Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro

Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro

by Bryan McCann

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Beginning in the late 1970s, activists from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro challenged the conditions—such as limited access to security, sanitation, public education, and formal employment—that separated favela residents from Rio's other citizens. The activists built a movement that helped to push the nation toward redemocratization. They joined with political allies in an effort to institute an ambitious slate of municipal reforms. Those measures ultimately fell short of aspirations, and soon the reformers were struggling to hold together a fraying coalition. Rio was bankrupted by natural disasters and hyperinflation and ravaged by drug wars. Well-armed drug traffickers had become the new lords of the favelas, protecting their turf through violence and patronage. By the early 1990s, the promise of the favela residents' mobilization of the late 1970s and early 1980s seemed out of reach. Yet the aspirations that fueled that mobilization have endured, and its legacy continues to shape favela politics in Rio de Janeiro.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822355380
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/17/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,139,997
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Bryan McCann is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University. He is the author of Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil, also published by Duke University Press, and Throes of Democracy: Brazil since 1989.

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From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro

By Bryan McCann

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5538-0



Rio de ladeiras ("Rio of steep hills
Civilização encruzilhada civilization crucified
Cada ribanceira é uma nação Each ravine is a nation
À sua maneira In its own way
Com ladrão With thieves
Lavadeiras, honra, tradição Washerwomen, honor, tradition
Fronteiras, munição pesada Borders, heavy munitions")

—CHICO BUARQUE, "Estação Derradeira" (song) 1987.

OCTOBER 1, 1991

My first visit to Rio coincided with a garbage strike. Employees of the municipal garbage company walked off the job, demanding better wages. Mayor Marcello Alencar refused to negotiate. Alencar was Leonel Brizola's protégé, a legacy that should have stood him in good stead with the organized working class, but in the early 1990s he began to separate himself from his socialist mentor, cutting municipal expenses and moving toward the fiscal center. Trash piled up in the street, reaching ten feet high on some corners, adding a particular ripeness to the humid carioca spring. Cariocas went about their business, confident that workers and mayor would eventually compromise and that inflation would outpace their negotiations in any case.

It was not a particularly significant strike: it was one in a hundred of similar labor conflicts during the hyperinflationary period of the 1980s and early 1990s. Government wages were indexed so that pay would rise along with inflation, but wage earners often watched the real value of their pay drop precipitously between the opening of a month and the indexing that took place at month's end. This devaluation made for constant tension between public employees and local administration. By 1991, cariocas were accustomed to temporary work stoppages and seemed unfazed. For a visitor, though, it made for a pungent introduction to the Marvelous City.

I remember one afternoon in particular. I was resting on the steps of my hotel, the Venezuela, a budget traveler's joint in the middle-class neighborhood of Flamengo. Fifteen feet from where I stood, a skinny boy of about twelve was attempting in vain to remove the radio from a Chevette with a bent kitchen knife. As the car alarm blared, patrons at the nearby bar and passersby glanced over, deemed the matter not worth their attention, and went back to their business. The child operated with the dedication and lack of skill of the ambitious novice—attacking the radio from left, right, top and bottom—to no avail. Eventually he gave up and trudged down the street carrying nothing but a few cassettes, skirting the garbage pile on the corner on his way. One of the patrons of the bar walked over to the car and ever so gently closed the passenger door, a gesture that did not diminish the ongoing noise of the car alarm.

It occurred to me that Rio's problems might go beyond the gulf between rich and poor for which Brazil was justifiably notorious. Inequality explained the boy's poverty in the midst of Flamengo and perhaps the resentment suggested by his grim hacking away at the radio. Yet it did not explain how administrative sclerosis and street crime had become so routinized into the workings of the city that residents did their best to ignore both and carry on as usual.

Even as a first-time visitor I realized that the incident did not indicate that cariocas tolerated petty theft. Rio and São Paulo had already become infamous for the operations of death squads that regularly harassed and in some cases murdered boys like the one I watched that day in Flamengo. But the incident made clear that no one on the street saw any likely benefit in intervening in any way, certainly not by alerting the authorities.

