Part one in a three-part series exploring how favela-tourism coincides with urban renewal and ‘favela integration’ in Rio de Janeiro.
The above video shows a new tourist attraction in the famous favela Santa Marta: paintball. Brought to you by Off the Track Rio, a collaboration between a Santa Marta resident and a US-exchange student. Some of you may be shocked or even appalled by the moral implications of a bunch of rowdy, privileged foreigners playing war games in what used to be a favela controlled by a notorious drug lord. (If so, feel free to debate it out on the blog of the co-creator, where he has addressed such criticisms). I myself am fascinated, because through this project they are making a space of leisure and fun in which residents and ‘outsiders’ engage with one another through play. As a side note, at 25 reais a game (about 15 USD, and residents play at a “steep discount” according to the co-creator), paintball in Santa Marta is far more economical than any favela tour I have ever seen advertised.
My last post briefly problematized the slum as an analytical category. Historically the slum has been represented as an object of disdain, disorder, poverty, filth, disease; and the ‘slum dweller’ (a deeply problematic term) as a subject that is dangerous, unruly, violent, criminal, poor, helpless, in need of assistance and so on. Today this conceptualization generally persists in the media, popular opinion and within planning, architectural and academic circles (albeit shrouded in political correctness and good intentions). Such persistent essentializing of the slum—even when coming from the Left (think Mike Davis, Planet of Slums)—and the risk of associating the repugnant stereotypes of slums with their residents is the reason why the academic Alan Gilbert cries foul when organizations like the United Nations begin advocating slum policies. Gilbert worries “that use of the word slum will recreate many of the old stereotypes about poor people that years of careful research has discredited. By using an emotive word, the UN draws attention to a real problem but, in doing so, it evokes a response that it cannot control” [1, 710; emphasis added]. Gilbert clearly feels that development professionals, planners and researchers have a responsibility to challenge popular misconceptions and stereotypes about the urban poor, but by adopting popular terminology, slum-terminology, we risk reinforcing them. Even the slightest sensationalism might blow up in our faces. Nonetheless, with due deference to Gilbert, leading critical researchers continue to study slums as slums, if only because the category is ubiquitous in policy, the media and every-day conversation. It may be that researchers are powerless to “control” the conceptualization of slum because its origins and reproduction lies well beyond the reach of academia. Whether or not researchers validate or challenge slum-as-category, it will be treated as such by just about everyone else.
Like all social categories, concepts, identities and definitions, slum is not static but constantly reproduced and contested (locally and globally). In a recent paper, Gareth Jones examines aesthetic representations of slums and how spatial and territorialized stigma can be challenged through art and what he calls “aesthetic work” . With a global approach, Jones offers examples from Accra, Durban, London and Rio de Janeiro. The Rio example of Projeto Morrinho is especially interesting. What started as a small project by local youth to create a miniature model of a favela out of cinderblocks and bricks became a travelling art installation, one that represented all of Rio as favela. Jones views Morrinho through a lens of political subjectivity; how is the favela represented and by whom? He concludes that recognition of the slum-as-category is “vital”, but he stresses that we must study how the slum is represented and prioritize the idea of the slum (an inherently political process) rather than stress over and operate within utilitarian technical definitions of informal housing settlements (which mistakenly try to apoliticize the phenomenon).
The idea of the slum is central to my own research because I am interested in how the reproduction of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas affects urban spatial relationships and the city experienced. The evolving hypothesis is that ambitious state-led initiatives meant to legitimize and integrate (some of) the city’s favelas necessarily broaden the city itself. Simply put, by remaking the favela they are remaking Rio. Similar to Jones’ questions above, how this happens, by whom (and for whom) are essential matters. In this post, I lay the groundwork to begin exploring this public reconstruction of the favela through one mechanism to which I think many readers can relate (and hopefully offer their own commentaries): favela tourism.
Favela tours have exploded in the tourism market in Rio de Janeiro. Friends who have worked at hostels in Zona Sul have told me that favela tours are the most popular guided trips that guests sign up for; hostels and guesthouses have opened in a number of the most picturesque favelas; and the municipal government has promoted both foreign and native tourists to visit certain pacified favelas, even providing free guided tours of the celebrated favela Santa Marta. To attract the adventure-seeking travellers, some companies go beyond the classic guided tours (yawn) and offer truly exciting excursions like favela funk parties or favela paintball. My goal is not to analyse the market for favela tourism nor problematize poverty voyeurism. Instead, I want to consider the favela tour experience, and particularly how tourists in turn represent favelas, as part of the constitutive discourse that is currently reframing the position of the favela within the city of Rio and redefining its spatial significance.
Part two of this post will skip straight to the empirical “data”, and we’ll look at how favela tourists represent their experience in their blogs and photos. The idea is simple: tourists are sold their favela experience by guidebooks, hostel employees, tourist agencies and their websites. They arrive with preconceptions based on popular media (movies like City of God, news media, TV and the internet), other tourists, Brazilian nationals, and their scholastic and personal histories. While on the tour they experience the favela through a narrative provided by their guide and through their own discerning senses. They then consolidate this narrative with the influences mentioned above and reproduce it through blogs and online photo sharing. As tourists are not directly involved in the political subjectivity of favela representation, and as they did not grow up with the locally constructed socio-spatial prejudices, it stands to reason that they should easily adopt the narrative provided to them by their guides, tourist agencies and others parroting official state discourse about the new era dawning in Rio de Janeiro. Part two of this post (go to part II) will ask if there is a collective narrative being reproduced through travel blogs of favela tourists and what we might learn about the transformation of the favela carioca and the remaking of Rio de Janeiro.
***Anyone who would like to read any of the academic literature cited in any of my posts but does not have access to the journal, let me know in the comments section and I’ll be happy to share a digital copy.
- A Gilbert. 2007. The Return of the Slum: Does Language matter? International Journal of urban and Regional Research; 31(4):697-713.
- G Jones. 2011. Slumming About: Aesthetics, art and politics. City. 15(6):696-708.