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Revitalizing Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro is becoming a standard-bearer of a new kind of social development, a transformation of the long intractable poverty of the favelas.

Rio de Janeiro favela (right, on hill), contrasted with a more affluent neighbourhood, as viewed from a tram in Santa Teresa. Photo: chansiyuan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Rio de Janeiro favela (right, on hill), contrasted with a more affluent neighbourhood, as viewed from a tram in Santa Teresa. Photo: chansiyuan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when much of the world is in some form of decline, Rio de Janeiro is the view looking forward; it feels like the capital of hope. The wave of change owes something to the booming Brazilian economy, something to the discovery of offshore oil, something to the energy brought to the city when it was chosen for the 2014 World Cup finals and the 2016 Olympics, and most of all to the dramatic reduction in crime. All of these changes are elaborately intertwined, each the condition of the others. Rio has not achieved the placidity of Zurich or Reykjavík, but just as every small joy feels like rapture after a depression, the improvement in Rio has an aura of fiesta, even of miracle, that those serene towns will never know.

A great many cities sit beside the sea, but no other integrates the ocean as Rio does. You can imagine San Francisco positioned inland, or Miami when the sand washes away, but to imagine Rio without the waterfront is like imagining New York without tall buildings, Paris without bistros, L.A. without celebrities. The landscape has an almost Venetian urgency. “If you don’t go to the beach you don’t know anything that’s happening,” said the Rio- and New York–based artist Vik Muniz. “No matter if you have Twitter, or if you have a cell phone, you have to go to the beach, every day at four o’clock until sundown.” Beaches are inherently democratic institutions; when you’re in a bathing suit, there’s no way to show off anything much besides your body, your skill at volleyball, your aura of cool. It’s pointless being a snob in Rio.

Rio’s topography has dictated another social anomaly. People of privilege live in the flat seaside areas in the Zona Sul, the southern district that encompasses the famous beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. These neighborhoods are punctuated by abrupt hills, which have been settled by the poor over the past century or so. These steep favelas do not appear in detail on most maps of the city, and have historically had no utilities, no garbage collection, no closed sewers, and no police protection. The social distances in Rio outpace the geographic ones. Muniz said, “You’re sitting in St.-Tropez surrounded by Mogadishu.”

Much of Brazilian culture originated in Rio’s favelas. Samba evolved here, and the new funk music, too. Many soccer stars came out of the favelas, and some of Brazil’s famous models were born there. Carnival in Rio depends on the “samba schools” of the favelas, which compete to put on the most glittering display. French aristocrats never say that France would be nothing without the slums of Paris, and most upper-class Italians are embarrassed by the Mafia; hip-hop culture notwithstanding, most Americans opt for the suburbs. But in Rio de Janeiro, those who have privilege admire those who don’t. You may or may not choose, as a tourist, to go up to the favelas, but if you love Rio, it’s for a paradigm that is contingent on them.

Nowhere is this unusual arrangement more apparent than from the air. My husband and I went hang-gliding one morning from the Tijuca Forest, soaring above the snaking alleys of Vidigal on one side and luxury oceanfront hotels on the other. You know Rio a whole new way when you have looked at its skyscrapers from the sky they are scraping. A few days later, we took a helicopter ride over the city at sunset, observing the Olympic facilities under construction, noting how the favelas are distributed like chocolate chips in a cookie, rich and poor alike under the gaze of the towering Christ of Corcovado.

Rio is smattered with 18th-century buildings in varying states of disrepair, scores of cakelike examples of the Belle Époque, and a profusion of exuberant Midcentury Modernist office towers and apartment buildings. Oscar Niemeyer is the architect of the most curvaceous—epitomized by his flying saucer of a museum across the bay in Niterói. These sinewy structures appear to exquisite advantage beside the black-and-white-patterned beachfront sidewalks by visionary landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who also designed the city’s best parks. Most cities obfuscate the nature they have usurped, but Rio looks as though it had been painted onto the underlying topography in order to nuance its sweeping undulations. We stayed in fine hotels; when we arrived at the Fasano with our two-year-old, a pillow embroidered with his name was waiting in the crib. I ate at chic restaurants such as Gero and Satyricon, and I hit the shops for trendy Rio brands such as Osklen. I heard some excellent Brazilian jazz; I took a half-day trip to see the golden lion tamarins in the Poço das Antas Biological Reserve. But for me, Rio at this moment is not about tourist attractions; it is about renaissance. As in Moscow at the end of communism, Johannesburg at the end of apartheid, and Beijing when China opened to capitalism, the sights are secondary to the electrifying current of transformation.

