Gentrifying Rio

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have put the city’s controversial “arts-led” gentrification initiatives on full display.

Brian Mier

Wei Han Frank Lin / Flickr

Wei Han Frank Lin / Flickr

With the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, entering their second week, the issue of how the city’s urban landscape has changed since winning its bid to host the Olympics is more relevant than ever. Faced with a weak economy and ensnared in political scandal, the state and city governments of Rio de Janeiro have faced harsh criticism for their immense spending on the 2016 Rio Games. But government decisions have also changed the face of Rio itself. These have included transportation improvements that mainly benefit white, middle-class sections of the city’s west side and the carrying out of the largest public-private partnership in Brazilian history: an “arts-led” gentrification project in Rio’s port area.

Arts-led gentrification has in recent years become a popular tool for neoliberal mayors to strengthen real estate speculation in blighted neighborhoods around the world. Today the process is repeating in Rio de Janeiro’s port region, where an artist’s colony, supported by the Rio de Janeiro Mayor’s office, coexists within the context of a mega project called Porto Maravilha(Marvelous Port)—part of a network of public works projects associated with the 2016 Summer Games. In a move patterned after similar processes in the Global North, the Rio de Janeiro city government has used the Olympics as an excuse to target the port region for gentrification while at the same time attempting to theme the area as a vibrant neighborhood for Brazil’s “creative class.”

The word “gentrification” was popularized by Neil Smith during the late 1970s to describe a process in which the lack of investment in a central urban area creates a state of blight, thus opening space for the real estate industry to profit through its revitalization. Such processes encourage the entrance of the middle and upper middle class and generate a process in which longtime residents, no longer capable of paying rapidly rising rents and real estate taxes, are forced to move elsewhere. Despite criticism and controversy, gentrification became a strategy used by local government and real estate corporations to raise property values. These processes have generated a fortune for the real estate industry, from Williamsburg in Brooklyn to London’s East End to Barcelona’s Gothic quarter and Rio de Janeiro’s Lapa neighborhood.

To avoid the negative connotations associated with the word “gentrification,” urban planners and city managers have turned to euphemisms like “creative class centers” and “vibrant neighborhoods.”These terms are used by planners, NGOs, and governmental agencies to create new areas to attract artists and members of the middle class who follow them.

One of the fashionable gentrification tactics currently being used around the world is the implementation of large-scale projects as anchors of revitalization in blighted neighborhoods. One notable example of this is the port renovation project that started in Baltimore during the 1970s. In recent years, the strategy has also been implemented in Rio, especially in preparation for the 2016 Olympics.

The Brazilian Federal Government officially contributed only 0.45% of the R$24 Billion spent on the Olympics’ “legacy”—a group of public works that included port renovation, transportation and sewage infrastructure improvements, and the non-implemented depollution of Guanabara Bay. Rio’s city and state governments footed the bill for the remainder of this massive project, primarily through loans from public and private banks, but also through investments from the private sector. Though much of the international criticism of Brazil’s mishandling of the Olympics has misleadingly targeted democratically-elected (and recently ousted) President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT), in reality the powerful, corrupt, and conservative Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which controlled the Brazilian House and Senate (and now the presidency), managed the money, policing, bidding processes, and construction projects in pre-Olympic Rio.

City restructuring during the planning process for the Olympic Games focused primarily in two areas, the nouveau riche west side Rio neighborhoods of Barra da Tijuca and Recreio, where most of the events are taking place, and the port zone, an area of five million square meters that is home to 40,000 residents and has been under the control and management of a public-private consortium called the Porto Novo Business Consortium (CDURP) since 2009. While new zoning laws and public subsidies enabled luxury condos to mushroom up in Barra and Recreio, some 30 kilometers from the hotel district, the port area received a series of new museums, office towers, and a white elephant light rail system that inches along at nine miles an hour between the newly renovated dock warehouse area, museums, and downtown. At the same time that the budgetedR$8 billion began to pour in, the Mayor’s office implemented strategies to theme and gentrify the area with the objective of turning this historically working-class, Afro-Brazilian neighborhood into a new, middle-class housing market and office center.

The Port Area, Then and Now

Rio de Janeiro’s current port was first developed in the eighteenth century. Conveniently located close to downtown, it became a center for the national slave trade. Meanwhile, hundreds of low-rent boarding house complexes, called “cortiços,” sprung up behind the port. After slavery was ended in 1889, former slaves who had been duped into fighting in the Canudos war in exchange for housing that was never delivered, founded Rio’s first favela, Morro da Providencia. Other favelas, such as Morro do Pinto and Morro da Conceição, were quick to follow. Over the years, the poor and predominantly black population grew to the point that the port area became the scene of popular revolts against the Carioca elite, such as the Capoeiras rebellion, the Chibatas rebellion, the vaccine wars, and the longshoremen strikes.

