I grew up in the Western suburbs of Buenos Aires, where I went to school and played field hockey as a teenager. Many of the places I needed to go to were within walking distance except the club, which was a short bus ride away. Going to downtown Buenos Aires, “el Centro,” about 22 kilometres away, was a big adventure and a treat.
Our parents occasionally took my three siblings and me to the Los Angeles movie theatre, which showed Disney films only. The cinema was located in “el Centro,” on Corrientes Avenue. We would drive to Once neighbourhood, park the car and take the A line underground at Plaza Miserere station, usually on a Saturday evening.
We always sat at the front of the first car, next to the driver’s cabin. We loved the thrill of looking out the front window, the tunnel lights flashing past and the darkness beyond, its musty smell a mixture of metal and grease. It was such an exciting treat for us suburban kids.
Years later, I took the same line to work. It wasn’t so much fun trying to hop on a crowded car during then morning rush hour. At the time, the original wood cars were still in use. I liked them better than modern ones. These elegant Belgian cars harked back to a by-gone era when people followed public transport etiquette to the letter, men wore suits and hats and ladies wore hats and gloves. In January 2013, these Belgian cars –manufactured by Le Brugeoise- were deemed unsafe and replaced by modern ones.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the population of the city of Buenos Aires experienced an enormous growth. Therefore, the number of people riding public transport and driving cars grew exponentially. Something needed to be done to order traffic. Thus, in 1909 the Anglo-Argentine Tramway Company was authorized to build and exploit the first underground line, the A line. Construction began in September, 1911 and the first section was opened in December, 1913.
The other lines (B, C, D, E and Premetro) were gradually added throughout the century. The H line is being built right now. The lines fan out from a central point, Plaza de Mayo, like the fingers of a hand, and cover a big area of the city, although not nearly a big enough one to serve the millions that live and work there.
What I like about the underground stations is the wall art. The murals were designed by different established artists or based on the work of well-known Argentinean artists. Some murals depict the area the station is in or are related to the name of the station itself, like the portraits of tango legend Carlos Gardel in the eponymous station (B line.) The stations on the A line have beautiful wrought iron railings and period light fixtures. I read somewhere that each station has stripes of a different colour to help illiterate people find the right station.
Happy birthday, Subte*!
*Subte is short for subterráneo (Spanish for underground) and that is how the service is called in Buenos Aires. If you’re trying to find an underground station, ask for the nearest “estación de subte.”