Favela Chic

Be careful, someone was killed here last month,” the cab driver said as he dropped us off at the entrance to Vidigal, one of Rio de Janeiro’s infamous favelas, “a foreigner who worked in some hostel.” We got out of the taxi and into a van that took us up the neighborhood’s serpentine streets, passing several heavily armed police units along the way. Twenty minutes later, we were ordering tacos and drinks at the open-air deck of Alto Vidigal, the same hostel where a young Swedish entrepreneur had been found dead some weeks before. Smartly dressed patrons, most of them exchange students like us, kept arriving to drink and socialize as the night progressed, and the clouds cleared to reveal a stunning view of Rio’s beaches.

“This place is so gentrified,” a friend from Brown University told me as she sipped her mango cocktail, “but it’s such a cool scene.” Lounge music played from the speakers and mixed with the hum of conversations in English, Spanish and, occasionally, a bit of Portuguese. Eventually, the crowd spilled out onto the street, where motorcycle taxis were waiting to carry us down the hill and on to the next party of the evening. It was the first night I spent up on the hill, as well as the first time I witnessed the social dynamics that drive favela gentrification, one of Rio’s most salient urban conundrums.

Broadly defined, gentrification usually refers to a process of demographic change in which the arrival of new, wealthier groups in a marginal zone displaces the area’s original population. It is often called a market-based eviction because it triggers factors that make it economically unviable for the typically poorer (and darker-skinned) old-time residents to maintain their homes. Rent prices go up, goods and services begin targeting the wealthier demographics, and homeowners are pressured to sell their properties as the value of land in the area increases.

Gentrification is by no means a new phenomenon in Rio de Janeiro. As in many large cities around the world, Rio’s geographic and economic growth has led to changes in the socioeconomic makeup of neighborhoods all over the city. However, the winds of change have only recently been felt in favelas, the informal settlements that are often seen as dangerous and unruly no-go zones by Rio’s more privileged classes. Unlike other cases of urban renewal — a common euphemism for gentrification — there are unique factors underlying the redrawing of maps and the expulsion of favela residents. Gentrification in Rio carries colonialist implications that can be traced back to earlier foreign incursions into the Global South. The reorganization of neighborhoods, while beneficial for a new class of consumers and legitimized as part of the World Cup and Olympics preparations, threatens to uproot close-knit communities within the traditionally poor favelas and disrupts the delicate balance of these culturally rich neighborhoods.

The policies that shunt the poor out of their homes have a complicated history colored by the legacy of decades of class conflict. Rio’s poor make up a large portion of the city’s population and are just as characteristic of the city as its famous beaches and Carnival processions. Originating as homes for freed slaves, retired soldiers and poor immigrants from other Brazilian states, favelas started out as small, illegal settlements built by people who lacked access to public housing. These settlements grew into sprawling mini-cities on the sides of bigger cities’ hills, but they were beyond the purview of the government and thus became riddled with drug trafficking and gang warfare. Because of this bloody history — interlaced with class and racial biases — Rio’s middle and upper classes grew up fearing the favelas. The concept of well-off citizens moving into these places willingly would have been unthinkable merely 10 years ago, when favelas were thought to contain only drugs, destitute poverty and violent crime.

But now, in the wake of Brazil’s recent bout of economic growth, the state is forcibly taming these formerly off-limits spaces for the benefit of a new class of consumers, including mobile young students and professionals from around the world. Many commentators argue that the floodgates of gentrification opened when the Rio government began implementing its Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) program in 2008. Developed and implemented in preparation for the city’s mega-events, this initiative places permanent police units within favelas to wrest power from the drug gangs that have exerted de facto control over them.

While the 40 UPPs established so far have succeeded in limiting drug traffic and lowering violent crime rates, they have also gained a reputation for human rights abuses. The UPPs and the special forces battalions that helped militarize the favelas have been responsible for tense encounters between community members and the forces of the state. Even in Vidigal, often considered a community in the advanced stages of gentrification, it has become normal to see military police in body armor walking around with semiautomatic rifles. Frustration with the UPPs has led to a rich history of protests against the criminalization of favela residents’ conditions; these police forces disproportionately stop and arrest poor Brazilians of color, while often declining to state the motives behind their actions. These arrests and operations can turn violent quickly: The nonprofit watchdog organization Brazil Forum on Public Security counted 1,890 people killed during UPP operations in 2012. This violence adds yet another burden to favela residents who are already trampled by increasing property values that prompt market-based evictions.

