viva vidigal!

There are no noise ordinances in Vidigal. It is not a quiet place. By day, there’s the constant grind of moto-taxis shifting gears and beeping horns at pedestrians with whom they share the favela’s narrow streets. Add to that the noise of hammers & saws, of houses being built. In the part of Vidigal where I stay — a 15-minute walk from the bottom, on a street with ocean views — it seems like every other house is in a state of upward expansion. All available plots in Vidigal are built on already, and with property values skyrocketing there is nowhere to build but up.

At night there is music. On weekends there’s a lot of music, cranked out of open windows and off rooftops all over Vidigal, loud enough to be heard halfway across the neighborhood. On recent nights I’ve seen fireworks launched from multiple roofs at once and enjoyed the sounds of a nearby drum circle. For good measure there are people who drive around bumping tunes from amplifiers strapped to the tops of their cars.

Life here is not easy but it is enthusiastically lived. I’m not the party hound that I once was, and the noise in Vidigal has kept me awake, a little later into the night than I’d prefer — but hey. I used to keep the neighbors awake for sport, practically as a profession. So now I’m the one losing a little sleep. In Rio.

I’ve had worse problems.

If you’re looking for a good cheap spot to shack up in Rio here it is. Easy walk to the beach. Public transit provides 24-hr connections to all over town. There are decent, inexpensive restaurants inside the favela. The streets are well lit. There’s a grocery store, pharmacy, ATMs. This is not the slum your mother warned you about.

The walk to my hostel is 15 minutes straight up a very steep hill. There’s always a moto-taxi to take, for R$2.50 (a little over a buck US), and the ride is a hoot. Most times though I prefer to walk. The hike can seem daunting but really it’s fun. For locals the hill is a different beast. After a long day at work the same walk home would be the furthest thing from fun. And for people who ride them daily I’d guess the thrill is gone from the moto-taxi rides. Plus the R$6 roundtrip per day most favelados must pay to get around inside their favelas amounts to a doubling of commuter costs for Rio’s poorest citizens.

Favelas are difficult places to live.

There is as we speak a sewer-ish smell creeping out from under my closed bathroom door. Maybe it’s a problem with the hostel’s septic, but I suspect a system-wide malady. While walking through Vidigal one does catch a not altogether infrequent whiff of human doo. In Rocinha I have seen an open viaduct of sewer make its way to the beach. Residents of some favelas trudge through raw sewage on a daily basis. Not cool, Rio. Nao é legal. Rio de Janeiro is one of the world’s great metropolises and proper sewage treatment is an underpinning of human civilization. On the bright side, systemic sewage treatment problems are easily solved; a mere matter of public financing. Spend the money, Rio. Treat the sewage.

Represent!

Meanwhile, open the window a little wider. Let out the septic smell and breath in a few gulps of sea breeze. There’s a rooftop party across the street with a loud dj & people laughing & lighting fireworks & having fun. Another Saturday night in this odd traveler’s paradise.

At no point while walking around Vidigal have I felt the merest inkling of a threat posed crime-wise from any direction. The UPP presence here is minimal and — unlike in other ‘pacified’ favelas, where police brutality is widespread and where their presence has often incited more gang violence than it has quelled – here they seem to mind their own. I have yet to see a cop in a hurry to get somewhere or somebody. Amid all Vidigal’s cacophony I’ve not heard a single police siren. In fact during my week here I have not seen the heavily armed UPP officers do anything besides stand around, maybe send a text, and occasionally stop by the per-kilo buffet for a cheap bite to eat.

There’s good reason for the lackadaisical policing: there is no crime in Vidigal.

This is despite — not because of — the UPP presence. Vidigal was peaceful, if economically impoverished, for decades before the UPP arrived. There was a stretch of months in 2004 when residents were caught in the middle of a bloody turf war between Vidigal’s bandidos and those who controlled neighboring Rocinha. Then loose bullets were a menace to anyone walking innocently down the street. People from neighborhoods near the top of Vidigal often dared not go home, for fear of their lives, and dozens of people were killed. Such is life in favelas.