I had a great time that week, in any case—it is famously difficult not to. But perhaps the seeds of this project were planted on that Flamengo street in 1991. At some level, I wanted to find out how Rio had reached that point. As I pursued that question over the next twenty years, at first casually and then with sustained focus, I kept circling back to the complex and evolving relationship between Rio's favelas and the rest of the city, which seemed to underlie so many of Rio's challenges and conflicts.


The division between "favelas" and "the rest of the city" is partly real and partly imaginary. Real distinctions between favelas and other parts of the city have often been oversimplified in the public imagination, in ways that exaggerate a binary tension. Favelas are obviously part of the city, and yet for over a century favela and cidade have been counterposed to each other as mutually exclusive terms, suggesting that the favela is what the city is not, and vice versa. In 2004, I attended a seminar entitled "Favela é Cidade," the Favela Is the City. The activists who organized the seminar intended the title to call attention to all the ways in which favelas are part of the fabric of Rio de Janeiro, but the need to do so suggested that most people still see them as irrevocably different. This calls for a more careful consideration.

What is a favela? In practice, the term describes a variety of neighborhoods. The first favelas got their start when the working poor and demobilized soldiers, with former slaves and their children strongly represented in both categories, settled hillsides near Rio's commercial center in the last years of the nineteenth century. Providência, Rio's iconic "first favela," was partly settled by soldiers returning from a campaign to wipe out a millenarian peasant village in the harsh backlands of Canudos, in northeastern Brazil. The term favela came from the name for a hardy weed that grew around Canudos. Although this origin story indicates both the social and economic profile of early favela residents and the poetic resonance of their struggle to survive, Providência was only one of several similar communities. From the start, local strongmen and property owners divided these areas into rough lots and rented them out, using political leverage to protect their irregular real-estate operations. The razing of crowded tenement housing in the first years of the twentieth century spurred the growth of early favelas, as former residents—pushed out of the formal real-estate market—resorted to the informal market.

Even by this early date, the two factors that would shape favela expansion for the next century were already established: the formal sector was not structured to provide housing for the urban poor and working class, and actors in the informal sector stood ready to extract profit from their ability to control access to terrain. The first factor has always been clear and has had obvious consequences. The second is more subtle but equally decisive, and is best summarized by the popular expression "todo pedaço tem dono," or every piece has an owner. There is no such thing as free urban soil. Instead, informal landlords have used their practical control over unoccupied land to extract rents from the urban poor in exchange for permission to build or occupy space.

Through the middle of the twentieth century, the lowest-paid workers of enterprises such as factories and hospitals were often permitted to erect shacks in the rear of the property, a solution that guaranteed their employers a local workforce while suppressing wages. Employees of public and semipublic institutions such as pension institutes and the water company often followed similar practices. Over time, as families grew and residents rented subplots to newcomers, these nuclei grew into small favelas.

The consolidation of the formal real-estate market in the middle de cades of the twentieth century swallowed up most available land, setting aside much of it in reserve for future development. Strict building codes and caps on rent increases in the formal market, coupled with the near-absence of mortgage loans, discouraged investment in popular housing. Sporadic attempts at housing projects did little to alleviate the shortage of worker housing, to say nothing of the unemployed poor, and this insufficiency speeded the growth of informal housing in the interstices of the formal city. Favelas such as Vidigal and Rocinha grew on former farm plots close to growing residential neighborhoods. Informal real estate became a more lucrative market than truck farming, giving property owners strong incentives to demarcate and rent lots.

Up until the turn of the millennium, the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (ibge, Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), keeper of Brazil's official census and geographic data, defined favelas as a type of "subnormal agglomeration," consisting of "a collection of at least fifty-one housing units, occupying or having occupied in the recent past terrain that is not the property of the residents (public or private), arrayed, in general, in disorganized and dense form, and lacking, in the majority, essential public services."

