This article was written by former student Thaisa Comelli and originally published in the Septmeber 2015 print issue of the German architecture magazine Baumeister.
Babilonia favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (source)
March 2015, 14 p.m., It was the end of summer in Rio de Janeiro and I was stepping in a favela for the first time in my life to meet one of the residents of Babilônia and start my thesis research. Even though the favelas have been quite accessible for outsiders since the beginning of the pacifications in 2009, when the police conducted operations to dismantle the drug traffic in several favelas, for me it was still scary to be inside a place stigmatized for such a long time. As part of Brazilian middle class, spending every vacation in Rio de Janeiro, I was taught that favelas were dangerous sites full of drug dealers and criminals. My father grew up in a low-class neighborhood in the North Zone of Rio, and he always told me stories of how he used to play football with boys from the ‘hills’ that later on grabbed their guns to rob tourists in the center. The reality in Rio, and in Brazil, has always been like that: poverty and richness coexisting side by side, as the income disparity and social exclusion have been pushing the poorest residents uphill (in the favelas) and/or to the peripheries. There, they have always been visible, as part of Rio, but neglected by the city for many years. And even though I was conscious that most of the things people said about favelas were actually full of prejudice, I have to admit the fear and excitement that I felt when arriving at the entrance of Babilônia, all alone, on that hot Tuesday afternoon.
As I walked breathless on those steep slopes, my fears started to dissipate. At the end of my path, at the neighborhood association, I was thinking more about the heat and how tired I was than what could happen to me inside there. The residents who I met and interviewed received me with the friendliness and warmth so characteristic of Brazilian people. I fell in love with everything there: the amazing people, the views to the ocean, the food, the nature. And even though the place was very raw, with unfinished structures and improvised materials, the simplicity itself of the favela was very charming. But of course, I was not the first person to perceive the potential of Babilônia. The reality there is actually different from many favelas in Rio. It is impossible to generalize the lifestyle and the context of favelas like they are all the same. Babilônia is located close to the Copacabana Beach, in the South Zone, one of the most touristic and rich areas in Rio. Therefore, the only thing preventing this place from gentrification was the stigma attached to it. When the World Cup and the Olympics started to bring money and outsiders, this process of social exclusion triggered very fast.
Favela’s residents might not be familiar with the word ‘gentrification’, but they are quite aware of its first effects on the community. Suddenly, in that quite familiar place full of simple houses and long-time neighbors, start to appear hotels, fancy restaurants, an art gallery, and a crowd of curious eyes, eager to discover the mysteries hidden in those narrow streets. Along with that, comes the raising of prices. The rent, which used to be accessible, is now almost out of reach. For those who have been uphill for decades and own their plots it is easier to survive, even though development projects and infrastructure have brought substantial changes, such as high bills of electricity and water. For those who do not have a more stable situation, the alternative is to flee the neighborhood.
As a researcher looking for the social effects brought by development projects, I was trying to be impartial, but deep down, I have to confess having some preconceptions of my own. I expected some kind of resentment towards all those tourists and new richer residents, since they were changing so much the lifestyle of the longtime ones. Yet, not a single interviewee showed animosity towards those foreigners. On the contrary, all of them mentioned how great it was to have people inside, breaking those prejudices and fears and starting to understand the beauty of the community and the joy of being part of it. However, some of them exposed criticism against the way tourism is being handled and how some outsiders do not try to interact with the community.
“The favela/hill is a history itself. (…) You go up and it’s there. I see that when people do a ‘tour’ with the foreigners here, the outsiders have the curiosity to be inside the favela to see how it works life here. But they don’t tell the history of the favela, what happened there, how it worked before.” – Resident of Babilônia
Pacification Police in Babilônia, Paulo Jacob/O Globo (source)
Furthermore, residents complained about the role of the Pacification Police inside the community. Created to guarantee peace and safety inside Rio’s favelas after years of drug trafficking, the Units of Pacification Police also control the social events and parties held in the community. The reason, apparently, is that some events, like Bailes Funk and some bigger parties might stimulate uproar and violence inside the favela, and often are connected to drug traffic. However, residents argue that many local parties are prohibited without much explanation, while bars focused on tourists have always authorization to organize events. Besides, there is also the issue of loss of cultural richness inside the community. If Funk is a true record of favela’s culture and a legit social habit of favela’s residents, whose favela is this, anyway?
It seems that, gradually, some favelas are being shaped to fit tourists and middle class desires and social habits, especially the ones which are close to the beach and the wealthiest neighbourhoods. This can also be another manifestation of gentrification. Residents are happy with the arrival of newcomers, but will they be able to survive the financial and social pressures that come along with it? With the passed World Cup and upcoming Olympics, some residents have already started to invest in their properties to be able to rent rooms and construct hostels and guest houses. Some bar owners have also improved their establishments, making them more attractive for outsiders or engaged in training courses to become waiters, bartenders, hotel managers and other professions related with tourism. Besides, the government gives financial aid for residents evicted by the development projects, as well as other types of assistance. The entrepreneurial spirit of many residents, combined with the current assistances from the government, are helping Babilônia’s population to avoid coerced eviction. However, it is unlikely that, in a long term analysis, the ones that helped to construct this community will actually be able to enjoy its improvements. In the end, the paradoxes of social disparities continue to exist, but will be less visible for not attentive eyes.
So far, the government of Rio de Janeiro has no measures to stop or delay the process of gentrification. As a matter of fact, with the imminence of the Olympic Games in 2016 and its effects on real estate prices in Rio, it is likely that, in less than 20 years, the original community will be completely vanished from the beautiful hill of Babilônia.
Thaisa is an Architect and Urban Planner born and raised in the modernist city of Brasília. She has worked on architecture and urban development projects in the States of Distrito Federal, Goiás, Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso, in Brazil. Her pursuit of a more socially responsible practice led her to our masters program, during which she conducted her thesis research on informal settlement upgrading and focused her analysis on the Social Changes and Gentrification of Favelas of Rio de Janeiro. She collaborated with the Committee on Social Inclusion, Participatory Democracy and Human Rights of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) in Barcelona and is now leading the construction of a cultural center in Senegal in memory of her friend, classmate and our alumni Nerea Perez-Arróspide.