But once the score between rivaling factions was settled, peace returned to Vidigal. Obviously shootouts between drug gangs possessed of military-grade firepower gravely diminish the quality of local life. But such outbreaks – and they’ve been rare in this favela – are driven by forces far beyond the control of a populace. Thefts, muggings, assaults & the like — things that are under the control of a neighborhood’s inhabitants — are all but unheard of in Vidigal. This assertion is substantiated by longtime residents. Vidigal is free of street crime. Bandidos aside, no one has messed with each other here for seemingly the whole of Vidigal’s existence.

By contrast, I live in a small town in Vermont – with about the same population as Vidigal – where muggings are rare but known to happen. Burglary is common. Armed robberies – of gas stations and even banks — occur frequently, and it is perfectly usual to see a police cruiser scream across town with siren wailing.

Vermont is widely regarded as a peaceful place. Tourists travel there from northeastern American cities for precisely that reason, to enjoy its natural beauty and nonbelligerent vibe. They’re right to do so – I love Vermont for the same reasons.

Vidigal is a reputedly violent shanty-town, somewhere most people who live in Rio will not go for fear of their personal safety – and a place the US State Department recommends entering only in ‘cases of compelling need.’

Yet Vermont, for all its idyllic charm, is far from crime-free, while Vidigal by all accounts is. It is a peaceful place in the midst of a notoriously violent city. This peace deserves to be examined – it qualifies as a genuine phenomenon.

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favela with a million dollar view

Vidigal is a favela in the South Zone (Zona Sul) of Rio de Janeiro. Zona Sul is also home to the city’s famous — and famously wealthy — beach neighborhoods. Vidigal borders Leblon, Rio’s priciest neighborhood, just down-coast from the better known Ipamema & Copacabana beaches.

A favela can be compared to a slum, or shantytown, though neither term adequately describes Vidigal, a historically very poor yet determinedly working class communidade (est pop 15,000). Poverty is widespread yet unemployment is rare. Crime is a complicated topic, but at this time it is safe to walk down Vidigal’s streets. Dwellings, often built several stories tall and fashioned from concrete, perch sturdily upon the steep hillside. Most houses are equipped with electricity, some licit, some not. Internet capability is common, and water is provided, with some regularity, by the city. Sewage infrastructure is decidedly, and sadly, inadequate; in Vidigal and other coastal favelas raw sewage flows through open viaducts directly into the sea.

As one would expect in a seaside community, Vidigal is graced with breathtaking views. It is adjacent to some of the world’s most famous beaches, to Rio’s most affluent neighborhoods, and is an easy commute to numerous employment opportunities. It even has it’s own stretch of surf & sand, Vidigal Beach, across Avenida Niemeyer from the favela’s entrance (the adjacent Sheraton Rio, hidden behind trees in this pic, once tried & failed to claim Vidigal Beach for the exclusive use of its patrons.)
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So why, with all its geographical attributes, is Vidigal a slum-like place? One reason is topography. People in neighboring Leblon, Ipenama and Copacabana reside on a densely populated, 6-block wide strip of ground — inestimably more expensive flat ground — nestled between soaring cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean.

Vidigal is built on a relentlessly steep hill. It and most of Rio’s favelas cling, a bit precariously — landslides can happen during extreme weather events — to hillsides which are just barely not too steep to build on, and barely able to be wearily walked up by residents on their way home from work.

vidigalcliff

The above image depicts a slice of what has historically been Rio de Janeiro’s affordable housing stock; the place where Zona Sul’s cooks, maids, sanitation workers and street-hawkers call home. It is also a place through where much of the beach neighborhood’s illegal drug supply has, historically, been trafficked.

Until recently, Vidigal was under the direct command of a criminally organized & heavily armed gang of drug bandidos. Except under extreme circumstances, the area was a no-go for police. Likewise for much of Rio’s populace — the 75% who don’t live in one — who’ve rarely stepped foot in a favela.

Ironically, for most of the decades Vidigal and other Zona Sul favelas were ruled by bandidos, they were safer in many ways than the wealthier, nearby beach districts. This is because the armed bandits had zero tolerance for person on person — ie rape, robbery, assault — crime. The favelas, to the bandits & their bosses, were centers of commerce. Crimes such as these would constitute a lack of order — and violent chaos is bad for business. Among bandidos themselves business-related violence is the norm. So the one who disrupted the bandido’s business, by acts of petty crime — or worse still by somehow causing the police to enter a favela — could expect to pay a fearful price for their transgression.

