Brazilian counterculture historian Fred Coelho, blogger, DJ and literature professor, urges new encounters
First in a series of RioRealblog conversational nuggets about the transformation of cultural life in the marvelous city.
With eighteen Police Pacification Units installed in the city of Rio de Janeiro over the last two and a half years, the carioca way of life is changing. Those who live on the “asphalt” are climbing the “hill” for dances and parties, while favela residents descend to the bars of the “asphalt”. Is this just some kind of transitory trade– in part “slumming”, the way the glitterati of New York used to go uptown to Harlem in the twenties to hear jazz?
No, says Coelho, who has long kept track of Rio’s musical and visual arts scenes. But, he adds, it’s not enough.
“Encounters between the favela and the formal city have always occurred,” he says. “They’ve always known each other to some extent. What’s got to happen now is a meeting of Zona Sul and the subúrbio, an end to tunnel geography.”
Very few middle and upper class Brazilians have ever been to a favela. It could be argued that contact between asfalto and morro has mostly been restricted to exchanges between servants and employers, to hillside drug purchases and the consumption of music. An exciting new phase of permeability and more egalitarian relations may be underway. More on this in later posts.
But it’s also true that neighborhoods such as Olaria, Engenho Novo, Meier and Cordovil have long been mentally off the map. Coelho recalls that his father never mixed with his coworkers at a downtown export agency, which may have affected his career mobility. “They’d offer him a ride home, thinking he lived in Copacabana or something. When he said Penha, they shrugged.” For South Zone residents, Penha means a ride through the long dark Rebouças Tunnel into unknown territory or along the ever more decrepit Avenida Brasil, or both.
Mostly part of the city proper, Rio’s subúrbios are not desirable tract houses with lawns and garages. Instead, crumbling apartment buildings and small houses shelter working class families whose social circles are far removed from the South Zone. “People use social relations in the South Zone to project themselves,” says Coelho. “In the suburbs, they are for protection.” Rio’s tunnels barricade the two worlds, and the violence of the eighties and nineties intensified the separation. Coelho says that South Zone residents used to limit their forays mostly to summertime samba school rehearsals and soccer games at Maracanã stadium.
Given Rio’s new sense of safety, South Zone folk have now begun to expand their horizons. They may for example visit Cadeg, a North Zone market for flowers and Portuguese products that hosts folkloric Portuguese dancing on Saturdays. In response, the market’s restaurants have grown in number and upgraded their menus.
When Paul McCartney sang last May in a stadium in the North Zone neighborhood of Engenho de Dentro, part of the novelty for many fans was the SuperVia train ride from the Central do Brasil station– a grungy North Zone commuter redoubt.
Coelho points out that the North Zone neighborhood of São Cristóvão has begun to undergo a real estate boom, given its proximity to downtown, its largely untouched nineteenth-century eclectic architecture, and improved security. The area has a great deal of imperial history, which gave way to light manufacturing– and then abandonment– in the last century.
Such a boom could rattle suburban cariocas who tend to exit the suburbs as soon as they’re able. Coelho, who grew up in Penha in the early eighties (where he played street soccer with kids from the neighboring Complexo do Alemão favelas), moved on to Barra (where many North Zone small business owners had weekend apartments) and Jacarepaguá before settling in Jardim Botânico. “The first time I came to the South Zone was with my father, to go to a party with him. That was when I saw my first Atari game.”
The North Zone is a place of botecos (bars), padarias (bakery-coffee shops), small shops, quitandas (grocery stores), and malls, says Coelho. No galleries, cafés, boutiques, cinemas, or museums. “Ask someone from there to produce culture. What frame of reference does he have? This is a place where washing your car on the street while knocking back a few beers is something to do.”
Every city has neighborhoods like this. But Coelho believes that government must invest in equipment that fosters the missing frame of reference, such as the new 3D movie theaters that have come to some favelas. Brazil’s new prosperity is also bringing South Zone consumption of culture into the reach of suburbanos.
The suburbs, Coelho notes, silently took the brunt of Rio’s era of drug-traffic-related violence. Residents put up walls and fences, counted on each other’s help, and moved away when they could. Meanwhile, it was the socially adept South Zone that engendered the state’s pacification policy. “Governor Sérgio Cabral is a typical South Zone ‘playboy’,” says Coelho, referring to a social type who comes from a well-connected family and never has to work very hard. “He networked to get elected and implement the policy. This is why I fear it may not last, it has weak institutional underpinnings.”
Whether or not Coelho is correct about this, one thing is for sure: moving around the city has become much less stressful than it used to be. Time to make the most of it.