The cobblestone streets of Buenos Aires's historic San Telmo district don't sing only with the seductive sounds of tango music anymore. A local band called Los Alamos plays country-roots rock in rowdy beer bars, featuring the mandolin-picking and harmonica-ripping riffs of former New Jersey high-school teacher Jonah Schwartz. "Nobody here even knows what a mandolin is!" marvels Schwartz, 26.
An invasion of foreign artists is transforming Buenos Aires into an emerging international capital of cultural cool. Like Prague in the 1990s, Buenos Aires offers chic on the cheap and is attracting scores of musicians, filmmakers, journalists, designers and even sitcom writers from abroad. Hundreds, if not thousands, have spilled in from the United States, England, Spain and beyond, helping to bring the capital out of a period of deep cultural isolation after an economic collapse five years ago. Champagne-fueled fashion shows and gallery openings keep the city's glitterati on a 24/7 social schedule. Casting agents scour bars looking for young English or Mandarin speakers for the dozens of foreign commercials regularly being shot in the city. A-list actors like Colin Farrell, Natalie Portman and Benicio del Toro have all vacationed in town recently.
It's been a long time coming. At the start of the 20th century, export-rich Argentina was one of the world's wealthiest countries. Porteños, as the B.A. locals are known, modeled their capital after the great cities of Europe, from where so many of them had come. They built ornate palaces, museums and theaters to host the orchestras, ballet companies and literary societies that had formed, earning Buenos Aires the lofty title "the Paris of Latin America." Even so, remote Argentina was never as culturally central as Paris in the 1920s, when the City of Light was home to such literary figures as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein.
Today, while Buenos Aires has yet to produce an expat artist of world renown, the feel of a happening city is there. American Marina Palmer, who lives in B.A. with her husband, published a memoir in 2005 about her experiences as a foreigner on the tango circuit. "Kiss and Tango" has been snapped up by Hollywood and is awaiting its big-screen adaptation. Music producer Tom Rixton worked with some of the biggest names in British music before moving to Buenos Aires with his Argentine wife to open a boutique hotel and mix music. He now produces tracks for Turf, one of the country's hottest rock bands, which has opened for the Rolling Stones and Oasis. New York designer Amanda Knauer moved to B.A., where she founded QARA, a designer line of high-quality Argentine leather bags and purses. Californian David Lampson used the $50,000 he won on a Bravo TV reality show for aspiring comedy writers to buy an apartment in B.A., where he's hard at work on several sitcom pilots for U.S. television networks. "I imagine the things I am doing now in Buenos Aires will resurface in my writing in the future," he says.
Argentina's turnaround began only after it hit bottom in 2002, when years of financial stagnation culminated in the collapse of the Argentine peso. Suddenly, it became three times more expensive for Argentines to fly to Paris, Milan or New York, and nobody had the money to buy a painting or see a show. Many local artists were forced to flee to Europe, draining life out of the local art scene. The sour mood was underscored by a sense of bitterness toward foreigners, whom many Argentines blamed for the crash.
The crash had a flip side, though. Overnight, Argentina became one of the world's most affordable travel destinations, breaking its isolation. In 2006, more than 4 million tourists visited the country to sip Malbec wine in the Andes, see penguins in Patagonia and dance the night away in Buenos Aires. That compares with 2.9 million visitors in pre-crisis 2000. Today the antiforeign tension of the crisis years has largely faded, as Argentina's economy sails into a fourth straight year of 8 percent-plus growth.
Many of the new arrivals are putting down stakes, taking advantage of low start-up costs to open businesses and immersing themselves in the Porteño lifestyle. The local real-estate market, demolished after the 2002 currency crash, is on the rebound, thanks in large part to foreigners who are snapping up apartments for as little as $1,500 per square meter--a quarter of what property costs in London or New York. Dozens of blogs written by expats enthusiastically tout the good life on offer in B.A. On the popular classifieds site craigslist, the Buenos Aires city page has more listings than Prague, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney and Amsterdam combined. Some 22,000 Americans are currently registered with the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, but there are likely thousands more who are not on record. The British Embassy has 5,000 citizens registered, compared with 3,000 in 2002.
In a country built by immigrants from elsewhere in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East, many Argentines view this recent foreign influx as a colorful new chapter in that story. Local officials don't like to hear that B.A. is hot because it's cheap, but love the fact that it's emerging as an art colony. Not only are foreign artists settling here for the first time, but creative Argentines are returning from self-imposed, post-crisis exile abroad, creating the most vibrant cultural scene the city has ever known.
