounters forged in streets and parks. There, a group of subjects invented an alternative space whose culture could exist without industries, planning, and strategies.

Artisanal fishermen and the shore

The fisherman tends to talk about the river as a part of his life, an extension of his body. In his cosmovision, there is a kind of symbiosis between him and the environment. The riverside where he moors his canoe and keeps his gear and nets is his territory, his dwelling. The fisherman lives there when he is not on the canoe, in the water. The identity of fishermen is defined by their profession, their knowledge, their cultural practices, and their way of life. However, social bonds do not play a major role in their subjective constitution. The fisherman is, at the same time, a man-who-lives-off-the-river and an artisan. His culture rests on a tradition of ‘arts of doing’ (De Certeau, 1980) passed down by generations. Artisanal fishermen weave and make their own nets, and fix and caulk their boats. They know when and where they can find larger amounts and varieties of fish. They know the average size of the different species and even come to make estimates about their rates of reproduction and growth. They scrutinize the movements of the shoals and establish patterns and relations between their displacements and the weather, thermal amplitude, rainfall regime and river floods (Castillo, Baigún and Minotti, 2016). Artisanal fishermen keep the source of their knowledge for themselves. For those outside their culture, the logic behind this knowledge remains hidden. The process of cultural transmission is long, tortuous, and is articulated around specific arts of doing, a practical sense, and the use of specific technologies.

Fishermen vindicate their lifestyle, one that is away from urban social conventions. They speak of an existence linked to nature and establish a relationship of symbiotic implication with the river. Nelson, our key informant, argues that he prefers being hit by the river with a poor fishing day to being underpaid by an employer. He says he is ‘more respectful of the relations among man, river, nature, and fishing devices’ than the ones he could establish in an urban working environment (Nelson, hereinafter N). Due to this artisanal feature that fosters certain individualism, difference, and dispersion, fishermen’s associations and unions are a late phenomenon. They appeared alongside the new corporate actors that threaten to take over the river and its resources: the large collectors and fish cold-storage plants of foreign capital. On the other hand, some less explicit antagonists are the development of new environmentally invasive infrastructures (Rosario-Victoria Bridge and the Hidrovía dredging), sport fishing, the immoderate expansion of water sports, and new recreational uses of the river.

These transformations had a negative impact in small fishing communities: the reduction of maneuver space within the river and –specially– its shores. This concatenation of events that cornered fishermen activity and threaten to displace them definitively from the riverside of Rosario, boosted an accelerated process of production of a collective identity. Such identity is expressed in terms of social antagonism and through narrative-political mechanisms. In this construction, dispossession of the territory and the resistance to sustain an alternative way of life conformed two strong cardinal forces.

Local fishermen produced an oral chronicle of the historical development of their identity and their cultural-artisanal practices, whose main stage is the shore. Its pulse is marked by a ‘long-time occupation’ and by recent episodes of dispossession (N). The mythological history dates back to the XIX century, a period prior the development of the port of Rosario. Its empirical verifications are as difficult as unlikely. It is clear that these fishermen want to claim that their occupation of the shore is almost as old as the existence of the city. This kind of longue durée would allow them to dispute sense and territory with the urban mass that has grown behind the shoreline. The story emphasizes that the north and central shores configure the stage of the historical occupation of the fishermen and legitimates their prerogatives over the territory.

Forty years ago, a history of dispossession started in this landscape. The first method of eviction was subtle and indirect: the installation of sport fishing clubs in the central shore. These new associations surrounded the old docks, developed new infrastructures and limited the areas for the mooring of fishing boats. Shortly afterwards, in the north shore, urban interventions developed in the context of the last military dictatorship were added to the existing clubs. Between 1977 and 1978, numerous fishermen’s huts were demolished with identical doses of firmness and impunity. The reconquest of the riverside involved the violent dispossession of the fishermen. By the end of the 1970s, this space possessed strategic value: it was located near the Rosario Central stadium, one of the venues of the XI World Soccer Championship, Argentina 1978. In the 1960s, the government intended to beautify the Paseo Ribereño. The dictatorship and the World Cup made those technocratic and authoritarian urban projects possible.