Adequate in the middle of the twentieth century, this definition was already out of date by the late 1970s, when iconic favelas such as Jacarezinho and Rocinha had grown to populations in the tens of thousands, with nuclei of brick and concrete homes surrounded by more precarious dwellings, and with irregular hookups to public electricity and water networks. The massive changes that ensued made the official ibge definition a relic. By the mid-1990s, many favelas had public services as extensive as those in other working-class neighborhoods, with a crucial distinction: in favelas, residents themselves were expected to play a role in building and maintaining public infrastructure. Favelas remained dense and disorganized, but these are hardly distinctive characteristics in Rio de Janeiro.

Although the criterion of an absence of property title is more relevant, favelas are not "squatter cities." Squatting, in the sense of occupying land that legally belongs to someone else without paying rent, was never the rule in Rio's favelas. As we will see in chapter 3, the election of Leonel Brizola triggered a brief wave of land invasions on Rio's north side, and several of these land invasions subsequently turned into enduring favelas, but this was an anomaly in Rio's history. Squatting is at this point almost entirely absent. The vast majority of Rio's favela residents either bought their lot on an informal market or pay rent. The "title of possession," a document that helps protect them from eviction, possessed by some does not give them legal right to sell or pass on the property. Only a tiny minority of residents has legal title to property. Absence of property title, then, has remained the single most consistent characteristic of favelas for more than a century. Yet it has done so in ways that reveal the existence of a deeply rooted informal real-estate market, a system that complicates efforts to confer property title on current residents.

Absence of property title is invisible, and is therefore not enough to define a category of urban neighborhood. Favela architecture is a more obvious identifying characteristic, particularly in the labyrinthine communities that climb the hills above Rio's south side. On these steep slopes, brick complexes of several stories rise off of tiny, bending alleys, propped on wooden stilts, strung together by knotted electric wires. Open space in these communities is almost nonexistent; every square meter of usable space has been claimed and developed.

Favelas in the flatlands of Rio's west side look quite different, however, with regular street grids and defined building plots. What these differences immediately make clear is that there is no such thing as a typical favela; nothing comes close. "Cada favela é um mundo"—each favela is a world—as a popular saying has it. Or, as composer Chico Buarque put it in lyrics that open this chapter, "Each ravine is a nation."

There are a number of identifiable types of favela, however, defined largely by location, size, and length of settlement. They have experienced the transitions of the past forty years in different ways. Favelas on Rio's south side experienced both material consolidation and rising violence earliest, in the mid-1980s. As the favelas located closest to expanding employment opportunities and to middle-class drug consumers, they offered material advantages to residents, as well as to criminal networks.

Favelas on the north side and near the old city center were hit hardest by deindustrialization and rising unemployment in the 1980s. Many of these had been symbiotic with adjacent factories. As São Paulo's industrial belt boomed, Rio's shrank. Factories closed down or relocated, and nearby favela populations expanded—in several cases colonizing the abandoned factory itself. Working-class neighborhoods became reservoirs of the unemployed urban poor. Because these favelas offered a smaller economic base and were farther from middle-class consumers, they were typically targeted later by expanding criminal networks. But when turf wars came, they often came with greater intensity and lasted longer than those in the south zone, where the presence of local media encouraged police to contain violence.

Favelas on Rio's west side, most of which grew along with the expansion of middle-class construction in this area in the 1970s and 1980s, were more likely to be taken over by defense militias by the end of the 1990s. Although these favelas tended not to experience years of violent turf war, their residents often faced greater limitations on their civil rights, given the militias' intolerance of dissent.

One common feature across these different types is that homes are never finished. Favela dwellings nearly always have lajes, flat roofs, so that residents can construct another story at some point in the future. The unfinished nature of favela architecture is a more consistent characteristic than the apparently chaotic or organic style of the iconic south side favelas.

Favelas are not slums. They began as the only available housing option for the urban poor, but over the past thirty years they have diversified economically. Many favelas contain subneighborhoods characterized by high rental prices, public utilities, schools, health posts and a full array of commerce. Despite economic mobility and social investment, however, they are still considered favelas both by residents and outsiders. There are poor neighborhoods in Rio, moreover, that are not favelas. Poverty is no longer a consistent identifying characteristic.

What these variations make clear is that favelas are not defined by a clear set of physical characteristics; rather, they are defined by their history. They began as unplanned and unserviced settlements nurturing an informal real estate market and progressed through stages of consolidation and diversification without ever being fully incorporated into the surrounding formal city.

