A Bike Ride to the Top of Rio's Oldest Favela
In preparation for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics, the Rio de Janeiro city government is in the process of evicting thousands of residents of Providência, the oldest favela in Rio de Janeiro. Favela is the Brazilian word for a neighborhood that is built by its own residents, DIY style, on squatted land. There is a huge housing shortage for the working and lower-middle class in Brazil, and 11 million Brazilians currently live in favelas. Most favela residents own their own homes, which are often in a constant state of construction as extra floors and rooms are added. This, together with the fact that all the electrical wiring and plumbing is also DIY, can make favelas look like slums. You could call them slums because the government does almost nothing there, but a recent study published in Rio’s Globo newspaper showed that only 21 percent of favela residents in the city live below the poverty line and that 13 percent are upper-middle class or rich.
Providência is close to downtown, near the commuter train and subway stations. It boasts a stunning view of the city. There is a real estate boom underway and some apartments and houses in the neighborhood are on the market for over $100,000. Two years ago, city workers began painting numbers on the sides of houses. When residents asked why, they found out that the city was planning to rip down a big chunk of the neighborhood and build taxpayer-funded luxury housing and a giant cable-car system connecting the central train station to the Samba City, a prison-like structure near the port where foreign tourists pay too much money for warm beer and artificially staged samba performances. This is all being done, according to Mayor Eduardo Paes, as part of the Porto Maravilha project. Porto Maravilha (or “marvelous port”) is a public-private infrastructure improvement project that will use $4 billion in tax money to gentrify Rio’s decaying port area benefiting real estate speculators like Donald Trump, who recently announced that he will build four office towers in front of the stinking Maracana sewage canal near the Samba City cable-car station. The Mayor’s Office justifies the cost as necessary beautification before the city plays host to the world.
This isn’t the first time residents of Providência have gotten a raw deal. Veterans of the Canudos War in the late 1800s, most of whom were former slaves, founded the neighborhood. The governor promised housing for anyone who enlisted in the war. But when they got back, he reneged, so many of them built their own houses on the side of a large hill behind the train station.
Now, in exchange for taking their homes—many are two or three stories tall— the city has promised to provide very small apartments around 40 miles from downtown for some, apartments closer to the hill for others, and something called “social rent assistance,” meaning that in exchange for losing their homes, they will get $200 a month for an undetermined period of time to partially reimburse their rent expenses. Rent in the area exceeds $500 a month.
During the seven years I have lived in Rio de Janeiro, I often looked up at Providência hill and wondered what it was like. Until a few years ago, you had to get permission from machine-gun-toting teenagers to enter the community. A police station has replaced the teenagers, but it’s created another set of problems. Overall, it’s a bit safer these days, so I decided that in order to find out more about what is happening in Providência I should do what I always do in this type of situation. Walk to the top of the hill and look for a bar.
It was over 100 degrees as I rode my bicycle through crazy Brazilian traffic towards the back end of the hill. I thought there was a road there but instead I found tiny alleys and staircases, so I carried my clunker up some 30 flights of uneven concrete stairs—much to the bemusement of everyone who saw me— snaking through narrow alleyways of exposed brick houses to a plaza where they are building a giant cable car station. I chained my bike up and walked up another 200 yards of stairs to the top of the hill, where a small 19th-century chapel stood surrounded by houses with numbers spray-painted on the side, slated for destruction. There was a water tank that appeared to be broken and neighbors were sharing rubber hoses rigged out of the tank to fill up their washing machines. I made my way over to a small bar, a brick shack with a large wooden patio that had a sweeping view from downtown Rio out to the Port, and ordered a one-liter bottle of Itaipava. As I sat down and enjoyed my drink little kids ran around flying kites and a group of teenagers arrived and started barbecuing chicken wings. I struck up a conversation with the owner, a guy who went by the name of “70.” We talked about sports for a while, and then I asked him if his house was going to get ripped down.
“Mine hasn’t been marked yet,” he said, “but they say there are going to be two stages. I am not sure but I have heard that my house is marked for removal in the second stage. I don’t know if this is true or if it’s a lie. All I know is that now nothing has been marked for removal yet, not my bar or my house. And if it was, I wouldn’t like it at all. Certainly not. But my brother, my sister, and my cousins houses are all marked. My whole family lives here. “
“If they do reforms up there, is it is going to help business in your bar?” I asked.
“I am waiting for a concrete response from the city,” he said. “Nobody has said anything. I would like to stay. If this could turn into the 7th wonder of the world, the Corcovado, or Guanabara Bay or Barra da Tijuca or Copacabana—places where a lot of gringos go and if they could guarantee for me that this would stay. But in 2004 there was another project called Favela Bairro that removed a lot of houses up here and it didn’t help me one bit because they took away my customers. Business went down. And if they remove these houses now and these are my customers and if I am supposed to just wait around for gringos to show up I hope that at least they come every day because I depend on this and if they evict my customers it won’t be good for me.“
Gossip travels fast in favelas and as I talk and drink with 70, word gets around that a gringo is there asking about evictions and a leader of one of the housing rights movements called the Central dos Movimentos Populares comes up. His name is Marcelo. I invite him to sit down and we order another beer.
