Claypole is only 30 kilometres from the centre of Buenos Aires, but is a world apart. We arrived there by driving through an area of suburban Buenos Aires that could be described as “squalid.” It is near the “Camino Negro” a suitably sinister sounding name for a route that provides a seemingly endless vista of featureless houses. There are no visible trees or any grass. It has changed since I last passed that way a decade ago.
Then it was a wasteland of smoking garbage and filthy plastic bags blowing in the wind. Much of it is still a wasteland now, only it has been planted with squat abodes, some no more than shacks. I put “squalid” in quotation marks because the word is usually employed in a way that suggests the people dwelling in unappealing neighbourhoods are in some way responsible for the lack of amenities. I do not think that for a moment. I am always amazed when, throughout Latin America, from Los Altos in Bolivia to the outlying areas of Lima, Peru, and – indeed when viewing the sprawling Villa 31 from the Arturo Illia motorway in the Argentine capital – I note with admiration how people who start off with nothing manage, through hard work and ingenuity, to build homes of their own.
You can tell just by merely looking at the intricately constructed houses that have sprung up like mushrooms along the railway tracks that the same skills used in the construction of giant apartment buildings and office blocks have been employed here. The only difference is that the dwellings, some as high as four or five storeys, have been constructed from leftover concrete dumped nearby and scavenged materials given a new lease of utility. When we arrived at the beautiful, lucent Claypole cultural centre, El espacio de Debate y Cultura LA CASA, we saw what can be done with a little more, not much more, than the people of the villas have to work with.
For a start, Claypole is a pleasant place, rather like the unnamed pueblo in that gem of Argentine social realism, the film Ciudadano Ilustre. But what a transformation the cultural centre has brought to the town. It is a marvel, a thing of beauty and a joy forever for the people lucky enough to live nearby. Claypole suffers, like so many of the small towns surrounding the metropolis, from neglect and abandonment by the municipal authorities. There are just two paved roads, one very recent. “The authorities do nothing for us,” the Claypoleans told us. “There are no sewers or running water.”
Since its foundation in 2009, the cultural centre had brought art, cinema, music, theatre and even an international jazz festival to a town that lost its only form of entertainment, a parochial cinema, its very own “Cinema Paradiso,” in the mid-1970s. There is an outreach programme to local schools and thousands of children have attended workshops.
Debates are also a regular feature and there was one in September, for example, about the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado. On the night we were there, the auditorium, which seats 120, was packed to overflowing.
Jayson’s film, which had its beginning in Claypole with a donation (and it is justly given credit), tells the story of the Buenos Aires Herald during the dictatorship. There was a debate after the film that demonstrated that there is no crippling divide, no grieta, in this community. Different points of view were aired, of course. But it was a friendly discussion not, as so often is the case, a clash of conflicting hatred.
Claypole is an example of what brings people together. Talking to my wife, one Claypolean said that what she liked about the film was that there was no “fanaticism” in the telling of the story. By fostering culture Claypole has become a middle ground, where coexistence thrives and where respect for human rights and empathy have left no space for hatred. It is an example for all to follow.
More information: www.hecultura.com and www.youtube.com/user/lacasaclaypole