Nelson links that first modernization of the northern shore to the current renovation of the central shore. In his evocation, the increasing use of the banks and the river as public and recreational space appears as the force that organizes a cycle of loss of fishermen’s territory. This process culminated with the virtual disappearance of free mooring points for their canoes. According to Nelson, fishing clubs encourage marinas designed for recreational purposes that respond to the purchase power of their potential owners. Currently, the clubs do not offer any affordable mooring space for the fishermen and have remodeled their settings to add gastronomic activities. These clubs were one of the first steps for privatizing Rosario’s riverside space. Formerly, the shore was a common good, intervened by port areas, railroads, and the northern clubs. Now, it configures a space privatized by the real-estate market.

In Rosario the fishermen have less and less space, while receiving more and more demands. The marinas cannot be afforded by a fisherman […] In fact, Rosario lacks space for the amount of boats it has, there are too many vessels and no place for mooring them. That’s why they abuse and charge unrealistic prices for renting a place (N).

In addition, artisanal fishermen are not welcomed in the clubs that encourage sport fishing. Because of their pace of work and their lifestyles, they became a disruptive element in the social life of riverside clubs. Some of them go to sleep very early, while the sun is still on the horizon and, before dawn, they are already up and throwing their nets. Others leave at dusk and leave their nets in the river to pick them up at dawn. Each one has a different explanation for his pace of work, involving the river itself, the itinerary of the shoals, the habits of the fish and –to a lesser extent– their preferences. In any case, they are who ultimately decide the cadences and intensities of their work. There are no entry or exit times, nor regulated work.

Fishermen cannot be in the clubs because they give a bad image. They walk with nets at any time of the night and work according to their culture and their customs. They have no employer, no schedules, and no accountability. They only relate with their tools and the river (N).

A double logic can be observed in the first appropriations of the shore by the sport fishing clubs. On the one hand, there is an expropriation of the mooring space and the place of residence. On the other, and in a complementary way, the dispossession of the means and the way of life of fishermen can be detected. This tendency was radicalized with the remodeling of the shoreline in the 1990s. The process began with Parque España, continued with Parque de las Colectividades (where the okupas were evicted), and found its climax in the renovation of the area that goes from Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MACRO) to Puerto Norte (Scarpacci, 2014). The path of interventions followed a south-north direction. The whole process relied on a waterfront capable of producing a wide but specific real-estate surplus. This fact limits the conditions of settlement of the fishermen in the central shore area. The lack of stable and safe terrain implied a difficulty for the reproduction of the artisanal fishing culture. The official narrative of urbanization and recovery of the riverside as public space inevitably clashes with the narrative of dispossession of the fishermen.

Until a decade ago, a good number of fishermen settled down inferior portion of the central shore’s ravine. This location established a relationship of full visibility between them and the river that, at the same time, made them invisible to the rest of the city. Nelson lives in this hidden territory (Figure 4). His permanence is the result of a legal struggle rather than a political recognition of the right of occupation of the land and the preservation of the cultural universe associated with artisanal fishing. Until 2007, a total of eighteen houses were located there. One of the evidences of this battle over the definition of the uses of the central shore is that, nowadays, in the ravine –a spatially disperse but existentially related location– only four houses remain. The other one is that, like the conflict with the okupas, the eviction process was marked by the year of production of an Urban Plan –Plan Urbano Rosario 2007 (PUR) – that projected another phase of the recovery of the shore.

Figure 4. Nelson’s hut

The inauguration of MACRO configured a new form of cultural exploitation of the coast. The museum was built during 2004 on the structure of the Silos Davis of the early 1930s. The conversion of this grain elevator into a museum is in tune with the patrimonial policies of the railroad and port legacy. Despite its public character, MACRO and its design bar seek to align with a family of post-industrial devices, whose Argentinean examples are the MACBA, the MALBA, and the Proa foundation. At another level, it also attempts to express some urban avant-garde artistic forms: a culture of minimalist registry linked with architectural design fully divorced from the activities and cultures of the fishermen that inhabited the ravine (Kokosalakis et al., 2006; Plaza and Haarich, 2009).

After the inauguration of MACRO in February 2005 (Figure 5) , the newspaper La Capital published a note on local fishermen. Its title clarified this cultural and socio-economic confrontation: ‘They live hanging from the ravine, with tin roofs and the most expensive view in Rosario’. One of the central topics of the text was the contrast between fishermen’s homes and the renewed shoreline. The comparison was striking: a small group of hanging, precarious, and pre-modern huts laid next to the simultaneously architectural, minimalist, patrimonial, and postmodern architecture. They seemed condemned to exile and erasure.