This has not been for lack of trying. Planners and politicians have attempted to solve the "problem of the favela" for nearly a century. The creation of a model favela—or, alternatively, a model neighborhood for the working poor to replace the favela—has been the animating desire behind several high-profile interventions over the past eighty years. These interventions have typically been designed as emergency responses to urgent problems, designed to fix all that ails favelas in a brief flurry of reform. That sense of urgency has often hindered gradualist reforms that have proven more successful on the outskirts of the city and elsewhere. When urgent reforms fail to reach their goals, they are typically abandoned, leaving favelas to await the next crisis.

Until the 1960s, model interventions sought to replace favelas with planned worker housing. As the experience of housing projects such as Cidade de Deus demonstrates, these plans proved insufficient in both scale and vision. In the late 1960s, a team of visionary architects and urban planners led by Carlos Nelson Ferreira dos Santos won state funding to carry out a more innovative upgrading of the favela Brás de Pina on the city's north side. Nelson and his team worked closely with the Brás de Pina association and a local liberation theology priest to enable favela residents to build their own new homes on lots demarcated and serviced by the state, using materials provided by the state. The architects provided basic plans and organizational assistance, but residents provided the labor through communal effort.

The dictatorship, still committed to favela removal, discouraged state funding for subsequent upgrading projects, and Nelson did not have another opportunity to carry out a similar project on the same scale until the early 1980s. In the meantime, he earned a PhD in anthropology, writing an influential dissertation that focused on the Brás de Pina experience. Brás de Pina became internationally celebrated among urban planners, and deeply influenced favela upgrading projects of the 1980s and 1990s.

In ensuing decades a rise and fall took place in terms of renewed interventions. Chapters 3 and 4 explore Leonel Brizola's attempt to make model favelas out of the adjacent communities of Cantagalo and Pavão-Pavãozinho, overlooking Copacabana and Ipanema. Chapter 5 briefly explores the Favela-Bairro program of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Each of these efforts yielded significant gains while falling short of goals. Their experience lends a cautionary note to considerations of the most recent model intervention, the Unidade de Policiamento Pacificadora (UPP, or Pacifying Police Unit) strategy of the past several years, discussed briefly in the epilogue.

Urgent interventions bring much-needed resources to the favelas. In identifying the favela as a problem to be solved, however, they also reinforce the separation between favelas and the rest of the city. This tendency helps explain why Providência is still universally considered a favela over a century after its initial settlement. Comparing favelas to two other types of neighborhoods, irregular subdivisions and housing projects, will help clarify the endurance of the favela as a distinct part of the city, viewed as separate and different from surrounding formal zones.


Excerpted from HARD TIMES in the MARVELOUS CITY by Bryan McCann. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, vii,
Acknowledgments, ix,
Introduction, 1,
3 REFORM, 77,
Epilogue, 181,
Notes, 199,
Bibliography, 227,
Index, 243,

What People are Saying About This

Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro - Janice Perlman

"Bryan McCann has given us a compelling political history of Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s through the lens of Rio de Janeiro. His research is so meticulous and his writing so fluid that you feel as though you are living through the unfolding drama of politics, personalities, social forces, and serendipity. We see the way these forces re-create and perpetuate the deep divide between favelas and the rest of the city, despite people's movements and struggles for social justice."

From the Publisher

"Hard Times in the Marvelous City will be essential reading for anyone interested in Brazil's redemocratization, grassroots political mobilization and the challenges of governance, and the policing and violence that have intersected in the recent history of Rio de Janeiro's favelas and their city."—Jerry Dávila, author of Hotel Trópico: Brazil and the Challenge of African Decolonization, 1950–1980

"Bryan McCann has given us a compelling political history of Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s through the lens of Rio de Janeiro. His research is so meticulous and his writing so fluid that you feel as though you are living through the unfolding drama of politics, personalities, social forces, and serendipity. We see the way these forces re-create and perpetuate the deep divide between favelas and the rest of the city, despite people's movements and struggles for social justice."—Janice Perlman, author of Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro

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