In his recent article for The Guardian, Simon Jenkins embarks upon a journey through the complexity of Rio de Janeiro´s favelas and the changes underway as the city contorts in preparation for the World Cup and Olympics. While there are some interesting elements of Jenkins´ piece, there is much that he gets wrong and even more that indicates a belief in the power of the free market to resolve historically situated problems of poverty and violence in Brazil.
The title of the article “Vision of the future or criminal eyesore: what should Rio do with its favelas?” perpetuates a dichotomy that does not advance understanding or suggest solutions. The implication is that favelas are either warrens of criminality or creative solutions to a chronic housing crisis. The subtitle has a sinister tone: if redevelopment of Rio´s squatter settlements is not realized the price is poverty and anarchy. Therefore, redevelopment, renewal, requalification, and retrofitting are the only paths to salvation, order and progress.
The message from the beginning of the article is the following: if the poor are not brought quickly and by force into the formal real-estate market through processes of gentrification, the “price to pay” is stagnation and ruin – basically the status quo as Jenkins sees it. The thematic of a “price being paid” runs throughout the article and gives us an indication of how an expanding real-estate market should be allowed to solve the issue of criminal eyesores.
In his opening, Jenkins relates the story of nearly being assaulted in a “city of muggers” but discovers that the hand he’d felt tugging at his belt was just that of a blind child is making his way up to the top of the Providência favela. Instead of using the story of this kid as an exploration into the difficulties of favela life Jenkins is horrified by a “wretched scene amid that firmament of wonder”. If the author arrived at the top of Providência, he surely must have passed through some very poor housing stock but yet when the city is revealed below it becomes a firmament of wonder. Why not examine the life of the blind kid, or the infrastructure of the favela and the idiotic tramline project? Perhaps the blind kid can be taken as a metaphor for the ability of outsiders to see what is happening in the city. Following a brief description in which favelas are compared as exceptions to the rule of valuable real-estate domains in “most cities” (read: Europe and N. America), Jenkins concludes by saying, “favelas are Blade Runner meets Italian hill town”.
Is comparing Rio to London, New York or Milan useful? How about Cape Town, Mumbai, or Jakarta? In these cities, unlike in the global north, rich and poor also live in close proximity. While it is true that the permanence of the favelas in high-rent districts is remarkable and exceptional, I have yet to see a neon mandarin sign hanging in a shop window in a Rio favela,
yet the implication of Blade Runner is one
of urban dystopia, cyborg threats and violent police action. The last element
is certainly true. The Italian hill towns that I have visited tend to have
bucolic, quiet environments with fresh tomatoes, excellent herbs, and good
bread. That is rarely the case in favelas where shopping is difficult and the
quality of food is low. In the search for an apt metaphor Jenkins goes both
negative and rose-tinted, eluding the rich texture of place and the
difficulties of daily life. In this he repeats the same dichotomies that he
Throughout the article, Jenkins does not explore the nuances of urban dynamics in Brazil and with favelas. He brings an idea of what cities should be to a context in which those ideas do not apply. For example, he hits the reader again with a generalization: “most cities would by now have contrived to clear such settlements” – as if this clearing were a desirable and natural outcome. He then lays out the smooth progression of improved living conditions and livelihoods: “Older areas are gentrified and this in turn draw tax revenue, private investment and political clout to deliver new urban infrastructure”.
The linearity of gentrification is never explained as a process of competing interests and power dynamics, but one that has happened in “most cities” (and therefore desirable in Rio?). He points out that gentrification is happening in Rio and that Lapa and Santa Teresa are gaining restaurants, shops and entertainment. However, there is no evidence to suggest this is true, no research to be drawn on and no exploration of the potential negatives of gentrification in those places. Worse, Jenkins says that the “process has largely stalled” in Rio´s favelas. Are we to equate process with progress? Is gentrification the only way forward and are the favelados retarding their own path to redemption? If they could only understand how valorization brings benefits!
The constitution of 1988 provides some legal frameworks for an eventual regime of land tenure security but property titles are still highly contestable, take decades in the courts and do not guarantee the right to housing. Even so, where there is home ownership, the immediate effects of gentrification may be slower to take root. Jenkins “reckons” that between 33% and 66% of favela residents have title to their property. Where does this data come from? If law enforcement regarding land titles is so good, why as Jenkins rightly points out, are more than 170,000 being evicted across Brazil? Surely the gentrification of urban landscapes is not to blame? Surely the rapid valorization of land prices in Brazilian cities does not have a negative impact on the ability of favela residents to claim constitutionally guaranteed rights?
