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A new, better Rio de Janeiro: but who for?

Workers at the Maracana

Workers at the Maracana

Published in the Sunday Herald on May 19, 2013

Looking around the new Maracana stadium, chief engineer Icaro Moreno Jr imagines the seats full, the floodlights on, Brazil in possession of the ball. “There will be an amazing vibration,” he says. “It’s the temple of football, known all over the world. Everyone will be hoping that we beat England 10-0. The stadium will shake.”

In the dressing room, a worker’s hard hat and tool belt has been left on the bench where, a little more than a year from now, one of the teams contesting the World Cup final will get ready. We walk back out through the tunnel, into the roar of the construction site, where 6,800 men are working, round the clock in three shifts, to finish the job on time.

Brazil host England in the stadium’s inaugural match on June 2, the eve of the Confederations Cup – a dry run for the main event in 2014. “We’re proud to have restored and adapted the Maracana, using modern technology, but without fundamentally altering it,” Moreno says. “Wembley lost more, I think. Here we’ve looked after fifty years of history. It will have the same soul.”

I went to the old stadium three times with a diehard Fluminense supporter, to stand on the top terrace where the singing never stops and fans light flares and throw rice flour. That section is gone, replaced by seating, the capacity reduced to 78,000 people. For the final game of the 1950 World Cup (a traumatic 2-1 home defeat by Uruguay) more than 173,000 people bought tickets and countless more crammed in alongside the pitch.

The sound system is state of the art. The teflon and carbon fibre canopy collects rain water, which is used to wash the seats. “It is a democratic stadium, a stadium for the people,” Moreno assures me, but the old ramshackle Maracana is gone forever.

With the Olympic Games due in 2016, Rio de Janeiro is rushing to reinvent itself. Until a few years ago, it seemed as if the decline that began when the capital moved to Brasilia in 1960 would never be reversed. But with the discovery of huge oil reserves just off the coast, investment began to flow back in. A police operation to ‘pacify’ the slums has cut the murder rate in half. Huge building projects, public and private, dot the city.

Rio is a work in progress, and the state of its stadiums testifies to developmental challenges ahead. The Maracana is finished and just needs a World Cup win to complete the script. “Us engineers, us builders, we’re sending a message: we’re working as hard as we can, the best we can, and all you have to go is get to the final, so we can all share in the happiness,” Moreno says. But across town at the Joao Havelange stadium, there has been no football for weeks.

The arena was only completed six years ago, late and over budget at £122 million. When engineers discovered a structural defect that caused the arches to wobble dangerously in the wind, the mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, closed it indefinitely. Local newspapers printed pictures of rusty holes in the steel frame and the blame game began, as the various parties responsible for its construction traded allegations of fraud and incompetence.

A few weeks later, by coincidence, Havelange, the former head of FIFA, resigned from his position when an ethics committee report accused him of taking bribes. Brazil’s reputation for inefficiency and corruption will not be easy to shake.

International visitors arrive at Galeao, recently described as “the world’s worst airport” in O Globo, Rio’s main newspaper, after the air conditioning broke down and management decided to repair the escalators during carnival. The government has set out a £2.1 billion proposal to modernise the airport and increase capacity to 70 million passengers per year, but the work will not be completed in time for the Olympics.

There is no rail link to Galeao, but on the way downtown by taxi you get a great view of the half-finished Transcarioca highway that will connect to the western suburb of Barra de Tijuca, where the main Olympic facilities will be based. The metro system is being extended there too, and new express bus lanes have been introduced in the hope of alleviating traffic jams. On the overpass to Barra, the speed limit has been reduced to 60 kmph, to allay fears that corroded supports may collapse.

Locals often describe the ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’ – the Marvellous City – as the best place in the world to live, only to complain bitterly about how dysfunctional it is. Many are sceptical that its public services will be able to cope with the coming mega-events. “Imagine na Copa” has become a common lament: if you think things are chaotic now, imagine what will happen during the World Cup.

Building the Museum of Tomorrow

Building the Museum of Tomorrow

Downtown, on the edge of the business district, the old port is being redeveloped, at a cost of around £2.6 billion. The area has been decaying for decades, since the docks moved elsewhere. Alberto Silva, president of the urban development corporation in charge of the project, describes it as an attempt to “break the cycle of isolation and degradation,” and as a challenge to the prevailing notion that the only way for Rio to expand is outwards.

The Olympic press centre and the village for referees and officials will be located here, but Silva plays down the significance of this. “We are preparing the city for sustainable growth lasting a long time. We’re not talking about something that will take three, four or five years,” he says. “Porto Maravilha will be a reference for a new standard of urbanisation in Rio. I have no doubt that it will continue beyond the Olympics.”