“What is the mayor’s office offering the people who are losing their homes?” I ask.
Marcelo says, “The mayor’s office says it is negotiating with the residents, but it negotiates like this: ‘either you accept this or you accept that.’ It never asks them what they want. Either you accept a settlement that is almost worthless or you accept a small house 30-40 miles out in the middle of nowhere. The city doesn’t ever say, ‘Is there an alternative to this? Is there any way we could do it differently?’ It puts the knife to the guy’s chest, and out of fear he ends up negotiating and they rip down his house. I think that resistance and organized struggle will help the people find better alternatives to improve the living conditions on the hill and stay where they have been living and building their histories for their whole lives.”
I say goodbye to 70 and Marcello and walk back down to the square where I parked my bike. A one-eyed, middle-aged woman is standing nearby in front of a house.
“Are you the gringo who is here asking about evictions?” she says. “Come over here and take a look at this.”
She invites me into her front yard. It is a three-story building that looks like it has several apartments in it. “See this?” she says. “They came and painted a number by my door but I painted over it. I’m not going anywhere.” She has painted over her eviction number with a heart.
From her yard we look out at the new cable-car station, under construction. She points to it, “You know what I call this here? This is a waste of money. You want to know why? Because we already have a van system to get up and down the hill that is better than a cable car because it stops wherever you want to get out. The Rio de Janeiro education system is fraudulent and the public-health system is in intensive care. And they spend all this money making this thing here in the community. They could have built a hospital or a school here.”
“When do you think they are going to rip down your building?” I asked.
“Never,” she said, “because I am still here fighting. Look, I am not against anything, but why don’t they do something cool like build the apartments first and then just trade keys with us? But this conversation didn’t happen.”
“Are they offering you a new apartment?”
“They are talking about tiny apartments on Juca de Freitas Street, but Juca de Freitas is not located near the community. It’s in another neighborhood, Santo Cristo. And in the places they are saying they are going to build next to the community, Faria Street, Colonel Costa, and Cardozo Maria they haven’t built anything. So am I going to leave my house to go on an adventure? No. I’ve lived here my whole life. My house and my life are here where I live.”
I say goodbye to the woman, unchain my bike, and find a cobblestone street that leads down towards the central train station where I have an appointment with a representative of the mayor’s office. It begins to drizzle. The handlebars on my clunker are loose, the rear brake is broken, and the front brake pads are nearly gone. It is a white-knuckled, slippery ride down the hill that I probably wouldn’t have tried if it weren’t for the beer. But now I have an appointment with someone from the city and as I pedal through the two-block no-man’s land between the base of the hill and the train station, full of crackies and petty thieves, I look for a place where I can tidy up and have a coffee and a breath mint. Fifteen minutes later I am riding a rickety elevator up into the city offices above the train station.
I have an appointment with a representative of the city government who I know is critical of the evictions. I won’t give her name because I don’t want to cause problems for her at work. I start by asking about a rumor that Eike Batista, Brazil’s richest man, is planning on building a luxury hotel and casino on top of Providência hill that will charge guests $5,000 per night.
“To tell you the truth,” she says, “I can’t say if it is an idea of Eike’s or of the people who are making the project proposal. Eike has become a media phenomenon and it’s obvious that he wants to continue his role as one of the richest people in Brazil but there are also a lot of tall tales about him. What I know about the current project for the top of the hill is that they are planning on building colonial- style town homes and that these are certainly not planned for the current residents of the hill. So the result will be devastating. Census statistics show that there are 4,832 families in Providência. And they are talking about evicting at least a third of them. And the official reason for their eviction is that it is being done for public works that are supposed to benefit the community. When you look at the estimates being made by the People’s Port Committee, which is coalition working in the area, they are saying the final number of evictions will be much larger, not to mention all the people who will have to leave because of rising rents and real-estate taxes. So I think the policies have to be redone. In order to justify the evictions of these residents they are saying it is because they live in areas of landslide risk, but based on all my years working in the city I would say that the risk is not natural but political. There are all kinds of laws that protect people against eviction but the minute that you declare that they are living in landslide-risk areas they are forced to leave and their constitutional right to dignified housing is violated. This massive wave of evictions in Providência is being done without any discussion on the social impact, which the government is legally obligated to do. The whole project is technically illegal until they do an assessment on social and environmental impact. They were required to do all of this before they started breaking up the neighborhood and they’ve done nothing yet.”
I say goodbye, make my way down to my bicycle and ride home, wondering why a city that already gets three million foreign tourists a year needs an event like the Olympics.
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