Figure 5. MACRO

‘From their houses of tin roofs, they enjoy the same view of the river as the owners of many of the apartments of the area appraised in thousands of dollars the square meter […] They see the Rosario-Victoria bridge and the fireworks shows […] better than the rest of the local population, now that the shoreline is more beautiful than ever’ (La Capital, 02/06/2005).

The condition of possibility of this coexistence in the difference was the invisibility of the fishermen huts. By mid-March 2005, a portion of the docks in Parque España collapsed. To prevent accidents, a court order closed part of the access to the shore. The visibility regime of the fishing communities was altered, and a discourse about the risk that population was facing emerged. An eviction order affected the fishermen’s families (La Capital, 03/17/2005).

Against the attack, the fishermen demanded to be relocated within a radius near the river. Moving them to a remote area would mean leaving them without their main sustenance and the source that gave meaning to their culture. Before the imminence of the transfer, the Public Service of Housing (SPV) intervened. The relocation of the population was agreed on the basis of occasional subsides. Nelson affirmed that the money provided to the families was barely enough to buy a hut in one of the slums of Rosario. Although there were violent evictions and a protest camp, negotiations advanced, the money introduced by the SPV fractured the resistance movement, and some occupants moved. Consequently, the occupation regime of the land varied (La Capital, 03/18/2005).

Two years later, a fisherman’s hut located near the corner of Moreno and Wheelwright streets collapsed. Three people died (La Capital, 03/30/2007). The instability of the ravine was again associated with a discourse on risk. On September 25, 2007, Urban Control and Civil Defense employees, policemen and firefighters went to the place. One family and several residents were taken from the ravine. The deteriorating state of health of a man with HIV was confirmed. The eviction orders were carried out. In the following months, there were more protest tents and demonstrations, opening new instances of dialogue and negotiation. Only four houses, out of a total of around twenty, were once again inhabited by fishermen. The rest was demolished (La Capital, 09/26/2007).

When the evictions occurred, it had been about ten years since the area had begun to be ‘reclaimed’ as public space. Because of the lack of private interest in the shore, there were not major investments. The infrastructure maintenance and repairs were profitable only in the long term, thus it was not seductive for the real-estate market. The leveling of the terrain was barely enough to prevent hollows and floods. Nelson attributes the collapse of the ravine to a history of public neglect over the liminal territory formed by the city, the railroads, the harbor, the ravine, and the river.

The ravine hasn’t been touched since the English reinforced it […] They forgot about the ravine. When the little squares above it were constructed, the drains made by the English were obstructed, the water began to run in another way, wherever it could. Many large ships started navigating nearby because of the dredging of the river and the soy exportation. The ships raise waves in the river that hit the ravine. On the one hand, there are stronger rains and bad drainage: erosion form above. On the other hand, there are many huge ships that raise waves: erosion from below. Sooner than later, the ravine collapses in your face if you don’t do anything. And nothing was done here (N).

According to Nelson, one of the factors that precipitated the erosion of the central ravine was the opening of the shore. He affirms that this ‘construction of little squares’ aims to beautify the city, but does not think of Rosario as a whole. ‘The neighborhoods are still being neglected while, in the shore, the buildings seem to want to pierce the sky’ (N). In addition, Nelson considers that the restoration of the Silos Davis and the implosion –in two phases– of another grain elevator added even more vibrations that destabilized the fragile balance of the abandoned ravine. For him the ‘so-called public space is made for the private investment, while the public is what Perón nationalized of the port and the railroads, which he inherited from foreign private capitals’. In short, for the fisherman the only thing truly public is not the space, but the abandonment and promotion of business.

The permanence of Nelson and his partner Orlando is an exception: its resolution depended on the militancy of both in the APDH and their contact lawyers of that group, who advised them before the judicial injunctions. The rest of the families were evicted and fifteen houses were demolished. Those who left were given monetary compensation. For those who stayed, the area became more inhospitable. The battle for the possession of the land describes a winding road. Those who remained resisted supported by relational, political and legal capitals. Although Nelson and Orlando managed to stay, the assessment they make of their presence in the shore is neither naive nor optimistic. In addition, they know that their culture of artisanal fishing is far from being an element recognized by the authorities.