That atmosphere is encouraging all kinds of cross-cultural collaborations. The Los Alamos band had been playing punk and hard rock before lead singer and guitarist Pedro López met Jonah Schwartz in 2004, days after he had moved to Buenos Aires to "learn another language and try another culture." His bluegrass background intrigued López, who quickly invited the mutton-chopped American to join the band. Schwartz's presence has shifted Los Alamos's sound, blending the styles of Johnny Cash, Neil Young and Wilco into something they call "narco-country." The band's live shows are regular sellouts in Buenos Aires, and its two albums--with songs in both English and Spanish--have drawn rave reviews throughout South America. "That's the important part of playing music for me: to influence the culture that you're part of, rather than just replicating it," says Schwartz. "I do that here."
Some expats take longer to find their place in the cultural scene. When San Francisco native Gavin Burnett, 25, first moved to Buenos Aires in 2004, he was disappointed by the generic downtown music scene. It was only after digging a little deeper that he discovered a bustling underground movement in bohemian neighborhoods like San Telmo and Palermo. Now Burnett works the local circuit under his DJ name Oro 11, mixing American hip-hop with Caribbean reggaetón and Argentine cumbia. "There's music going on here that is completely original and not happening anywhere else in the world," he says. "Expats have a lot to do with that." Most Wednesday nights you'll find him working or hanging out at the über -cool Niceto Club at a party called Zizek , which has become the focal point of the collaborative Argentine/expat musical scene. It is promoted by another foreigner, Texan Grant Dull, who also edits the city's go-to bilingual cultural Web site, WhatsUpBuenosAires.com.
A large number of the recent transplants first got interested in Buenos Aires after meeting Argentines abroad in Europe. In Barcelona, Spanish filmmaker Moisés Torne was struck by the ingenuity and panache of the Argentine immigrants he met who had fled the country's economic meltdown. So when he needed a new place to jump-start his career, Buenos Aires became an obvious choice. Torne, 37, has directed several videos for Argentine musicians and uses Web sites like YouTube and Flickr to market his material worldwide. "Argentina now is like Spain was in the 1980s," he notes. "It is coming out of a period of severe economic depression, and that has created a really restless artistic movement which has encouraged me to stay." That's not all: "Let's face it; it's really cheap, too."
Argentina has a storied film tradition, and in recent years its movies have been gaining international acclaim, winning top honors at the Berlin, Stockholm and Tribeca film festivals. Local critics and directors confess that the economic crisis sparked a series of self-reflective feature films that examine both local and global themes, such as Rodrigo Moreno's "The Guardian," about a bodyguard who subsumes his own identity to the minister he protects, and Jorge Gaggero's "Live-In Maid," about a wealthy woman who loses her fortune--and eventually her maid--in the economic collapse. This creative environment appeals not only to natives but also to foreign filmmakers feeling constricted by Hollywood's conventions. "We felt an immediate connection with Buenos Aires," says Jane Hallisey, a screenwriter and film producer who moved from New York to Buenos Aires in 2003 with her Swiss partner and fellow cinéaste Tomi Streiff, to escape the grim, diminished work environment of post-9/11 New York.
City officials welcome the expatriate influx but insist that factors other than the affordable cost of living are driving the phenomenon. "There are lots of cities that are just as cheap as Buenos Aires," says Silvia Fajre, culture minister for the municipal government. "But this city has an intense cultural rhythm that you just can't find anywhere else in the world, so we're glad that foreigners are taking part." Local artists seem to like it as well; for them the new arrivals can mean a boost in international exposure and sales. "[Foreigners] recognize that something fresh is happening in the arts scene here, and they're really contributing to it," says Argentine painter and visual artist Mariano Molina, 36.
Foreign artists are also laying roots outside the local art scene. Nonprofit organizations like HelpArgentina, the Working World and InsightArgentina were all started by young Americans in Buenos Aires over the past five years. Australian journalist Lucy Cousins and her English colleague Kristie Robinson recognized an untapped market for a socially and environmentally oriented publication. So they started The Argentimes, a biweekly English-language newspaper that debuted in June and has a circulation of 5,000. "We always knew that expats would read it, but we never expected the Argentine readership to be so big," says Cousins, 27. "We get e-mails every day from English teachers here telling us they use the paper as a learning tool. The warm response from the Argentines has been overwhelming." That's the kind of reception every expat craves from her host.