Rio pride took a nosedive in 1960 when the capital was moved to the futuristic new interior city of Brasília. Four years later, Brazil became a dictatorship, and because Rio had always been politically progressive, the authoritarian powers did all they could to diminish the city. Rio had been a federal district on the order of Washington, D.C., or Mexico City, but it was folded into the surrounding, undeveloped state for administrative purposes. Business shifted increasingly to São Paulo, which also eclipsed Rio in population; Rio was deindustrialized; violence threatened the rich and poor as drug gangs fought one another and a corrupt police force. Inside the favelas, everyone had a gun. Rio’s murder rate escalated; innocent people got caught in the cross fire. Even in the Zona Sul, street crime became ubiquitous. “If you were poor, you were scared of the police; if you were rich, you were skeptical of the police,” said Roberto Feith, Rio’s leading publisher. Some policemen formed unofficial militias, protection rackets within favelas and slums that were hard to distinguish from the gangs they ostensibly controlled.

During that dark period, Brazilian pride found an outlet in soccer, which Brazilians talk about much as the English talk about the weather; it is their default topic. We spent our first nights at the Copacabana Palace, as grand as the Fasano is chic, where Paul McCartney was also staying, which meant that a mob of avid, graying fans was permanently installed on our curb, improvising enthusiastic, tuneless variations on “Sgt. Pepper’s.” The biggest news, however, was that McCartney had taken over Engenhão, which is acting as the city’s main stadium while Maracanã is being renovated for the Olympics. The game we went to had been relocated to a more antique, crowded facility. The solidarity of fans transcends other differences: we had fancy seats, but the fun was clearly over on the cheap side, where rich and poor spectators were living the game as intensely as the players who were playing it.

Given the centrality of sport to the Brazilian psyche, it’s no surprise that the World Cup and the Olympics should have inspired Rio’s leadership. For the first time in half a century, local, state, and national officials are working in sync. In 2008, the secretary of security for the state, José Mariano Beltrame, introduced the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), a new force of younger officers under the aegis of the military police rather than of corrupt local bosses. Beltrame announced plans to pacify the favelas, one by one, as well as the slums in the west of the city. The toughest favela was invaded almost as an act of war, using airpower, the army, and the marines. Once that was done, the government instituted a sort of Marshall Plan to provide the fabric of a civil society. The police stayed on as a force devoted to protecting the citizens of the favelas, rather than to protecting the residents of the Zona Sul from the favelas. They’ve pacified only 68 of the approximately one thousand favelas, but there are now 283,000 people living in these areas.

Pre-Beltrame, there was a reactive police presence, sporadic dominion in response to particular acts of violence; now, the UPP ensures a proactive peace. The fantasy of the right was that crime could be suppressed by escalating brutality; previous efforts in the favelas were conquests, with the entire citizenry treated as enemy combatants, so that extrajudicial killings were considered casualties of war. The fantasy of the left was that violence was the product of a flawed social structure and would evaporate if injustice were resolved; it manifested in limp social programs and a proliferation of NGO’s. The right was troublingly violent, and the left was troublingly complacent. The genius of Beltrame’s process is that it satisfies both sides. The right is thrilled because crime is down; the left is thrilled because social justice is achieved. The rich are safer, and the poor are richer.

A frenzy of construction precedes any international mega-event, and Rio natives—Cariocas—are fiercely opinionated about the rejuvenation of historic sites: the Maracanã soccer stadium, which is either being ruined or being saved, and the Hotel Gloria, which is getting a face-lift from billionaire Eike Batista. The Theatro Muncipal, modeled on the Garnier, in Paris, has just been refurbished. “In Rio now,” said biographer Luciana Medeiros, “it’s like what happens when you fall in love. It’s a sparkle. One of the most symbolic things about Rio was that the street was so dirty. All of a sudden, everybody takes care.”

