Posts Tagged ‘brazil’
Bruno Carvalho’s Open Democracy essay looks at the impact of the Olympics on Brazilian urbanism as manifested in Rio de Janeiro.
In the mid-1990s, amid a crisis of rampant violence in Rio de Janeiro, an influential Brazilian journalist, Zuenir Ventura, published a book with the title Cidade Partida. The expression could be translated as broken or split city, as if Rio had an integrity that contemporary violence shattered. A more apt translation is an increasingly prevalent phrase used to describe urban conditions in the United States: divided city. Given the striking contrasts between Rio de Janeiro’s upper-class buildings and hillside favelas, it is not surprising that the epithet found broad resonance.
Cidade Partida challenged what was until then Rio’s most recurrent moniker, Cidade Maravilhosa—marvelous or wonderful city. Those familiar with its landscape will find explanations to be superfluous. In the 1930s, when a song about Rio titled “Marvelous City” hit the airwaves, in the 1960s when it became the city’s official anthem, and today, when crowds sing it in unison during carnival, images of Rio’s cultural and natural exuberance come to mind. But the origins of the expression betray another history. “Marvelous City” became popularized in the context of an ambitious, Paris-inspired set of urban reforms early in the twentieth century.
The phrase designated a city becoming modern, whiter, and at long last, as we read often in the press from the period, “civilized.” In this scenario, a more divided city was in fact the goal, with the poor—disproportionately non-white—pushed to the outskirts or incipient favelas, as far as possible from central areas and from view. Led by then-mayor Francisco Pereira Passos, the reforms resulted in the eviction of one-tenth of the city center’s residents. To be sure, part of the goal of the reforms was to remedy a reputation Rio had earned as a “city of death” or “foreigner’s grave,” due to the prevalence of diseases like yellow fever. The Zika virus, in this regard, produces an unmistakable echo of the past. But the notion of the marvelous city of the belle époque as the privilege of a few remained clear to many. The manifesto of a labor group in 1929 mocks the use of the epithet by “literary fops,” drawing attention instead to the dire living conditions of the working classes.
Rio once had the largest urban slave population in the Americas, and the presence of their descendants in major public spaces presented an embarrassment to governing elites. In the belle époque, World’s Fairs and Expos proliferated, and major cities served as arenas where empires and nation states could compete. Not coincidentally, the modern Olympics began in 1896 in Athens, amid this era of proliferating precursors to today’s mega-events. Rio de Janeiro at the start of the twentieth century was the third major port of the Americas, behind New York and Buenos Aires, and the capital of a newfound republic, proclaimed in 1889. The city’s compact colonial fabric, marked by varied and jumbled street life, did not befit national ambitions. The Pereira Passos interventions sought to give an urban form to the positivist ideals of “order and progress,” enshrined in the Brazilian flag. In practice, Rio de Janeiro was to be considered marvelous when undesirables were not around. A divided city was, in fact, a desired outcome of the reforms.
But as students of the past quickly learn, in the history of city planning, the improbable happens often, and the unintended happens all the time. Some spaces envisioned as exclusivist playgrounds for the elites have since become appropriated as sites of democratic congregation and social mixture. In belle époque Rio there were attempts to prohibit those not dressed “decently” from circulating in central areas. Now, these same spaces are periodically occupied by carnival revelers, political protesters or social movements. The dream of a city with central spaces reserved to the rich only partially succeeded. The aspiration of a tropical civilization in the Parisian mold waned, as more relaxed dress codes attest. In later decades, led by Rio, Brazil instead projected a far more original—even if evidently distorted—image as “the country of carnival,” or of “racial democracy.”
In the 1990s, Ventura wrote his Divided City in the aftermath of a massacre, when off-duty policemen killed twenty one people in one of Rio’s poorer peripheral neighborhoods. He spent months in this community to write a book that was bold for exposing Rio’s divisions, or the inner workings of drug traffickers and corrupt police forces, but also for an insistence on valuing the city’s imperiled traditions of circulation and cultural exchanges. Since then, far-reaching infrastructure investments have favored favelas, and in Brazil, major redistributionist policies were implemented without stirring the sort of ethnic animus that we find elsewhere (though there are many discouraging signs). After emerging from a long military dictatorship (1964–85), Brazil appeared to be in an ascendant trajectory, even as its former capital and most visible city lagged behind.