The port area’s population is projected to quadruple over the next decade, from 28,000 to more than 100,000 residents. The plan calls for a light rail service with 42 stations, a network of bike lanes, wider pavements, underground power lines and a modern drainage system, to replace sewers that are a hundred years old. A motorway overpass will be knocked down and replaced by a tunnel, creating a pedestrian area on the waterfront. Rio Art Museum recently opened its doors and The Museum of Tomorrow will be next, on a pier jutting out into Guanabara Bay.

To finance the project, Rio sold development rights to public land. Private investors include a consortium led by Donald Trump, which plans to build five gleaming high-rise boxes. Houses that were worth £20,000 three years ago now sell for £130,000 or more. Critics argue that one of the few remaining working-class neighbourhoods in the centre of Rio is being destroyed, as gentrification forces people out.

This dispute is most heated in Morro da Providencia, the city’s oldest favela, which began to spread across the hills a century ago, as workers sought space close to downtown. “The houses were made of wood and every time there was a storm they were washed away,” says Roberto Marinho, a prominent member of the residents association. “Why didn’t the government do anything about this? Because the city still had space to grow. But now, there is nowhere for Rio to grow: the only space left is the favelas.”

In November 2010, without prior consultation, officials from an urban renewal programme called Morar Carioca arrived in the favela and began marking houses for destruction, so that streets could be widened and construction of a cable car to the top of the hill could begin. Families were offered new flats or rent subsidies, in return for losing their homes of many years. Those that took the money found that it wasn’t enough to stay nearby. The apartments turned out to be further away than promised and shoddily constructed.

Alexandra, a housewife with two children, is refusing to leave, even now that the houses either side of hers have been reduced to rubble. “From the hill you can see that they’re investing, but not for the people. It’s not for us,” she says. “If you’re poor, or black, or from the favela, no-one asks what you think. We just want a small house, to live with dignity.”

Across Rio, urbanisation projects are altering the fabric of the favela. Morar Carioca has already spent more £0.6 billion and has a stated goal of modernising every favela in the city by 2020. A federal project called Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) is in the process of building 100,000 low-income housing units. I sometimes heard this referred to as Minha Casa, Minha Militia – a dark reference to the fact that relocated families often end up in western areas of the city controlled by paramilitary gangs. The pacification programme, which installs permanent police units in the favela, has dramatically reduced violence in some parts of the city, but in others crime is as bad as ever.

Miguel Lago, who founded the pressure group Meu Rio to advocate for greater transparency in city government, believes the improvements are aimed at tourists, not residents. “There is an open sewer running through the favela,” he says. “Urbanisation means constructing a cable car and painting the houses, but we don’t see public services entering effectively.”

In Alemao, a sprawling slum that was invaded by the Brazilian army less than three years ago, there are plans for a new £6 million shopping centre, just one of the many commercial developments designed to take advantage of the purchasing power of Brazil’s rapidly growing lower middle-class. Casas Bahia, a huge consumer goods chain, recently opened a branch in the favela of Rocinha. “Coca-cola is marketing in the favelas,” Lago says. “It’s amazing how the market is occupying these formerly forbidden spaces.”

Paes recently attracted criticism for commissioning a Rio de Janeiro edition of Monopoly (the Brazilian name for the game is Banco Imobiliario – Real Estate Bank) and buying 20,000 copies for the city’s schools. Apartments in the city’s two most desirable neighbourhoods, Leblon and Ipanema, are more expensive than in the poshest London post codes, and rarely reach the official market, because demand is so high.

The view from Vidigal

The view from Vidigal

In Vidigal, the favela that begins where Leblon ends, foreigners have been moving in, as an investment, for adventure, or both. Dimitri Szerman, a professor at Rio’s Catholic University, is one of the few upper middle-class Brazilians living there. “All of my friends said ‘you are completely out of your mind. It’s so dangerous. Are you sure?’ But it’s super safe.” His apartment, in a tower block that was swallowed up by the favela in the 1980s, has a stunning view of Ipanema beach – and running water, unlike some of his neighbours.

To reach the top of Vidigal you climb the stairs or jump on the back of a moto-taxi able to navigate the alleys. The young men with machine guns are gone – or rather, they wear police uniforms these days – but the drug trade is as brisk as ever. On weekends, baile funk parties last until dawn, despite a law mandating that they stop at 2am.

New businesses hint at the change underway – a video production company, a “hipster cafe” and backpacker hostels – but otherwise, Vidigal is much like any other favela: a dirty, noisy, informal space at the edge of the formal city. The question is how long this can last, when two room apartments at the foot of the hill are renting for £800 a month – almost four times the minimum wage in Brazil.

“Four years time is the decisive moment: after the Olympics. There is a huge uncertainty there. No-one knows what is going to happen,” Szerman says. But at the moment, with oil offshore, two huge sporting events on the horizon and violence apparently manageable, Rio is bursting at the seams.