With this in mind I set out to explore Rocinha — another Zona Sul favela — three years ago. What’s the worst that can happen? I asked myself as I resolved to cross the footbridge that leads to the massive favela. I had little cash on me, so I wasn’t concerned about being robbed. I supposed I might be kidnapped. But highly doubted it. To begin with, anyone who kidnapped me would be sorely disappointed when they learned how feeble a sum I, even with a gun to my head, was able to pay for ransom. Beyond that, I felt sure that a kidnapped American would draw the kind of unwanted attention the bandidos forcefully sought to avoid.

Bottom line was I wanted a close-up view of something you don’t see every day. So I explored. Rocinha is mind-mindbogglingly huge — South America’s largest favela. I was struck by its vibrancy. Rocinha is a colorful, noisy, very alive-feeling place. Teeming. Teeming mostly, that morning, with a mass of humanity walking downhill on its way to work at the beach.

I climbed the hill, sticking to the main road most of the way to the top, until a side-street split even more steeply uphill. There I went. Soon the hill grew almost impossibly steep. The favela’s dwellings were built further apart. Then the paved road turned to loose gravel and led into a tangle of tropical vegetation — the place where the concrete jungle gives way to the real thing.

That’s when I saw the man with the machine gun. He was not army or police. At that point — in June 2011 — the army & police, with rare exception, did not enter Rocinha. In large part, one supposes, because of just this sort of outlaw machine gun wielder.

I never saw the machine gun guy so much as glance at me. Surely he did — presumably long before I saw him — but by then he’d seemingly gauged me as a non threat. I don’t know who or what he was there to guard against. But he appeared altogether unshaken by my presence.

I did not share his lack of concern. I felt decently hopeful that my life was not endangered on his account, but still. I am a Vermont-raised country bumpkin who had never seen a machine gun-wielding drug bandit before. My heart jumped into my throat as I turned around & enthusiastically skedaddled.

I felt satisfied as I walked away from Rocinha that day; an explorer who’d laid eyes on a place I and most of my fellow Earthlings had never seen. It was exhilarating, journalistically productive, and the machine gun thing — I had to admit that was kinda cool. Yet my emotions were mixed. That machine gun was used to kill people. Even as the drug lords kept an iron clamp on petty crime, loose bullets from shootouts — between rival gangs, between bandidos & police —  expose innocent residents to constant and unpredictable danger.

A few months later, in Nov 2011, the government ordered military-style operations to eradicate the drug gangs from Vidigal & Rocinha and install a permanent constabulary presence known as the Pacifying Police Unit, or UPP. This move, replicated in a few dozen high-profile favelas (out of Rio’s 700+), is widely regarded as a cosmetic PR stunt ahead of Rio’s place in the international spotlight during the fast-approaching World Cup and 2016’s Summer Olympic mega-events. Still the UPP were greeted with guarded optimism by many residents who were eager for change. And there initially were some positive effects. Today, however, on-the-ground reports of these operation’s results flux between decidedly mixed and downright grim. 

Vidigal, with its prime location, spectacular views, cheap rent & reputedly bohemian vibe, has long been inhabited by bargain-hunting artists & ex-pats and visited on weekends by adventurous all-night party-goers.

altovid

It’s worth noting that the locals don’t attend these parties, as the cover charge is out of the reach of most faveledo’s salaries. Meanwhile rental prices in Vidigal have in many cases tripled in recent months. Residents whose families have been settled there for generations now add gentrification & forced displacement to the list of stresses of life in Vidigal.

I have a vigorously positive impression of the favelas I’ve visited and the people I’ve met who live there. Big fan. These communities face enormous challenges; Rio’s Favelas are perhaps among the hardest places on Earth to live. But they are also places where good hope exists. Faveldos seem possessed of a spirited resilience and deep sense of community. They want people to know there is more to their communidades than drug bandits and police brutality. And they are at a moment in history, while they fight for their rights, for the essential mercy all humans deserve, just as their city and nation take the world stage.

I’ve recently arrived in Rio. I will be living in Vidigal and writing about favelas for the next 5 weeks. I’ve always been a bit of an underdog myself, so I am enormously grateful for this opportunity. Sou muito abençoado.

Oh and the view from Vidigal? It is a marvel. Saúde!