This book fills a large gap in the history of twentieth-century Argentine politics. Until recently, historians have focused on the national domain, often to the exclusion of local issues. Likewise, the late nineteenth century and the post-World War II years have attracted the most scholarly attention, leaving the interwar years in relative darkness. Richard J. Walter provides a well-written, engaging, and useful account of municipal politics in a crucial period of urban transformation.

In many ways this is a continuation of James R. Scobie’s classic Buenos Aires: Plaza to Suburb, 1870–1910 (1974) in its sequence and thematic stress. Both Walter and Scobie draw attention to two overarching issues: Buenos Aires precocious physical and demographic expansion, and the constitution of a “commercial-bureaucratic hub for Argentina. But if Scobie was dealing with a city shaped by massive immigration, basic infrastructural challenges (such as the port, which loomed large in his account), and a feverish effort to cast off the image of a provincial capital, Walter’s Buenos Aires faced continuing population growth, increasingly composed of native-born Argentines; serious transportation problems; and a self-conscious effort to evolve from a ciudad grande to a gran ciudad (in the words of one contemporary observer). These challenges and the policies adopted by the city’s leaders gave Buenos Aires an indelible bourgeois stamp. The emergence of the Peronist masses in 1945 would come as a shock.

Walter also tackles a theme scarcely touched by Scobie that adds greatly to our understanding of the first experiment in mass democracy in Argentina. While the city’s intendente (mayor) was a direct appointee of the president, its council, the Concejo Deliberante, was freely elected after 1918. As such, the council was the arena for vibrant and heavily contested elections, which Walter narrates closely and supports with a very useful statistical appendix compiling hitherto unpublished data.

During most of the period covered, the Unión Cívica Radical and the Socialist Party jousted for supremacy. On one level, this generated sweeping debates about public policy and led to decisions that would alter the urban landscape irrevocably while at the same time enjoying strong popular legitimacy. On another level, according to Walter, electoral battles could foil effective decision making, especially on the transportation policies of the sprawling metropolis; councils rarely were dominated by majority parties, and often locked horns with intendentes. Indeed, it was ultimately the council’s refusal to abide by the authoritarian style of one of the most important intendentes, Mariano de Vedia y Mitre, during the década infame (1930s) that exposed all the limits and failures of Argentina’s first democratic experiment. That standoff culminated in the council’s dissolution in 1942 by the arch-conservative president Ramón Castillo, whose threadbare concern for democracy set the stage for the 1943 military coup.

Readers looking for a history of workers, women, or neighborhood popular culture will find little in this book. Walter warns at the beginning that those are not his concerns. Instead, he offers fascinating chapters on the flourishing bourgeois culture of the city, evinced in its architecture, parks, avenues, and concern for gentrified leisure activities. But one wonders—especially given what would erupt in the 1940s—how the less privileged met the challenges of everyday life. For instance, Walter refers occasionally to the Semana Trágica (the week of bloody repression of working-class communities in 1919), and notes that many of the early intendentes were members of the National Labor Association or the Patriotic League, which spearheaded the reaction. But a full account either of the events or their repercussions—which, as the author himself sometimes intimates, would shape the elite’s determination to reinforce the capital’s bourgeois identity—is missing.

Walter charts local political processes with clarity and engagement, concluding with some lessons that can be learned from this initial experiment in partial municipal democracy. The prime source of counterproductive tension was the nonelected nature of the executive, squaring off against elected legislatures. The sooner the intendente is subjected to popular ratification the better. In light of recent scandals, we can only hope this book is read and appreciated by Argentina’s current leaders.