It was a battle half won. Won because we can have this space and lost because my children who grew up here, will no longer have children to be raised in such a place: this is the last remaining bit of it. In twenty years, if not before, they will try to kick us out again. We are going to resist, because we already did it once (N).

The story of Nelson and Orlando is circular. The narrative of their lives always returns to the starting point: ‘we fishermen are running out of space, we are losing territory’. This is in part consequence of forces and interests that reinvent the river and, in part, due to a certain disorganization of the fishermen as a social group and political actor. But this loss of territory, this deterritorialization that subjects the lives of the fishermen, is also a subtraction of their experience and identity. The process of accumulation by dispossession not only erodes the territory and declines some artisanal economic activities, but also intervenes in a disarticulation of the subjectivities that gave meaning to the symbolic world of the riverbank.

Some officials see the artisanal fishermen as colorful characters, part of a past condemned to disappearance in pursuit of the development of a ‘design city’ integrated to the river by an interface of public spaces. But the fishermen are the product of a way of life that was and is founded on the patient learning of fishing techniques, logics of fish reproduction, location, and diversity of species, carried out within a multiplicity inhabited by oral tradition and practical sense. They express a way of relating to work and the environment from subsistence, primary commercialization, and artisanal technologies. The subjectivity of these fishermen suspends hegemonic socioeconomic relations, questioning the wage relation and the dependency of employers as the only ways of social reproduction. Through relocation proposals and shore rehabilitation plans, the Municipality and the judiciary seem to barely understand –if not completely ignore– these kinds of experiences.


When considering the two communities studied here, the first things that stand out are their differences. On the one hand, the okupas are an emergent of both a culture originated in an incipient ‘peripheral postmodernity’[3] and the remnant infrastructure of the post-railway-and-port-city. Their sociocultural practices constitute a rupture in the urban fabric of Rosario. They were the agent of introduction of Urban Arts. Although the center of their work is in corporeality, the product of that work is immaterial. They were a part of similar movements scattered on a global scale. Their location is more incidental than historical. They played a major role in the introduction of the Urban Arts in the city. On the other hand, the fishing communities are associated with artisanal extraction activities with a long historical bond with the river, the shore, and the ravine. They have a powerful relation with the environment and the territory, while they distrust any subjection to an employer and a salary. Their meaning emerge from a past that functions as a figure to legitimize the territorial appropriation of the ravine. The temporal deployment, the spatial extension, the modalities of inhabiting, and the environment-territory-work relationships are different between the two communities.

As has been shown here, the okupas’ proposal works with the idea of reappropriation of the railway facilities, while their culture is dynamic and a dissident product of globalization. The fishermen claim a more static tradition, like an open-air museum culture. On this level, it is interesting that the okupas were evicted to enable a traditional dance center such as La Casa del Tango, while the artisanal fishermen were dispossessed to enable a contemporary museum like MACRO. Paradoxically, it is from these differences that it is possible to think of the antagonist of these cultures and, from there, the bridge that allows them to meet: the hegemonic political-cultural project of the municipality in favor of rehabilitating the central shore and the asymmetric relations that the judicial, administrative, and post-political powers establish with the residual subjects of this urban renewal (Zizek, 2008). In turn, this project shows two documental objectifications on the eve of the evictions: PER (1998) and PUR (2007). However, both squatters and fishermen are residual subjects of this transformation and their deterritorialization also entails a subjective dispossession. It is an advance of the planning reason on the experimental and traditional modes of subjectivation of the artistic and fishing communities settled in the central coast of Rosario.