In this same regard, the phrasing of the sentence “Rio has failed to remove the Vila Autódromo favela” is problematic. What if Rio (again, a lack of specificity hinders understanding) had managed to remove the Vila Autódromo? Would that be a successful process? The resistances of the people who live there in conjunction with a well-articulated group of social actors (activists among them), have, until now, managed to stave off the removal. However, the city government is using every tactic possible to wipe it off the map so that the Olympic Park real-estate speculation project can move forward.
I did enjoy Jenkins’ identification of favelas as fetishized objects of attention from foreign scholars and his admiration of favela architecture as a creative solution to problems of housing and urbanism. There is definitely a lack of research into the processes of “renovation” and “regeneration” in places like Lapa and Santa Teresa, the Zona Portuaria and in middle class neighborhoods like Botafogo. Jenkins follows his observation about fetishization by saying that “The challenge is somehow to upgrade [favelas] to meet even the minimal standards expected for modern urban living, without lurching into old-fashioned, state-sponsored clearance and renewal.” There are several problems here. The first is which minimal standards to apply. Are we talking about a “post-modern new-urbanism” standard? Are we talking about LEED certified, German designed houses with Sw
edish interiors? Who will do
the upgrading and how? There is no “lurching” forthcoming in Rio. The state is employing the old-fashioned techniques and tactics to
meet the gentrification and security goals of an emergent Olympic city.
Jenkins´ exploration of the recent history of favela infrastructure projects does well to point out the failure of Morar Carioca but ignores the fact that the Morar Carioca program was in place before the Olympics were sent to Rio. Once Rio 2016 was in hand, the mayor´s office put the Morar Carioca program into its “legacy framework”, showed the internationals how clever and good the program was (and really, it was quite idealistic and had some great projects) but then cut it off at the knees once the political capital had been gained. Morar Carioca died at the hands of political expediency and the short attention spans of the IOC and media.
Instead of Morar Carioca, Jenkins explains, we have UPP. That is, instead of improving through state sponsored interventions in infrastructure, the state uses police occupation to open
favelas to the market forces that will “upgrade”
them. The quote of mine from Hunting White Elephants in the article is taken
out of context and ignores the nuance that I have tried to bring to the issue
of UPPs. UPP is not only a changing of the guard. The program has brought
material, legal and social benefits to tens of thousands of people. It is true
that as military counter insurgency occupations of dense urban fabric, UPPs are
inadequate solutions to security and the guarantee of human rights. The
government admits this but has largely failed to follow up with equivalent
investments in the invisible: schools, day care, health care, sewerage,
mobility. It is also true that the murder rates are down in UPP favelas and
that the dynamics in those communities have changed dramatically. Jenkins took
a quote from Hunting White Elephants and used it to portray me as someone with
an extreme vision of what is happening – while I do not deny that I wrote that
on my blog, it is far from what I see as the starting point for a conversation
Because of the multi-billion dollar investments in the World Cup and Olympics, there is a lack of money for social housing and programs. Jenkins skirts over the opportunity costs of preparing five star hotels and blinged-out stadiums and questionable infrastructure for the megas. He turns his focus to the Zona Portuaria, calling it “easy renewal of a virtually empty zone of the old city.” The Porto Maravilha project may seem easy from a parachute, but on the ground it is highly contested and massively problematic. There are around 25,000 people who live in the Zona Portuaria, so it is not virtually empty, but rather full of life and culture. Providência, where the trip through Rio started, is there, and the resistance to these market oriented renewal projects that are intended to be the salvation of the poor is what has created strong leaders (“hero”) like Mauricio Hora. Jenkins is correct to point out the absurdities of the tram cars in Providência and Alemão but misses the point of the “Museum of Tomorrow”. It is not a curious title but rather an intentional negation of the rich history of the port area where millions of African slaves were dragged ashore. Their descendants are made invisible by the renewal, renovation, revitalization, requalification and gentrification projects and even the re-discovery of places like the Cais do Valongo and the Cemeterio dos Pretos Novos are tokenized, begrudging recognitions of the region´s importance in Brazilian history.
In Manguinhos, Jenkins gets it right, letting the people talk for themselves to explain what has gone wrong with the city´s urbanization projects. However, when explaining the history of Cidade de Deus he retreats into the assumptions that he brought with him, “it was built with only the most rudimentary infrastructure and left to run itself, which soon brought it under the aegis of drug gangs.” This is not accurate. Cidade de Deus and the majority of Brazilian favelas did not experience an influx of the drug trade until the late 1970s and 1980s and then grew in tandem. Therefore it cannot be true that the City of God of the movie was a result of a lack of government planning for the community itself. The Cidade was planned (albeit not well), but the lack of planning in the city as a whole made favela expansion the only viable solution to a grave housing crisis that happened to coincide with the expanding drugs market.
