The Ma[u/l]ing of Favelas
A piercing post from squattercity, cautioning against a plan by Rio's city government to provide titled deeds to residents of Rocinha and Vidigal and criticizing the American journalist's implied biases is finally spurring me back into a little blogging (as if there weren't mountains of leftover Rio stories to tell).
In particular, I'm wondering if the article's comment about plans to map Rocinna and Vidigal are related to the exhibit I visited in August at the Centro do Aquitetura e Urbanismo (Center of Architecture and Urbanism). Titled "Uma Cidade Chamada Rocinha" (A City Called Rocinha), I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but it certainly surprised me.
Essentially, the exhibit was a polemic in favor of a city-sponsored development plan for the Passarela, the commercial strip along the highway in front of Rocinha that serves as the main gateway in and out of the favela.
You can see part of it there in the foreground. It's a wonderfully boisterous marketplace, full of merchants and food vendors selling everything from bootleg DVDs and music to soccer jerseys to snacks. Sort of a mini-Urguiana (the huge market downtown) that gets plenty of foot traffic, since most of the buses and vans passing by let off there.
But the plans by In!Rio would definitely wipe out the whole Passarela (in Portuguese only, I'm afraid, but enter the site and click "Explanadas plantas baixas" on the left to get an idea of what they're planning on building, then imagine it replacing what you see in the picture above). In exchange, Rocinha's new entrance could include anything from a shopping mall to a movie theatre to a sports complex with Olympic-sized swimming pools.
While I try hard not to ghettoize favelas in my mind, eschewing any kind of change, as far as I can tell this project deserves nothing but scorn. There are no indications that this proposal has been discussed with the Residents' Association or that there have been any other attempts at dialogue with the very people it will affect. And of course, the kinds of services it proposes don't appear to be in the price range of favelados any more than the São Conrado Fashion Mall across the street.
[from the home of Versace and Cartier, where I felt underdressed in just a tank top and shorts, you can turn 180° and you'll be looking at that Passarela shot.]
The site and the exhibit also talked about this esplanada plan as a way of increasing tourism to Rocinha. The economic benefits of tourism are undeniable, even if it can be culturally stultifying. Cf favela tourism, a phenomenon of dubious morality, in my opinion. Equating a statue of Jesus or a big hill with gorgeous views (Christo Redentor and Pão de Açucar, respectively) with somebody's neighborhood is a serious act of social objectification. Unsurprisingly, the companies themselves are also of dubious honesty. Matt, one of the other volunteers at Dois Irmãos, is working on a thesis about the gringo fascination with favelas, and discovered that the founder of the leading tour company who makes the claim of being local to Rocinha actually lives in São Conrado -- local geographically speaking, but a far cry from Rocinha socio-economically. And, I might add, it's not too hard to score some of those gorgeous views without paying a tour company. On my last day in Rio, I had one of the mototaxis (motorcycle instead of a car, but same concept) take me up the hill to some good vantage points for pictures.
Getting back to Altere-Rocinha, even if tourists came to some gleaming new citadel of shopping, that doesn't necessarily translate into money being spent in Rocinha. It will probably just push back the (artificial) border beyond which one does not cross, carving out more space that "belongs" to the asfalta and taking away space from the morro. I don't want to perpetuate artificial borders, but they certainly do exist: At the Passarela you'll always see a few police loitering about; walk 20 feet into Rocinha, and you'll just as easily find a gun-toting traficante.
That the city would like to plunk a mall down in front of Rocinha (and in fairness, a mall is one of several proposals, but the concept is the same regardless) is, in the end, not surprising. One of the trends that I found most disturbing in Rio's adoration of American commercial and popular culture was the popularity of malls. In nouveau riche Barra da Tijuca (so wannabe American that, I've been told, residents pronounce the name of their neighborhood as if it were an English word rather than the Portuguese "Bah-ha"), a Southern California-style district of gated communities and guarded condo buildings, the crown jewel is the utterly terrifying Barra Shopping/New York City Center, replete with a mock Statue of Liberty. While Barra Shopping is one of the biggest in South America, I know malls are even more the rage in São Paulo (a common expression claims that what beaches are to cariocas, malls or "os shoppings" in Portuguese -- not too inventive -- are to paulistas). Supposedly they even have a mall entirely dedicated to punk rock.
I could vent for awhile about the deleterious effect of shopping malls, but I'll let the case be made by a much more articulate argument. If you can find it, check out Margaret Crawford's "The World in a Shopping Mall" from Variations on a Theme Park. (Here's a teaser: a Harvard Gazette piece on Crawford's favorable opinion of street vendors -- she's a Harvard Graduate School of Design prof, FYI).
To draw some concluding lines though, one of the main gripes with malls are their controlling effect: it's a managed, top-down environment (truthfully, not unlike a prison), one that tries to manipulate the customer because all interactions take place in the private space of the mall, rather than in the agora, the public space afforded by, say, shopping along a city street. It's that kind of imposed order that to me seems contrary to the nature -- and the successes -- of favelas.
And to bridge from bricks back over to beats, it easily parallels the spontaneous, uncontrolled nature of funk -- outside traditional, structured systems of copyright and industry, but popular and vibrant as a result (and more homogenized and exploitative when within that system, cf Marlboro's Link Records, as I've previously mentioned). I'm sure similar lessons can be glaned from another corner of the blogosphere that spurred me to put something new up here. Check out wayne&wax on "how reggae’s aesthetics emerge from a particular history of practice and technology and copyright law." I'm no expert on the minutiae, but I'm willing to bit the same can be said for funk.