July 30th, 2019
Rio has famously, though misleadingly, been described as two cities, as asfalto and favela: pavement and slum. This description is misleading. While you might have the feeling of being in an entirely different world depending on where you find yourself in Rio, these two cities are closely tied together and part of each other. In fact, Rio is multiple cities but also one city.
Further, its many sides cannot be reduced to these terms. There are over one thousand favelas in Rio, each different to all of the others. Rio’s multiple cities express themselves in all kinds of ways: music and traffic; improvised houses next to airy modernist architecture next to weighty colonial buildings; armoured personnel carriers on the streets and tiny swimming costumes on the beach. Rio is also a city where delicate dreams of the future are inscribed on sometimes vibrant and sometimes decaying constructions of the present, from under which emerge scars of the past.
My research is about people’s everyday lives and international political economy. I’m interested in finding out how these topics, which at seem at first glance to be very different, are related. We tend to think about our everyday life as “in here”, as we go about our daily business. In contrast our usual perception of international things is that they are remote and distant, “out there”.
It’s clear that decisions or processes that take place in the international political economy have effects on people’s daily lives. However, for me it has been difficult to say how the everyday and the international affect each other.
In 2015 I was working at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and the city was preparing to host the Olympics. It was plainly clear that this international mega-event was having very concrete consequences for people’s everyday lives – for better and for worse. Walking around the city of Rio I saw how encounters and confrontations between the local and the international were all around me. I realised that I could put aside the question of how the international and the local relate, and instead ask where they meet.
In preparation for the Olympics, the city undertook to renovate the port area. They built the noted “Museum of Tomorrow” designed by Santiago Calatrava. They forcefully removed residents of one of Rio’s oldest favelas. And during construction in the port area, they dug up human remains – Rio’s port was the point of entry for more African slaves than had been taken to all of the United States during the slave trade and many of the pretos novos– “new blacks” – who had died in the transit were simply dumped in unmarked mass graves. The old port facilities where slave ships had been offloaded, Valongo Wharf, was also excavated by archaeologists and is now preserved and recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Rio taught me this: when the plans or designs or fantasies of international investors or planners or bureaucrats come into contact with people in their daily lives, these many cities play themselves out in the streets, in houses, in kitchens and restaurants, in taxis and offices. And there’s no reason to think that these don’t play out in any other city: research is a matter of walking around attentively.