Rio Never Was Paris

        Never Was Paris

is no longer Brazil’s federal capital and the city has
gone to seed. The gay, painted Parisian ladies of the center
have turned into dowdy old senhoras, shedding plaster molding
like a mangy dog sheds hair. Everything will crumble away
because it was never real in the first place.
Thaddeus Blanchette


the once and future Montmartre of Rio de Janeiro, is filled with beautiful
wrecks. Elaborately constructed belle époque grand dames,
built in the first decades of the 20th century, silently decay along
the neighborhood’s narrow streets and ample boulevards. The buildings
are mute testimony of a future that never came, a vision of Rio de Janeiro
that sprung from the fevered brows of the Republican municipal planners.

like Mayor Pereira Passos, inflamed with the virus of modernity, wanted
to sweep the old, pestilential slums of the center into Guanabara Bay
as landfill, doing away with the colonial past and rebuilding the city
in the most cutting edge (for 1910) Parisian styles. They wanted to
make Brazil’s federal capital a fitting showplace for a nation on the
move, a rival to much detested (but secretly admired) Buenos Aires.
With the nation’s tax receipts in their pocket, they did exactly that.

and a half centuries of carioca architecture went into the dumpster,
practically overnight. An earthquake or firestorm couldn’t have done
more damage. With a sweep of the administrative hand, a wide central
avenue was drilled through city center, knocking over houses and churches
that had withstood the predations of French pirates in the 18th century.
Castle Hill, the nucleus of the primordial Portuguese colony, with its
dignified Jesuit College, was whittled down to sea level and dumped
into the bay. Likewise, Saint Anthony Hill went into the drink. The
charming, rock lined back bays of Gamboa and Glória were filled
in, making space for a new port with all the modern facilities and,
later, an airport.

one can wander down Rua da Glória and gaze upon the old sea wall
to one’s left, looking forlorn a half kilometer away from the shore.
Cruise ships unload their cargos of tourists upon the dust of 17 generations
of Jesuit fathers and the charming old English Cemetery, once set overlooking
a placid cove, now huddles forgotten in a back lot at the foot of the
city’s oldest favela, stage for furtive drug deals and the odd
rape or murder.

what you like about Brazilians, we do like our order and progress.

the mass destruction of the last affordable housing in the city center
came a mass exodus of the poor and working class, most of whom were
pushed out of downtown proper during and after the public vaccination
riots. Some of the huddled masses moved to the urban frontier north
of town, settling along newly opened trolley and rail lines and founding
the roots of what is today the sprawling North Zone and Baixada Fluminense.

however, needing to remain physically close to their work, went up hill,
squatting the only unclaimed land in the center of Rio: the mountain
tops. These people, together with decommissioned soldiers back from
quashing the Canudos Rebellion (1897) and an ever increasing flow of
refugees from the Brazilian Northeast fleeing drought and poverty, built
the city’s first favelas.

very name "favela" comes from the campaign to destroy
the rebellious religious utopia of Canudos in the northeastern backlands.
Favela Hill was the center of the Army’s position during the siege of
the town, the place where the Fed’s had set up their heavy artillery
to bombard the land below. Perhaps the decommissioned veterans of the
campaign were trying to say something when they gave that name to the
hill they had occupied above the Army Ministry while waiting for the
payment of their overdue demobilization bonuses. Perhaps they were just
homesick for the brief time when they had been looked upon by the nation
as the saviors of the Republic. In any case, Rio’s hill top shanty towns
have been known as favelas ever since.)

place of the stately (but dingy and ill-maintained) colonial residences,
the city of Rio erected a faux Paris. From 1900 to 1925, fake-o belle
époque buildings spread across the center of town like mushrooms
over cow shit.

enough, as is so often the case in Brazil, the "latest, most modern"
architectural style was going out of fashion in Europe by the time it
hit these shores.

didn’t stop the city fathers from inviting King Albert of Belgium, the
war hero, to inaugurate the new "Paris of the tropics" in
1921. It didn’t matter what the Europeans may have thought about the
shake-and-bake architecture: the Carioca elite was convinced
that modernity had finally arrived, that a glorious morn was dawning
on the horizon and that was what was important.


