09 February 2012

Homenagem à Yemanjá

The other night, when I came home from a party, all of the lights on the Aterro do Flamengo were out. From the front window I could clearly see fires along the beach, flickering offerings to the orixá Yemanjá, goddess of the sea.
Aterro do Flamengo, 2am 3 Feb, 2012. Immediately above the 2am
are the fires set on the beach in honor of Ymenjá.
The lights were out, the radio later informed, because a power outage had hit a few parts of Flamengo and Botafogo. The cause of the pane (breakdown) was unknown and there wasn’t a larger systemic failure as happened in 2009 when a massive apagão hit Brasil shutting off power to nine states. 

It might appear that Rio is falling down faster than it can be built or remodeled, but that’s not an accurate assessment. Antes de mais nada, we should remind ourselves that Rio is not the only city in the world with some old and decaying infrastructure problems. The United States, for example, will (soon) find itself in a massive infrastructure crisis. Has everyone forgotten about the I-35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007? How’s that I-95 corridor treatin’ ya? Waited for a summer-time bus in Austin? How's that passenger train service between x and y USAmerican cities beyond the Portland - D.C. megalopolis?  After the Minnesota collapse, I'm pretty sure there weren’t Brazilian journalists calling up professors in the USA to ask whether or not the country was falling to pieces. There should have been, but we know that the only thing flat about globalization is Thomas Friedman’s head.

So it's not just Brazil or Rio that has infrastructure problems but they are particularly acute here for a number of reasons. The country has only recently emerged into the global economic spotlight. Even though it's a terrible term, it's not a CRIB country for nothing. For many decades, it did not have the financial capacity, international trade or internal consumer markets that produce the need to develop large scale widely placed infrastructure (remember that this only happened in the USA beginning in 1956 with the Eisenhauer National System of Interstate and Defense Highways program). 

True, there are many bureaucratic and institutional structures that limited Brazilian infrastructure development and investment (and continue to do so), but the reality is that Brazilian cities, and especially Rio (and especially after the capital moved to Brasília in 1960), did not invest in basic infrastructure. Not having smooth functioning transportation, communications, sewage, tourist, security, or other systems that are equipped to handle the volumes of traffic that come with rapid economic growth is a historically contingent reality. The successful pursuit of so many bloody events is stressing these already fragile systems. These things really need to be planned for in the long term so that the short and medium term effects aren’t so disastrous.

The costs for the mega-events are manifold and magnified by pushing the creaky old legs of the city onto center stage. Perhaps the building wouldn’t have undergone a hurried renovation if it weren’t in the most expensive real-estate market in the Ámericas. Perhaps more rigorous oversight by the city government would have saved some lives. Maybe, just maybe, they should have accounted for all of the bodies before scooping up the rubble. They found a few later in the city dump. Some parts of the story are unimaginable, some structural, and some things just can’t be explained. 

An easy solution? The World Cup, Olympics and their minor offspring cannot occur in any city that does not include them as part of an existing, long-term, integrated metropolitan urban plan that folds the events more seamlessly into its varied fabrics. It’s nice to dream, não?

Ymenjá might have appreciated the blackout the other night, but she would probably be happier if the bay were clean.

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