Argentina Buenos Aires

El Zanjón* / San Telmo

It is surreal to me that I would be living on the primero piso of a conventillo on Calle Defensa where nuns once nursed those dying of cholera in the 1800s. This is one of 500 tenement houses in the San Telmo barrio. We are situated between the Edea Galeria (where last August I had a foto exhibition) and another gallery. These buildings all seem to be connected by underground tunnels. Tunnels have only been excavated to the north of us – all the way to calle Chile – thanks to the Zanjón project.

When Jorge Eckstein purchased the property at Defensa 755 in 1985 he had a dream of opening a restaurant and an art gallery. He entered his new building through a window on the first floor because the garbage was piled up higher than the front door on the main level from the deterioration and settling of debris of the building. The floor had collapsed revealing an underground cistern from 1830. Further exploration revealed underground tunnels and caverns. Imagine having to remove over 1,000 tonnes (137 x 8-ton truckloads =1096) of other people’s trash from your basement.

Two blocks away is Avenida Paseo de Colon where once was the shore of the Rio de la Plata. The river has receded by about three kilometres over the years. There are channels beneath the ground – open sewers that were once a source of infection – specifically cholera and yellow fever. Wealthy San Telmo inhabitants moved to Recoleta but the poor remained and many died. The channels were bricked up and built over top of.

Opened to the public in 2003, el Zanjón took almost 20 years to restore. Although undoubtedly an important historical site, the el Zanjón de Granados project has received no government funding. It seemed it would not be a politically astute move for Mayor Macri, who intended to run for president of Argentina at the time, to toss money into ‘the ditch’. So, Eckstein continues to provide for his own passion and sharing it with the public by operating tours of the site and renting it out for private functions. Often the now beautiful space remains empty – as does his other property across the street.

Many restaurants have found tunnels in their cellars but can’t afford to excavate and explore them. Although it’s only a rumour that dead bodies were found during the clean-up … it’s hard to really know what lies beneath the cobblestones of San Telmo.

There are spirits lurking about. There are ghosts in the walls, and there is an uneasiness in the street as dawn illuminates the fact that it’s time to end the party and return home to sleep most of Sunday away. The day crew will soon be securing their locations as the street closes to vehicle traffic and opens to pedestrian traffic. The Sunday San Telmo street fair will begin right outside our window.

*El Zanjón means ‘big ditch’ in English.