a century later, all the old dreams have turned to dust. Rio is no longer
the federal capital and without the increased tax base of an empire
behind it, the city has gone to seed. The gay, painted Parisian ladies
of the center have turned into dowdy old senhoras, shedding plaster
molding like a mangy dog sheds hair. Their once elegant interiors are
full to bursting with a new generation of urban poor who thud up and
down the creaking steps and across the rotting floorboards, too involved
in the mechanics of daily survival and the thousand and one petty dramas
of the working poor to care much about their homes’ upkeep.

corridors smell of cat urine and echo to the sounds of blaring TV sets,
domestic arguments and wailing children. When a building becomes too
precarious for living in (i.e. practically falling down), the city government
labels it a historical monument and its left to die in peace, waiting
(usually futilely) for someone to come along to dump a half million
or so dollars into it to restore it to its days of glory.

I write this, I’m parked in Lapa next to the Museu da Imagem e do Som
waiting for a choro and jongo show to begin. These musical
forms kept the town hopping in the twenties and are now enjoying a belated
rebirth, along with the neighborhood itself. The heavy rhythm of jongo
echoes across the ruins, semi-ruins and restored façades lining
the boulevard.

front of me are the ruins of a three-story belle époque
monstrosity, leering like the toothless ghost of some ancient, pox-ridden
prostitute. Abandoned long ago, the building has been reduced to its
façade. Still, the balconies are there, along with most of the
ornate plasterwork. A fan of concrete feathers spreads out over the
three-meter-tall doorway. On the second floor, two life-sized plaster
cast nymphs, raising laurels over the entranceway, overarch a balcony.
One door hangs loosely in the frame, its glass half broken. Through
it, I can see the blue sky, dotted with white and orange cotton puff
clouds as afternoon drifts inexorably towards evening.

nymphs still have traces of paint attached to them: green for their
clothes and brown for their arms. It looks like the kind of balcony
some rich daddy would design for his princezinha’s boudoir. Or
maybe a bordello… I wonder how many young girls—now haggard old
dames or dust—have stood in triumph beneath those laurels, listening
to Zé Pereira at Carnaval, or perhaps watching President Getúlio
Vargas drive by on important affairs of state (his palace was just down
the road, after all). Perhaps four generations of women grew up here,
met their lovers and future husbands, squeezed out kids and died before
the building’s glory days properly ended and it turned into just another
tenement, then an empty shell housing a lean-to warehouse.

I often
hear tourists remark upon Lapa’s ruined glory, "Oh, such beautiful
buildings! If only they’d have maintained them…" They don’t realize
that, like much else in Rio, the whole set up was as authentic as a
three dollar bill from the get go. It was built to be gaudy, poorly
made, imitative trash and now it’s ending its life cycle, going down
in the same way as once fashionable whores do—in peeling paint
and dust.

A few
buildings will be saved, of course. The city’s even giving tax breaks
for renovation down here. But the real colonial and imperial Rio of
yesteryear was swept away to make room for this cheap crap. Now it is
gone forever and this, too, shall pass, like a bawdy and saudoso
choro. No matter how hard we try to hang onto it, it will crumble
away because it was never real in the first place: only the people who
lived in it were—both rich and poor—and they are long since

I must
admit, however, that I get a chuckle when I think about how, a century
from now, tourists will be clucking in awe and dismay over the ruined
apartment boxes of Barra da Tijuca. "Have you ever seen such stunning
1970s architecture?" they’ll exclaim, looking up at the broken
aluminum railings and crumbling marble facades. "Why, it’s almost
as if we were in Miami! Pity they couldn’t keep it up, though…."

moonlight nights from the hills of Santa Teresa, with the right kind
of eyes, you can still peer through the gloom and see Castle Hill. You
can imagine the tall ships in the bay and the proud colonial houses
in the valley below. But when the sun comes up again, you have to face
the reality that Rio chose, long ago, to raze its heritage to make way
for a pipe dream. Unfortunately, the city shows every sign of not having
learned its lesson.


Blanchette is a 35 year old immigrant to Brazil who has been living
in and studying the country most of his adult life. He can be reached




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