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First impressions of Brazil

January 19, 2009
City of Walls by Teresa Caldeira

City of Walls by Teresa Caldeira

I have only been here a few days, but some things are already pretty clear. Brazil does not (yet) seem to be as obsessed by surveillance as the UK, but there is a noticeable concern with physical security. The Brazilian urbanist, Teresa Caldeira, called Sao Paulo the ¨City of Walls¨ in her excellent book of the same name, and whilst Curitiba may not be as divided as its bigger northern neighbour, the pervasiveness of defensive urban architecture is clear. Even fairly ordinary suburban houses have high walls, fences and gates,  and some boast razor wire or even electric fences on top. Shopping malls and banks have large numbers of private security guards who are not just hanging around doing nothing as they do in the UK, but seem alert and active. When I went to change some traveller´s cheques, the agency could only be accessed one person at a time, via two locked doors with intercoms and an intervening antechamber with a metal detector.

What is the source of the fear? Of course it is the poor, and in particular the favelados (the people who live in the favelas, the informal settlements that line the riverbanks). Even though in Curitiba, there are not so many favelas and they are not so extensive as in the larger cities of Brazil, the favelas are still no-go areas for non-favelados and I have been warned not even to think about entering. Of course I will be later in Rio, but I will have local help (I hope). Whether one thinks that these are people driven to desperation and crime, or as one contact here said, it is because the drug-runners chose to live amongst the favelados because the police will not follow them there, the division between the favelados and the rest of society is obvious. It is also blatantly racial. The favelados are generally darker, although in Curitiba, which is generally a more European and less African part of Brazil, there are also a significant number of favelados of eastern European descent, the families of immigrants who came to work in construction and were later left without work.

The engineering faculty of the Pontifical Catholic University of Parana, home to the Postgraduate School of Urban Management, where I am based for now, is right up against one of the favelas of Curitiba. The large windows at the back have had to have concrete shields fixed across them as some young guys from the favela had started to enjoy testing their guns out on the panes. There are still a few bullet holes visible in the walls! But don’t let me give you the impression that this is a war zone, or that everyone is paranoid and afraid of each other. It doesn’t seem that way either, and I don’t feel any less safe than I did in Washington DC in the early 90s…

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