Building upon the mechanisms first established to reduce crime in the favelas, the federal and state governments have implemented developmental programs meant to improve the quality of life for the residents of these communities. The Morar Carioca and Minha Casa Minha Vida programs aim to upgrade favela infrastructure and provide an acceptable housing alternative for dislocated favela residents. In practice, however, these initiatives — designed to support the original residents — have developed the land but ignored the people on it. Infrastructure improvements often end up benefiting newcomers, rather than  long-time residents, who are instead priced out of their homes. And less necessary projects — fancy bridges and funiculars — receive more funding because they embellish the area for the gentrifying new residents.

While the right to land is constitutionally protected in Brazil and between a third and two-thirds of favela residents legally own their property, many have been forcibly relocated to make way for World Cup or Olympics-related development projects. These evictions are often justified with trumped-up claims of natural disaster risks. Many relocated residents are subsequently forced into low-quality apartments outside the city that are hours away from their original communities and hours more from their jobs. In protest, some have even chosen to squat in abandoned factories close to their former homes instead of migrating to the periphery, though this choice carries the considerable risks of unsafe shelter conditions as well as the potential for forceful removal by the police.

Many of gentrification’s most vocal apologists justify the practice by its alleged inevitability. It is seen as a part of a natural process of urban renewal and often portrayed as the way cities inherently change and grow in reaction to supply and demand. But many local intellectuals are now pushing back against this legitimation of gentrifying dynamics by helping communities organize and publishing research on more sustainable methods of favela development. In a speech given at local think tank Casa Fluminense, Theresa Williamson, an urban planner and the director of local NGO Catalytic Communities, proposed that favelas — and slums everywhere — should not be thought of as unsolvable human blights. Instead, they should be considered opportunities for experiments in sustainable development for the urban poor. With United Nations projections stating that a third of the world’s population will be living in slums by 2050, favelas present an invaluable opportunity to construct and maintain self-sufficient, affordable housing within close proximity to urban centers.

Finally, what many forget while discussing how to improve favelas is what favelas are already doing right. Despite the oppressive forces of poverty, crime and the other problems that riddle favelas, their close-knit communities have nevertheless crafted a unique identity for their spaces. With their layered levels and winding streets, favelas promote pedestrian-friendly development and organic architecture, and their structural characteristics lend themselves to a focus on the residents’ needs, rather than on outside businesses’ potential profits. In a country where 44 percent of the adult population does not have a bank account — and with many such individuals living in the favelas — community ties are the only way many residents obtain financial support in times of need. The proximity of these favelas to neighborhoods in Rio’s south and central zones supplements this communitarian safety net with vital access to the places where job opportunities are most abundant. And the ubiquitous presence of these communities all over Rio leads to a more varied socioeconomic distribution within the city’s main zones — even in posh beachfront neighborhoods.

The culture that arises out of these tight-knit communities is an essential component of favela identity. Many of Brazil’s most famous and cherished traditions, from samba to capoeira, are favela-bred art forms that were censured and criminalized before trickling into the national mainstream. The recent surge of funk carioca — a sub-genre of Brazilian dance music — shows that favelas are still very much at the center of Rio’s cultural production. Perhaps most importantly, favela communities were developed from the bottom up. There is a great sense of pride among long-time residents that supports local entrepreneurship. While these factors are essential to the historical identity of favelas, they also make up the so-called charm that attracts wealthier city residents to their streets. The cultural vibrancy of these neighborhoods actually propels their own gentrification, as young people enamored with a romanticized image of the favelas seek to live there in order to experience the “authentic” Rio.

The recent favela development projects are, to an extent, recognition of the importance and usefulness of these unique spaces. To the degree that they make favelas safer and improve the lives of their working-class residents, these programs should be encouraged. However, those who enter these communities seeking a “genuine” Global South experience, or even those who are just trying to avoid the steep prices of Rio’s established neighborhoods, have a responsibility to understand the history and struggles of the places they wish to inhabit.

To other exchange students sipping tropical cocktails in a small bar in Vidigal: There is more to these communities than the next hip bar. Students, foreigners and Brazilians making forays into these complex spaces can contribute — not to cultural whitewashing, but to the building of stronger communities. If only we could pay attention to the surroundings as much as the sangria.