An Introductory note on Rio de Janeiro’s downtown, then and now:
A massive modernization project at the turn-of-the-century, (referred to by Cariocas as the Bota Abaixo, or the big knock down) transformed downtown Rio into a site of wondrous neoclassical structures such as museums, libraries, opera houses, cafes and elegant Parisian avenues, plazas and promenades. Then in the late 1960’s, to keep up with the western architectural trends once again and make way for a new global financial system, much of downtown Rio was knocked down all over again, but this time more indiscriminately, leaving pockets where buildings were partially torn down or left abandoned. It was into these ignored in-between spaces that a massive informal economy began to flourish in the shadows of world-class financial institutions. Where the remains of colonial structures once stood, vast tented complexes now began to sprawl, weaving their way through alleys and side streets and vacant lots, visible from the surrounding corporate towers as long tendrils of blue– due to the blue tarps used to cover the hawkers and vendors from the hot sun and torrential rains of South America– a vast blue city winding its way through the nooks and crannies of Rio’s downtown business district.
Upon returning to Rio from my day trip to São Paulo to visit with my friend Junior and his family, I found my room had been robbed. Not just robbed, but completely cleaned out – it looked like it did when I arrived that first night– just the bare walls of a vacant hotel room. To hell with possessions anyway, I said, except for one thing, my hard drive had to be found. It had all of my research documents, photo archives on it as well as the video footage I’d accrued from interviews with Brazilians about their everyday lives. The videotapes and my movie camera had also been stolen out of the safe. My work was gone.
A week later, a Brazilian friend called me and told me to come downtown, that his bank’s boy (office boy), who was actually a man, a forty year old man with a black belt in karate and a knack for fixing problems, would help me find my stolen hard drive. So I met Antonio in the corporate high-rise building on Rua Assembléia (shown in right picture above) and we went for a walk. We left the building, rounded the corner and headed a few streets over and down to Rua Buenos Aires, a street that paralleled Assembléia in the central business district of Rio (otherwise known as Centro). But what quickly caught my eye was that Rua Buenos Aires paralleled Rua Assembléia in a cartographic sense only. Walking down Rua Buenos Aires, I passed street vendors selling anything one could imagine: boxes of chewing gum and candy, cases of soda, laundry baskets, “gold watches,” kitchenware and so on. This was a stark contrast to Rua Assemebléia’s jet set, global financing scene of worldwide banks and multinational conglomerates.
What I did not realize initially was that these street hawkers were much like the medieval tradesman that aproned the exteriors and lined the entrances of walled cities. I was only on the perimeter of Antonio’s destination, the city of blue tarps. We entered under the first tarp and I had wrongly assumed again – this time that this blue-tarped stall was a singular space, set up to protect the sellers products from the rain and the harmful rays of the sun. But as we passed through this first tent and into another one and then another, I soon realized that everything was connected, that we were now inside a complex, highly integrated city of blue tarps. We walked on and on within the blue labyrinth, passing machete stands and knife stands and barber shops and dentists and lunch counters and fishing tackle shops and blue jean boutiques. It just went on and on. And then we finally arrived at the computer district of the blue-tarped city. Here, they had everything– monitors, printers, CDR’s, DVD’s, keyboards, mice, there was even a stand that sold printer ink from large vats. I had discovered, with Antonio as my guide, a veritable chop shop for computer parts, reminding me of the scene in, “Star Wars,” when C3PO has to be bought back piece by piece from an illegal android dealer. Only this time I was looking for my own appendage, my digital appendage. Antonio gestured with a wide and slow sweep of his hand toward a mountain of hard drives– there must have been thousands of them stacked in endless rows before me – organized by brand, size, etc. Antonio chatted up the vendor and described my hard drive: Seagate 160 Gigabyte, just stolen last week, was housed in a bright red enclosure. The vendor pointed at the stack of Seagate drives. All were removed from their housings. I stared in awe at this haystack. I gestured to Antonio that he could go, slipping him 20 Reais for his assistance in this matter. After about 30 minutes I gave up and decided to just buy another hard drive, but this time I bought two, one would function as a backup and stay in a high security safe at my friend’s bank in the high-rise office building on Rua Assembléia.
Not ready to return to my room, I walked along with my hard drives, moving even deeper inside the city of blue tarps, pushing ahead in search of the end that I kept expecting to see at any moment. I stopped for lunch and got a haircut. I bought a new lock for my front door. I picked up some plastic clothespins. And I even bought a blue tarp for myself, too. They are so versatile, I thought, one is always in need of a blue tarp. By the time I reached the end of this tented city, there was no more sunlight streaming in– I emerged into total darkness on the other side. It was somehow night already. I had just passed an entire day within this city of blue tarps, which occupied an other downtown parallel to the proper downtown of big business. Across the street, I could see into a large, dimly lit warehouse where countless coffins were stacked. Perfect, I thought, one could live his entire life within this blue city and then when it comes time to die, they simply carry you out the back and place you in a coffin.
To follow recent developments on Rio’s evolving downtown, go to my next post: Envisioning Rio’s New Downtown: “It’s all Up in the Air.”