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Just about every American I know who’s been just about anywhere in Latin America baffles about how all the good real estate is the bad real estate. In the US, it often looks like there’s a causal correlation between wealth and altitude. The higher financial figures, the higher you build. And then they show up in Latin America and the poor neighborhoods are quite often on the hills. There’s no coincidence that morro (hill) is a colloquial synonym to the other colloquialism for informal neighborhood, favela. In Rio, where the topography is so extreme, the phenomenon is that much more noticeable and has been noticed, not just by casual observers but by those of us who make a serious study of urban development. Ann Varley points it out in N-Aerus XI, 2010 and cites Fabricius referring to Rio’s hillside favelas versus wealthier lower elevations as “topographic aparteid” (Varley 2010, Fabricius 2008).

A while back I met a guy called Gilson in Santa Marta. He quickly went from a guy I met to a  really great friend. (Ask if you want to hear the pretty awesome story.) I was delighted when last holiday season he sent me an invitation to a community block party in Santa Marta called “Réveillon na Laje (Em Santa Marta)”. Santa Marta, like so many favelas, especially in from The City Center to the South, has spectacular views. And I mean retina-busting, views: of the city, the sky, the forests, the mountains, the ocean. It is nuts. And it’s definitely not lost on people who live there, “privilegiado” (as in priveledge, unique, exceptional) was the word you’d most often hear to describe the views from the morros.

Sugar Loaf Mountain, and Guanabara Bay as seen from Favela Santa Marta.

Sugar Loaf Mountain, and Guanabara Bay as seen from Favela Santa Marta.

This was definitely not the first I’d heard of parties in favelas, because moradores of favelas, members of the “comunidade” are Brazilian and they know how to party. A lot. It’s no secret. It’s not for nothing that Samba effectively comes from favelas, and that their histories are so closely related (Barke et al 2001). Any given weekend (maybe it’s different post-“pacification”?) you could find seemingly everyone up and at ‘em well into the small hours of the morning. This was, however the first time I was hearing of a formal party for a formal occasion to which the invitation was formally offered to the rest of the city.

I didn’t get to be in Rio during this holiday season, but from some reports, the idea is catching on in a huge way. An article by Solveig Flörke, in the German online news magazine Duetch Welle reports that, ever the party capital, Rio’s Zona Sul has spread its New Year’s party up the Hill and visitors are paying top dollar for access. According to the report, tourists are paying upwards of $600 for the priveledge of Parting on the hill. This I can’t imagine paying, myself. Because, Holy Crap, that’s an expensive date. But I am profoundly glad that the Comunidade is cashing in.

The thought that came to mind upon reading this, is that it’s about friggin’ time. While there have been mixed reviews on the process and execution of favela pacification process–it’s a dog and pony show ahead of the Olympics, it’s repressive– this phenomenon seems to be among the blessed outcomes of pacification.  The residents interviewed in the article talked about increased security as a reason for the new success, and two, Dona Azelina and Rodrigo Viera, both of Pavão-Pavãozinho, offered not only the wonderful views but the favela residents’ openness and fun-loving hospitality as selling points for celebrations such as these.

New Year’s Fireworks at Copacabana as seen from Morro do Cantagalo (Solveig Flörke, image).

These are all highly credible reasons, in my experience. When the hoteliers on Copacabana charge high prices there’s no cause for extra emotion, the market certainly has it’s niche and if you can afford it, more power to you. But since the favelas just uphill have had their killer views and friendly neighborhoods (yes, even before pacification) to themselves, being isolated in so many ways from mainstream Carioca life for so long and now get to share their the wealth and have it’s value be acknowledged (and not just monetarily, though there obviously is that)–that becomes a pretty significant event. That people are willing to pay those high prices (Dona Azelina’s party was evenly split between tourists at $527 a head and locals for half price) to enjoy aspects of Rio that have gone under-appreciated for so long, and that the favelas’ transition from the margins to the mainstream seems to be picking up steam is really cause for celebration. Feliz Ano Novo, indeed!

_______________

Fabricius, D, 2008, “Resisting representation: the informal geographies of Rio de Janeiro” Harvard Design Magazine 28 (Spring/Summer) 4 – 17

Varley, Ann. “Postcolonialising Informality?” N-Aerus XI: Urban Knowledge in Cities of the South. http://www.n-aerus.net/web/sat/workshops/2010/pdf/PAPER_varley_ a.pdf (accessed 16 Jan 2012). 8(1). 88-100.

Barke, Michael, Tony Escasany and Greg O’Hare, 2001, “Samba: A Metaphore for Rio’s Favelas?” Cities, August 2001. 259-70.

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