Buenos Aires Artery Is a Place to Watch Your Toes

It takes pedestrians in Buenos Aires more than two minutes to cross Avenida 9 de Julio, said to be the widest city street in the world. Rival Brazil makes a competing claim, but 9 de Julio has more lanes. Merchants sell wares on the many pedestrian islands.
It takes pedestrians in Buenos Aires more than two minutes to cross Avenida 9 de Julio, said to be the widest city street in the world. Rival Brazil makes a competing claim, but 9 de Julio has more lanes. Merchants sell wares on the many pedestrian islands. (By Monte Reel -- The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

BUENOS AIRES In the two minutes and 20 seconds or so that it takes to cross "The Widest Avenue in the World" -- a contested title that will be defended below -- the fortunate pedestrian might notice some or all of the following:

· The faint whiff of burning incense.

· Ten dogs on one leash.

· A man rowing a boat on dry ground.

· The digitized chirping of imaginary birds.

This is Avenida 9 de Julio, the often-clogged artery that runs through the heart of Argentina's capital. Downtown, the avenue stretches across 16 lanes of traffic -- and in some places balloons to several more, counting corollary streets that run immediately alongside in places. It is divided by pedestrian islands in the middle, and crosswalks interrupt the avenue at each block.

"You just have to respect the traffic lights," said Maria Rosa Lannes, 64, preparing to cross at its hyperkinetic intersection with Corrientes Avenue at about 10 a.m. "That's the most important thing."

Possibly. But before the lights even come into play, you have to respect the curb. Stand beyond the line of the curb -- even one step -- and your toes are asking for it. The aggressively efficient drivers of Buenos Aires make the most of each traffic lane, customarily ignoring the painted lines and jamming their cars and trucks into whatever spaces they can.

The spaces where they can't are where the motorcycles go.

When the "walk" sign lights up, the rush of pedestrians trying to make it to the other side begins. Not all the way to the other side, of course. That would be a fool's quest. They just want to get to an island in the middle, then wait for the next stoplight cycle.

On Wednesday, Matias Medina, 22, was a pedestrian on a mission: to get the 10 dogs tethered to his leash across the street without incident. He is one of the city's many professional dog-walkers, and his reputation depends greatly on the safety of his charges. "It's not easy," he said, pausing at the curb with his panting crew. "To be a dog-walker here is a job, for sure."

Speaking of jobs, the intersection is a hotbed of them. When the traffic stops, people such as Javier Cocero, 39, wade out among the stopped cars holding advertisements for magazines and radio stations on large boards. Others hawk wares from notebooks to electric doorbells, including one model that makes a sound like a chirping bird.


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