As a young adult in the city of Fortaleza, Brazil, I had two favorite
destinations for my times of leisure: the first was Praia de Iracema, which was
then the main nightlife district of the city, with plenty of venues for live
music, dining or simply strolling around.
The other was Mirante, a restaurant row on top of a mountain that has striking views of the city’s skyline that for years was the place to go to enjoy an early evening sunset and a nice dinner.
I remember going to these places, and the memories lingered for years after I relocated to New York City in the fall of 2000.
You can only imagine my shock when I returned for a two-week visit during the second half of July, when I showed my former hometown to my Polish-born wife, who had never been to Latin America before.
After taking her to the historic Ponte dos Ingleses (Englishmen’s Bridge), a defunct pier that was refurbished about 10 years ago to become a tourist attraction, we strolled over the seafront sidewalk where I used to hang out years ago.
To my dismay, I found that only one restaurant, Sobre o Mar, survives there; Pirata Bar, which opens on Mondays only (“the craziest Monday night in the planet”) still thrives in spite of the decline of the neighborhood where it is located.
The remaining buildings, however, just sit there abandoned like ghosts; many are in dire need of repair, and others look half-demolished.
At Mirante the situation was not different; the area where once you could get an excellent fish cooked on a ceramic roofing tile (peixe na telha) and hear some great music performances is completely abandoned save for a small pizza place and a newsstand that also sells beer and cheap wine.
My impression when I got off the cab was that it was too early for the restaurants to be open, but after talking to a handful of locals (one of them who warned me about the dangers of being mugged there) I learned that all the venues had closed about a year after I moved to New York.
The reasons for this situations are various: the first thing is that Fortaleza is a cyclical town. Places that are “hot” today are gone before you know it, as patrons gravitate to the next fashionable destination that people are talking about.
Another reason is the lack of security. At Praia de Iracema, drug dealers and the rise of sexual tourism contributed to its decline, according to a report published last year in O Povo, one of the city’s major daily newspapers.
At Mirante, what happened was quite different: as violence and muggings escalated in the area surrounding the restaurants, patrons began to lose interest in the place.
Slowly, the venues began closing one by one – the last to finally shut down was Alô Brasil, a bar that featured phones on every table and a number over them; patrons could “call” the neighboring tables and begin a flirting situation.
The success of that venue, however, did not help – cars were often burglarized, and visitors were often held up for their possessions. “The situation just went out of control,” said a longtime resident of the neighborhood who we’ll call José. “People just stopped coming here due to the violence.”
José points out that even without the nightlife, Mirante is a good place to live in. “Muggers don’t bother the residents; if you live here, you can rest assured that nothing is going to happen to you. I would not recommend tourists to come here, though. It represents a huge risk for them and also for anyone who seeks out to protect them.”
I asked José if he had hopes that Mirante would attract new businesses sometime in the future, and he said it cannot happen without political will.
“Current mayor Luizianne Lins got many votes from us after making promises to revitalize the community, and I volunteered on her campaign hoping this would happen,” José says with a sigh. “As you can see, it was nothing but promises.”
As of this writing, inquiries to the Fortaleza City Hall officials have remained unanswered.
Portuguese-born Julio Trindade, the owner of the Pirata Bar in Praia de Iracema, told me that “this neighborhood is constantly reinventing itself – something will surely happen in the near future, and we’ll be here to witness it.”
The truth is that there are no easy answers when it comes to the revitalization of those areas. “We need to guarantee that not only tourists, but also families can walk around the area safely without any fear to their personal security,” says a recent editorial from O Povo newspaper.
“All it takes is one incident of violence to mar whatever efforts towards restructuring the area. It is necessary that an efficient security system can ensure to every resident and visitor that strolling through Praia de Iracema generates zero stress in terms of safety. Once that is done, the rest is easy.”
“The government needs to provide the right amount of security so that people will feel safe to come here,” said José about Mirante. “I think that if there is a strong police presence in the area, the businesses will return and so will visitors.”
Fortunately for tourists, not all of Fortaleza is in such state of abandonment. Beira-Mar avenue, home to many famous hotels, continues to thrive, and so does Praia do Futuro, where you can enjoy Brazilian-style boiled crabs (caranguejo, cooked in coconut sauce with scallions and cilantro).
The recently built Central Market in downtown can provide hours of pleasant shopping for crafts made by artisans, typical foods and various other goods. A stroll at the Dragão do Mar Cultural Center can almost make you forget about the state of Praia de Iracema just a few blocks away.
That does not change the fact that something needs to be done about Mirante and Praia de Iracema. To turn a blind eye to the situation there is to turn away from the city’s history, and it is also a loss of great business opportunity.
Why not follow the example of New York’s Times Square, where government and business came together to bring change in what was one of The Big Apple’s sleaziest areas? All it takes is the will to change – the communities and visitors would be eternally grateful for that.
Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.