While most cultures have created fashion and then found models to show it off, Brazil produced models and then started making fashion to clothe them in. “They need to look good with their clothes on,” Sergio Mattos, owner of one of Rio’s biggest modeling agencies, told me. “But for Rio’s beach culture, they have to look good with their clothes off. We have the world’s only fashion industry without eating disorders.” Along the edge of the beach, there are endless bars serving juice freshly pressed from fruits you’ve never heard of. There are lifeguard stations to keep the beach safe for swimmers and free open-air gyms where body-conscious Brazilians can improve their muscle tone. The Brazilians have a very keen sense of beautiful bodies, and almost no sense of unbeautiful bodies. The great-looking people wear skimpy swimsuits (including those they call fio dental: dental floss) a little boastfully, attracting admiring gazes; the people who are old and fat wear equally tiny trunks without a hint of self-consciousness. So much of fashion is about disguising yourself, and Brazil is a singularly undisguised place. When I went to meet the mayor in the beautiful, Baroque city hall, half the people there wore flip-flops.

The city’s street life has been reborn now that the streets are relatively safe, and there are whole neighborhoods given over to the fun between dusk and dawn. The center of nightlife is glamorously seedy Lapa. In the small hours, music pours out of every other door; the caliber of décor of any particular spot and the quality of the musicians who play there are unrelated, so you have to pause and listen up and down the street before choosing where you want to go. Many of the venues seem both historical and transient, as though they were built to be temporary but survived into permanence. We decided to check out what appeared to be a small chapel, its walls crowded with devotional images, only to find that it was a tiny bar, presided over by a middle-aged transgender woman who had moved to Rio from Minas Gerais, in the east. She offered us a liqueur of her home state, hot and redolent of cinnamon, and told us howlingly funny tales about figuring out her gender identity on a farm in the jungle. It’s not only the sun that’s warm so close to the equator; friendship happens fast in Rio, and you continually find yourself in intimate conversation with people you’ve just met. They, in turn, eagerly introduce you to their friends—some of whom they’ve just met themselves—and after a few nights, you are juggling invitations to parties, dinners, rain forests.

One such new friend invited us to an early-evening samba party. People often gather to play music informally; anyone can bring an instrument and join in. Ours was in a downtown area where it attracted both businessmen on their way home from the office and favela residents on their way to clean those offices. Musically and socially, improvisation was the style. The musicians stopped only once, to announce sternly that the smell of marijuana was likely to bring in the police. Two ample women from Bahia were frying acarajé, delicious fritters of seafood and black-eyed peas, and the local bar was serving caipirinhas in plastic cups. Rio is not Rio without a sound track; music salts all the other senses.

“At the end of the 1980’s, among 188 countries listed by the IMF, only one was a more closed economy than Brazil, which was Myanmar,” economist André Urani, editor of Rio: The Turning Point, told me. Fernando Gabeira was first known as the kidnapper of the U.S. ambassador to Brazil in 1969, as part of a protest against the dictatorship; he ran for mayor of Rio in 2008 and lost by less than one percent. “Since the dictatorship, Brazil has become steadily more present in the world,” he said, “and the world has become steadily more present in Brazil.”

“The change is pervasive,” said Maria Silvia Bastos Marques, the former head of Latin America’s largest steel company who is running the business side of the Olympics for the city. “For years, everyone drove a bulletproof car,” she said. “Now people are rolling down their windows: Rio de Janeiro is not going to have any more areas where the citizens cannot go.” Gabeira told me, “Security is an impression as much as it is a reality. If people think things are better, they are better.” Optimism is as contagious as despair.

Some tourists choose to stay in hostels in the favelas; travel companies offer safari-like favela tours; the new Museu de Favela is one of the most dynamic spaces in Rio. There seems to be consensus that the favelas must be preserved. If you give the people land rights, will they not sell off their land so rich people can have the views? Brazil remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, a place, as one upper-class Brazilian said to me, of “cultural inclusion and social exclusion.”

The World Cup and the Olympics may help to resolve these tensions. Bastos worked to renegotiate Brazil’s international debt with the IMF in the early 1990’s, which spurred internal economic recovery, and she believes that the Olympics will provide a similar “occasion to get our house in order.” Mayor Eduardo Paes told me, “Look, Barcelona was reborn from the Olympics; Athens was nearly bankrupted. It’s not easy, what we need to do. The way I see it, we can let the Olympics use the city, or the city can use the Olympics to achieve permanent goals.”

