Rio, Again

by infraredbiped

It’s been months since I posted to this blog, so I thought it was time to write a bit.  In my last post about a visit to Rio de Janeiro I speculated that the favelas, or hillside slums that dot the city, would eventually be colonized by the wealthy. Apparently this process is already starting, as middle-class workers and expats unable to afford their traditional enclaves begin pushing into the favelas.

I don’t wish to romanticize life in these communities. Many of the favelas have been, and continue to be, wracked by poverty and violence. A quick look at one of the dozens of Brazilian drug war shootout videos posted online is enough to confirm this, though it’s also easy to find quantitative statistics on violent crime. As recently as 2005, the murder rate in Rio was an insane 42 per 100,000, several times higher than the most violent cities in the US.

However, it is ironic that just at the moment these self-built and self-organized communities are recovering from decades of drug violence, their longtime residents could be forced out by rezoning and rising costs.

According to this post in the Christian Science Monitor, Rio has apparently embraced land titling as the housing security solution for slum residents. I expect this policy will fragment many communities as members either cash out on rising property values or are simply defrauded of their titles.

Fraud is awful, but would selling out be a bad thing? Again, as a middle-class resident of a rich country, I’m sensitive to the charge of romanticizing the “community bonds” of a life of poverty. Who am I to criticize the poor squatter turned entrepreneur, now propertied and free of drug violence, who wants to sell his newfound nest egg? So what if his old neighborhood fills up with hookah bars and brew pubs1 that only tourists like me can afford? Don’t cities change all the time? Isn’t this more dignified than making money off bus-riding gringos who gawk at slum dwellers like they are animals at a zoo? What gives me the right to tell these people they can’t make money and join the glorious ranks of international consumer-citizens?

These are hard questions to answer, so I will only say that community relationships, rarely included in the value of land, are very difficult to recover once disrupted. I hope the people of Rio are able to thread this needle and improve their lot without sacrificing their community bonds (or worse, trying to turn the favelas into museum pieces). Because a nation of born-again neoliberal monads is not a happy place.

1. If anyone doubts that this is an accurate description of what will happen to South Rio, take a walk through Santa Teresa.