In the twentieth century, the government remodeled the port, expanding the Gamboa facilities and building the Maua pier, which connected to a rail and road network. The port became one of the main export centers in Brazil, while the area directly behind it, with hundreds of cortiços and three favelas, was abandoned by the state. After the nation’s economic capital moved to Brasilia in 1960, the port complex began to decline.

During the early 1980s, the Rio de Janeiro Commerce Association presented a plan to revitalize the port neighborhoods of Gamboa, Saúde, and Santo Cristo, with little respect for the historic architecture that was present there at the time. However, that project was rejected. A coalition of residents’ associations, led by the Associação de Moradores do Bairro da Saúde (Association of Residents of the Saúde Neighborhood, AMAS), initiated a series of debates about the future of the region, with the goal of promoting the cultural history of the area and solving important issues, such as the quality of education and security matters. During the following two decades, a series of studies were made to improve the port area, but the largest landowners in the region—the federal, state, and municipal governments—let the area’s buildings deteriorate, abandoning many of them completely and contributing to a strategy of artificially undervaluing land prices to open the path for future gentrification.

The Porto Maravilha Project

A series of laws passed in 2009, followed by a public bidding process, gave the CDURP, which is made up of the private construction companies OAS, Odebrecht and Carioca Engenharia, permission to execute the construction projects that are today occurring in the port area. The CDURP’s budget was set through initial funding and a planned budget, which included resources obtained through the sale of “certificates of additional construction potential” (CEPAC). CEPACs are real estate shares that represent the commercialization and authorization of building potential within the Porto Maravilha area. These shares are regulated by the Commisão de Valores Mobiliarias (Real Estate Value Commission, or CVM) and are bought and sold in the market through auctions. The majority of the money raised through the sale of CEPACs is earmarked for construction projects in the port region. A minimum value of 3 percent is also earmarked for social and cultural projects through two programs: Porto Maravilha Cidadão (Porto Maravilha Citizen) and Porto Maravilha Cultural (Porto Maravilha Culture).

Porto Maravilha Cidadão’s aim is to achieve social improvement by connecting government actions with those of the private sector in order to support socioeconomic development activities in the region. As Priscila Oliveira Xavier says, “This program’s success greatly depends on the permanence of current residents in the region, a fact that the advance of the Porto Maravilha project is making almost impossible.” However, despite these purported intentions, the CDURP has supported the eviction of nearly one-third of the residents of the Morro de Providencia favela.

Meanwhile, Porto Maravilha Cultural uses part of the 3 percent of CEPAC sales, along with some financing from the private sector. In the words of the Mayor’s office, “The resources are applied to restoring historic landmarks, in governmental actions, and in the support of initiatives that add value to the patrimony of the region. To program the actions, CDURP works in partnership with public institutions, civil society, and the private sector.” Its stated goal is to preserve and add value to the memory of Brazilian culture. These goals appear altruistic, and the CDURP pamphlet about the program makes it appear as a philanthropic gesture, but it is easy to conclude that these initiatives appear to be directly taken from North American guidelines on how to create a “creative community” or a “vibrant neighborhood”, in which the first step is to “create a sense of place.” Such guidelines have been used as a strategy in many master development plans in cities around the world.

The activities developed within the Porto Maravilha Cultural program include restoration of some historic buildings, such as the Gamboa port warehouses and the Valongo docks, and support for cultural institutions and manifestations in the region, such as the weekly Pedra do Sal Samba street party, which is currently in style with white, middle-class youth from the wealthy South Zone.

Beyond the budget line for the Porto Maravilha Cultural program is the Rio de Janeiro Art Museum (MAR), which was installed in two vacant buildings in the region, in partnership with the city government and the Roberto Marinho Foundation, for R$80 Million. (R$62 million came from the city coffers, plus yearly maintenance costs). This installation functions as a so-called “cultural anchor,” adding value to the port area as a vibrant, “creative” (i.e. middle-class) neighborhood.

In January 2014, CDURP divided R$3,8 million in 34 cultural projects in the port region. The money was allocated for “courses, shows, workshops, parties, publications, and documentaries.” A quick look at the descriptions of the prize winners reveals great interest in projects aimed at recuperating historical memory and Afro-Brazilian culture as a strategy to create a brand that is palatable for a predominantly white and elite public. It is ironic that, despite the fact that hundreds of primarily black families were forcefully evicted—even more were forced out through a 500 percent increase in real estate values—the CDURP Consortium is actively engaged in theming the port area neighborhoods as the birthplace of Samba.