Cintia Luna, a community leader in Fogueteiro, walked me through her favela at sunset. She pointed out a half-built edifice that had been installed as a school 10 years earlier. “They paid for teachers, lunches, supplies,” she said. “But the doors were never opened. Where do you think the money went?” I asked if she was happy about the pacification. She put a hand on my arm. “Don’t say anything for a moment,” she said. We stood in silence, and then she explained, “There was never a moment when you could hear the wind like this. You’d have heard shooting, yelling all around us.” I asked if she was relieved that the gangs were gone. “This was a peaceful place for us even before the pacification. We were never afraid of the gangs, but we were afraid of the conflict between the gangs and the police. So now the people in the Zona Sul are happy not to have our gangs, and we are happy not to have as many of their corrupt police. It’s a compromise that gives us all a better quality of life.”

There have always been NGO’s trying to fix the favelas; now, people from the favelas are starting their own organizations. Luiz Carlos Dumontt and Dudu de Morro Agudo founded Enraizados, devoted to “cultural militancy”; their website gets more than 600,000 hits each month. Dudu is a rap star who teaches kids to produce music and videos as a way of keeping them from joining gangs. Enraizados artists make graffiti murals to beautify grim neighborhoods. The operation has established a “street library”: You find a book on the road, log on to the website stamped opposite the title page, and make a note of where you found it, whether you liked it, and where you’re leaving it so someone else can find it. The books circulate like this through the favelas.

Marcus Vinicius Faustini left the favelas to become an actor and theater director, but he’s now back there, helping kids to realize their dreams. I asked what his own dream was, and he said, “Democracy means that common people can invent their own way of life. For me, democracy and opportunity must be synonymous.” One of the kids I met in Batan, a pacified favela where Faustini is working, said, “I’m still afraid of my own future, what will happen after the Olympics, what will happen after the novelty wears off for these police. Because 300 meters away, the same old problems are happening, and they could come back here easily.” But I asked everyone I met in the favelas whether they wanted to move out to a “better” neighborhood, and the only ones who did were emigrants from other parts of Brazil. Those who were born in the favelas wanted to stay. Batan is in the northwestern end of town, which is to say the really ugly, poor part far from the beach; one of the kids I met there said, “If you could bottle the joy in this place, you could sell it in the Zona Sul.”

Vik Muniz has made a career out of examining these ironies; the film Waste Land shows how he befriended the garbage pickers who lived on what they could find in a vast dump outside Rio, and eventually made them partners in his art. “You meet somebody in New York, and they say, ‘What’s your name?’” he said. “And the second question is, ‘What do you do?’ In Rio, you get, ‘What’s your name? What do you like to do?’” Several people I met quoted Antonio Carlos Jobim, the musician who wrote “The Girl from Ipanema,” who once explained, “New York is great, but it’s a mess; Rio is a mess, but it’s great.”

The glamorous television star Regina Casé, the Oprah Winfrey of Brazil, received me in her extravagant mansion; she was wearing a flowing caftan, at least five pounds of jewelry, and a cosmetics counter’s worth of makeup. “I’ve been to North America and to Europe,” she said. “You have a pine woods. You have a grove of oak trees. Have you been in our Atlantic rain forest? You have a hundred kinds of trees, everything is growing on top of everything else, it’s all competing for the sun and the water, and somehow it all survives, more lush than anywhere else in the world. That’s the social structure of Rio, too. And just as our Amazon is providing the oxygen for the world, we make social oxygen here. If you don’t learn to integrate your societies the way we’ve integrated ours, you’re going to fail. In America, you have a lot of problems, a lot of injustice, a lot of conflict. You try to solve the problems.” She threw up her hands in mock horror. “In Rio, we invite all the problems to a big party and we let them dance together,” she said. “And we’re inviting the world to come here and dance, too.”

Aerial panorama of Santa Teresa, a neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, with the statue of Christ the Redeemer, Tijuca Forest and Sugarloaf Mountain in the background. Photo: chensiyuan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Aerial panorama of Santa Teresa, a neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, with the statue of Christ the Redeemer, Tijuca Forest and Sugarloaf Mountain in the background. Photo: chensiyuan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.