Despite the most visible differences, the two studied communities share an individualism in their daily social reproduction and contain a multiplicity. Both have an artisanal mode of production, while they build complex bonds with the city in the form of a distanced dependence. It’s evidenced that this relation occurs more at the level of exchange than in the one of communal production and reproduction. The territorialization of both identities is rooted in an urban and counter-hegemonic margin, their main values are freedom and the alternative, and their localization is an abandoned area of the central shore (a portion of the ravine and a railway warehouse). The narrative construction of their identities is based on antagonism, starting from the production of a vital difference to hegemonic corporate logics and the categories of segregation-exclusion and colonization-inclusion used to categorize them. In both subjects, the leitmotifs of their struggle are anchored in curbing a specific territorial dispossession and the generalized privatization of Rosario’s shore. In the same space, they face the municipality and the corporations. They dispute with the installation of two patrimonial and cultural architectural devices –with different levels of exteriority with the local culture– that were inaugurated almost simultaneously: one linked to certain ‘for export’ neighborhoods of Buenos Aires (Casa del Tango), and another to the abstract and deterritorialized museological devices from the global cities (MACRO).

The municipality, through its post-political governmentality, formulates each measure emerging from a participatory agreement, although that participation is usually limited and specifically oriented. The possibilities of converting that controlled participation into a true and productive political encounter are very narrow (Peck and Theodor, 2015). In general, the topics are pre-established and the consultation for their implementation is made by academic and territorial institutions closely linked with the government. From this freely conditioned governmentality, disruptive initiatives tend to be normalized, included, and disciplined in the designs of controlled innovation. The municipality’s need to create a business environment suitable for real-estate investment has led, in the first place, to the implementation of an infrastructure of public spaces in the central shore that mainly values the terrain and tangentially allows the socialization of citizens. Secondly, it has enabled the configuration of a set of institutions that promote a culture of tango and milonga districts of Buenos Aires (Carman, 2006) and a coolture: a zone where coolness, creativity, and gentrification establish what seems to be the only possible relationship between culture and city, linking conceptual art, performances, and the abstract of American and European museums (Peck, 2015). These policies are the pragmatic effect of a long-term ‘interurban competitiveness syndrome’ ‘affecting municipal authorities and their post-political decisions (Vainer, 2000).

The local government was unable to process the challenge and difficulties posed by two alternative cultures in terms of self-production, self-education, exchange and consumption. Before the two cases –although with a degree of subtlety and growing dilation– the municipality allowed the judiciary to resolve the two occupation situations as a kind of arbiter over the parties. Although in the case of the okupas the eviction was quite exaggerated in terms of deployment of forces, the expulsion of the fishermen and the subsequent demolition of most of their homes were not less violent, despite the economic compensation. However, in spite of the new experiments of local governmentality that follows (post)modern and global criteria, in these two cases and junctures (1998 and 2007) the difficulties were evident. The municipality could not process the challenge of enabling the residual subjects of the rehabilitation of the urban shoreline to become something else than the excluded or the invited of this great cultural, political, and social transformation. Perhaps, outside of the guidelines of neoliberal governmentality, they could be the primordial forces and subjects of an urban planning capable of transforming not only buildings and public space, but the conditions of possibility for the construction of an urban culture based on multiplicity, difference, and the alternative (Deleuze and Guattari, 2002).

End notes

[1] Spontaneous soup kitchens.
[2] ‘pay-what-you-wish’
[3] This concept is a variation of the one that raised by Beatriz Sarlo (1988) overlapped with the arguments of Scenes from Postmodern Life (Sarlo, 2001) and the book about this subject by Kefala (2007).


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About the authors

Diego Roldán (1976, Rosario-Argentina) is PhD in Humanities and Arts (Universidad Nacional de Rosario). He has developed post-PhD studies in Urban Sociology in the University of Texas at Austin. He is member of the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research of Argentina (CONICET in Spanish), Professor of Space and Society in the careers of History and Anthropology in the Faculty of Humanities and Arts (National University of Rosario) and Director of the Center of Urban Cultural Studies (CECUR in Spanish). He has published more than forty articles in scientific international journals and five books. His research is related to urban planning, the uses of public space, the leisure of subaltern agents and the relationships between body and urban spaces.

Sebastián Godoy (1986, Rosario-Argentina) is a PhD Candidate in History (National University of Rosario). He is a Senior Specialist in Education and TIC (Information and Communication Tecnologies) by the Ministerio de Educación de la Nación, Professor of Space and Society in the careers of History and Anthropology in the Faculty of Humanities and Arts (National University of Rosario) and member of the Center of Urban Cultural Studies (CECUR in Spanish). Since 2015 he has a Doctoral Fellowship in the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research of Argentina (CONICET in Spanish). His research subject is the socio-cultural production of urban space through aesthetic-performatic practices.