It is important to remember that Cidade de Deus came about after the government burned down the Praia do Pinto favela on the shores of the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas so the region could be gentrified. True, the pacification of Cidade de Deus has been accompanied by some very interesting social initiatives created by residents themselves. It helps to have the traffickers gone, but that is only one part of a much more complex puzzle. It is unclear if Jenkins went to the City of God or whom he talked to about the urban problems and solutions in the neighborhood.
For Jenkins, the “bugbear” of pacification is that in places with the best views and close proximity to centers of employment like Vidigal and Rocinha, there are “complaints of gentrification”. Complaints? Is this to suggest that people should not be complaining about or questioning gentrification in the poorest regions of one of the most expensive cities in the Americas? Again, Jenkins presents us with the linearity of the gentrification argument: “immense imputed value from gentrification and tourism…draws new residents, employers and investors…in turn generate(s) resources for better services”. For new residents to enter, old residents must leave. The gentrifiers never want to know where.
As Fabricio Leal de Oliveira recently pointed out at the Second International Conference Mega-Events and the City, urban planning in Rio has always been used by the public authorities to consolidate power and to attend to a narrow band of economic interests. Jenkins holds the mistaken assumption that if the city government had more resources to spend that the mayor´s office would direct those resources to favela upgrading projects. Paes has shown that he is willing to do just the opposite. With money and projects available through Morar Carioca, he threw them away. Rio is not a poor city. Brazil is not a poor country. The distribution of wealth and resources is the problem and gentrification does nothing to solve that. To the contrary, it exacerbates economic distinctions, increases social tensions and puts the most vulnerable at risk of expulsion. This is particularly true with the leading edge of the gentrification regime is BOPE and UPP.
Following on this superficial examination of gentrification dynamics, Jenkins then blames favela residents for not understanding how they would benefit from it: “They see gentrification leading to evictions, even where the residents themselves would benefit from property sales. Their default is to see the state as responsible for retrofitting their communities.” Who are they? Did people express this to him in an interview? How do residents benefit from property sales in an overheated real-estate market? If you sell your house, the only way to benefit is to move into a less expensive place or to move laterally in the same neighborhood where the properties values will have risen in value at the same rate. Staying means increased rents or increased property taxes that are rarely accompanied by an equivalent increase in salary. In Rio, “picking up sticks” means moving away from centers of employment and leaving the community. That in turn implies a loss of social capital. The idea that valorization is universally beneficial ignores the realities of the real-estate market and the impacts on costs and livelihoods.
Furthermore, by Jenkins´ own logic, the state would be the one to invest in the retrofitting through the increased taxes that have been accrued through land sales. Why then would it be wrong for favela residents to expect that the state invest in infrastructure retrofits?
In the following paragraphs, Jenkins allies himself firmly with the mayor, a notorious free market housing proponent who has unleashed the hounds of speculation across Rio de Janeiro. For Jenkins, freedom is equivalent with “moving, taking value of one´s home with one”. Again, he gets the favelas wrong. These are places where investments are made with extreme caution and sacrifice on the part of residents. The value of homes cannot be counted, as the mayor’s office does, by counting bricks. To Jenkins, the reluctance of people to move “implies bondage” and therefore stasis. And if static “they will never see the investments they sorely need”.
There are legal frameworks in place to upgrade favelas without leading to gentrification, displacement and social tension (ie, statute of the city). While Jenkins is right when he says that favelas are “proud places” and that they are being fetishized and romanticized by academics and journalists, the non-application of rights to people who live in favelas is an equally proud tradition of the Brazilian state. This is especially true in the run up to mega-events where the end game is wealth accumulation through dispossession. The most easily dispossessed are those who have less access to the state and a regime of rights. Within the neo-liberal framework that Jenkins is proposing, favela residents can seek their fortunes on the open market by carrying their value and labor with them. However, the very nature of favelas is that value is rooted in place and community, so that the labor market can be more easily accessed. A lack in economic capital is compensated by social networks and horizontal solidarities rooted in place.
Jenkins concludes his article by telling us that favelas are a “remarkable surviving pattern of urban living”. While I am a little confused by the language, throughout the article it is suggested that whatever has allowed them to remain as physical, social, political and economic features of Rio´s complex geography needs to change. For Jenkins, the entwined processes of pacification and gentrification applied to select areas of this “city of muggers” are a “sensitive and workable” vision that “is in place for their renewal”.