By Kahaari Kenyatta and Natalia Revelo
Michael Foucault coined the term heterotopia to describe a space, place, or moment in which “all real states” are reflected, sometimes spanning space and time, creating bridges between the distant while simultaneously engaging in the process of sequestration. Heterotopias are spaces in which multiple, often contradictory, meanings are embedded. The Morro da Conceição (Hill of Conception) is one of these spaces.
The hill, formerly called Valongo, is one of the first on which the Portuguese settled in this area. It is a site of birth and now a site of renewal: For decades on decades, the hill and its surrounding neighborhoods have been neglected, but as Rio rises to new challenges (a global city in a globalizing world, representing (perhaps) a country of 200 million, and hosting millions more through perennial tourism and megaevents like the FIFA World Cup of last year and the Summer Olympics during the coming year) city leaders are turning to this dilapidated tropical Plymouth Rock to redevelop the region and transform it into the “marvelous port” of entry it once was. But, as a home to the carioca for hundreds of years, this region bears much more beneath the surface.
At the Morro da Conceição, one still finds architecture from the 14th century. The houses have retained the old Portuguese colonial style.The narrow cobblestone streets leading up the steep morro are lined by colorful colonial style houses juxtaposed with a tightly parked queue of modern cars. At the top of the morro one can find the Fortaleza da Conceição. This fort served as one of the city’s two key strategic defensive sites in the 18th century, though today it operates as a museum.
The coast adjacent to the Morro housed a prominent port of entry and exit for people and goods. One of the port’s primary imports for the majority of Brazil’s history fit into both of those categories.
“The Pedra do Sal.”
Slaves poured into these ports, dead and alive, to be sold on land and transported to the Brazilian Northeast to toil on sugarcane plantations among other locations. Throughout the hills, traces of Brazil’s dark history of slavery remain, like on the Pedra do Sal, slave-carved stone steps on the Morro da Conceição in a neighborhood that is still oppressed and is recognized today as a quilombo, which, in this case, implies a historically socially disadvantaged, predominantly black community. The Pedra do Sal was the place where salt imported from Portugal was carried through by African slaves to their destinations. In the past the sea would reach to the bottom of the stone and slaves were to hike up the slippery rock with their cargo. Therefore in an attempt to lighten their loads, so to say, they carved out steps from the rock. These steps can still be seen today as a mark of the history that passed through here.
After the abolition of slavery, many Afro-brazilians used this locality as a point of reference for black culture. Pedra do Sal became a hotspot for Carnaval, rodas de samba, candomblé and other rituals. Samba being a mixture of African rhythms and to an extent a symbol of rebellion brought the black community together. Nowadays the tradition continues with rodas de samba every Monday and Friday at 7 pm until the next day. Today it is a place of large importance for the black carioca culture and a place where icons of samba and chorus come together.
“At the Pedra do Sal. Street art reads: Curly is beautiful, your bias is ugly”
Other remnants of the past have been found during the recent renewal efforts in the area. In the Providência community of the Gamboa neighborhood, renovation has uncovered a vast cemetery of African men, women, and predominantly children and infants who either died on the trans-Atlantic journey to Brazil, or arrived too weak. Now standing at that site is the Memorial Pretos Novos, a community-captained museum-memorial to those who died in Brazil’s “Black Holocaust.” Unearthed documents reveal a missionary’s letter detailing the burial practices. “Without coffins, and oftentimes without the tiniest bit of clothing, [the children] are thrown into a pit not even two feet deep.” The city of Rio de Janeiro has failed to highlight this horrid yet important historical discovery, just as it has neglected the port region for years.
As time rolled forward and slavery faded away from the Brazilian legality and memory, businesses left the region. Empty buildings and street corners nearer to the coast, and the old colonial houses on the hill became homes for poor, often black, Brazilians. The land that these homes, formal and informal, sit on is poorly integrated onto the city’s utility grid. Coupled with the dilapidated exteriors of the historical homes and the lack of investment, land here is cheap. Here, many of Rio’s poor, black citizens have pushed against the inequitable system to live fulfilling lives, but these systematically disadvantaged people may now be under the control of Rio’s wealthy again as the Porto Maravilha project proceeds.
The project, a restoration effort set to finish in time for the coming Olympic Games in Rio, includes a complete rua-a-rua renewal of the area with the goal of promoting new residents by moving traffic underground, creating large open promenades and bike roads, shopping areas, and intense greening including a proposed 15,000 trees, in addition to updating local infrastructure to expand access to and improve provision of water, electricity, and sanitation services. The essential question lies in how this project will be run, and for whom the improvements are made.
This region is a home for many low-income residents of Rio and an historical site of struggle and remembrance for the oppressed peoples of Brazil. While the city protects select historical sites, in the whirlwind of development subsidy and investment, will the hill’s historical inhabitants be swept away? Firstly, there are fears of the project’s management.
The work has been contracted out already, and while there are publicly available quarterly reports, transparency doesn’t exempt the firms united under the name CDURP from the corruption common in Brazilian projects or the frequency with which projects simply end unfinished. On the other end, while this new investment will bring jobs and infrastructure, many of the current residents fear being priced out of their homes, especially with hundreds in Providência already slated for removal. While CDURP has had many conversations with local stakeholders and offers property tax exemptions for those who let their houses be improved under the Porto project, there are still many unforeseeable negative externalities possible.
The Morro da Conceição and Região Portuária were nuclei of colonial life and are still vibrant places full of vitality. But, changing conditions and relationships has transformed the identity of the area as time has passed. As the area is remodeled we must ask, which modes and memories of life and living, which identities will Rio de Janeiro support?
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