A Middle Class Squat

A gallery project managed by an organization formed by the majority white, middle-class owners of 52 art galleries and 28 small businesses is also located inside the old Bhering Chocolate Factory building at the entrance to the Morro do Pinto favela in the Santo Cristo neighborhood. Bhering Chocolate Factory was built in 1934 but was abandoned during the 1980s. In 2006, a group of artists made a deal with the owners and occupied the building, paying low rents compared to other spaces available for artists at the time. In 2011, the Court ruled to vacate the building in order to auction it off to cover the back taxes owed to the city government. In the end, the building was auctioned for R$3,2 million—a price much lower than its market value (estimated at R$32 million by the directors of Bhering company).

In 2012, the new owners, Syn-Brasil, issued a 30-day eviction notice for the occupants. They held a public protest and received solidarity from other artists on social media. Mayor Eduardo Paes even gave a sign of solidarity to the artists and business owners on Twitter, writing that “the eviction of various art spaces in the old Bhering Factory in the Port region doesn’t make sense…because of the small value that it was auctioned off for. Let’s act to stop this absurdity…” The Mayor’s decision to delegate landmark status to the building was treated by the media, the Ministry of Culture, and on social media as a victory for the people against real estate speculation.

Washington Fajardo, president of the Instituto Rio Patrimonio da Humanidade (Rio Patrimony of Humanity Institute), which is connected to the Mayor’s office, said, “We are working so that this process will be inclusive and contemplate use of the activities that are characteristic of contemporary life, such as the creative economy and cultural manifestations.” But why did the Mayor’s office act so quickly in favor of the occupants of the Bhering factory but not to the efforts to evict squatters in other parts of the port area, like the Quilombo dos Guerreiros (Warriors Maroon Community), a squat in an abandoned building next to the bus station, whose residents were evicted and put on social rent with the promise of future housing? Despite the fact that the ex-residents of this squat were acting legally and in accordance with the Federal Constitution, recent poor arrivals don’t mix with the strategy of creating the sort of “dynamic, creative community” that the Porto Maravilha project is trying to emulate.

The occupants in the Bhering Factory found themselves in a position that has repeated itself for decades in modern cities: artists and creative people, frequently politically and ideologically aligned with the poor and working class, being used as instruments of the real estate industry during gentrification processes. As has occurred in other places, like New York’s Soho neighborhood, there could be a day in the near future in which the current artists occupying the Bhering factory will not be able to afford to stay due to rising rents and will be forced to move to a new “next-frontier” neighborhood.


During the application of gentrification, Rio has established in the Porto Maravilha project a neighborhood with a “creative economy”—to use the language of neoliberal urban planners in the Global North. The city is betting that further gentrification projects in other cities of Brazil won’t impede their own success. But can such a strategy work in a city that—unlike Chicago or Barcelona—has favelas? In gentrification projects in the North, it is common for middle-class people to buy and remodel old houses in “up and coming” neighborhoods, and then resell them for profit. This may not be possible in a place like Morro do Pinto, behind the Bhering factory, a favela controlled by a drug trafficking gang that operates like a parallel government. Plus, the fact that many of its houses don’t have legal land titles could mean that its gentrification will not happen in the cookie-cutter manner that the Mayor’s city managers hope. All the same, real estate values continue to price long time renters out of Santo Cristo and Morro do Pinto, where sectors of the population have yet to benefit from “low-income” (defined as household income of up to six times the minimum wage) housing programs that were promised by the Mayor’s office. They are thus forced to look for cheaper places to live, further from the city center and their places of livelihood.

Meanwhile, as has happened in other neighborhoods around the world, like Greenwich Village in New York or Wicker Park in Chicago, the original artists who set up galleries in and around the Bhering factory are being forced out through rent hikes as part of the same process they originally benefitted from. As a gallery owner in the Bhering factory said, “I think we artists are stuck in a lousy role because, often without realizing what is happening at first, we get stuck helping a process that isn’t very cool. Everything is getting really expensive around here, and it’s leaving the small businesses and longtime residents with nowhere to go and [there is] nothing they can do about it.”

Os megaeventos esportivos na cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o direito á cidade: uma análise do marco jurídico local(Centro de Direitos Econômicos e Sociais/Ford Foundation: Rio de Janeiro 2016)