15 September 2016

A long and short goodbye to the country of the eternal present

Retrospectives of mega-events are best left for years following their conclusion. Yet the constant drive for summary, judgment, evaluation, and pronouncement following the Games is so pervasive and contradictory that it becomes necessary to remind ourselves that the event is not over – indeed in many senses it has just begun.

What we are witnessing in Rio de Janeiro is the unfolding of a monopolistic, rent-seeking business model that plays on human emotions of desire, belonging, and consumerist distinction as never before. The tightly braided relationships between mega-events rights holders (IOC and FIFA), the “primary stakeholders” of the event (Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Dow Chemical, Samsung, Hyundai, etc.), the civil construction and real estate sectors and the executive branches of government have been exposed. The general revolt of the Brazilian middle class in June of 2013 was an expression of the frustration with the propagation of this model in a country that has not met the basic needs of its citizens.

Yet after the event cycle has closed, it appears that the warnings of academics, journalists, activists, and others have been completely forgotten in the glow of the Olympic flame. The dire conditions of police violence, infrastructure, blown budgets, and suites of elite privilege turned out to be true yet the Games themselves have somehow been exonerated from exacerbating these problems because they happened without fatal incidents for the IOC family. Journalists and editors are rushing to do a retrospective mea culpa about the impending disaster of Rio 2016 because the infrastructure worked, the sport was great, and Rio throws a fantastic party.

As the mega-event monolith rolls on to Russia and East Asia, it seems we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, just in new forms under shifting conditions, and in new places. There has always been a strong synergy between the workings of global capital, geo-politics and the realization of the Olympics.  As a scholar who has accompanied the transformations in Rio de Janeiro’s urban, social, and sporting landscapes for more than a decade I have seen the unfolding of a deeply flawed urban and social project that has transformed the city in enduring ways. Below I outline some of the principal ways in which this has happened and point to some of the consequences that I foresee in a city that has spent the last 20 years pursuing a mega-event urban agenda.

The consolidation of consumer sovereignty
The Olympics and World Cup have accelerated processes within Brazilian society that privilege consumerism over citizenship. Both events transformed what were public spaces (Maracanã, Zona Portuaria, beaches) into zones of private consumption where one can exercise one’s right to public space and culture in the exact degree to which one can pay for it.

These processes of privatization have long been on the agenda of Rio de Janeiro’s executive branch and unfolded in very similar ways throughout Brazilian cities that hosted the 2014 World Cup. The events create zones of exclusion that are able to be penetrated by those with the proper credentials – a processes of self-selecting access that conforms to the contours of capital accumulation more generally. The corporate sponsors of events have their employees dropped off near the stadia in special buses where they are directed though city streets by youths holding up banners that herald the arrival of the corporation. Ostentatious credentials swing like signboards of entitlement as the global elite are conducted to their front-row seats for the global spectacle.

The consolidation of trends towards what Mike Graham has called passage-point urbanism get an extra push with the hosting of sports mega-events, normalizing spaces, relations, and practices of exclusion/inclusion that become a naturalized part of the urban environment. Within this new regime, one can conquer the right to freely circulate within the city relative to one`s capacity to pay for that right. The term “rights holder” is not accidental or incidental, it is the paradigm that defines the urban condition in the event city. 

The accelerated financialisation of urban territories        
As Raquel Rolink has expertly analyzed in her book Guerra dos Lugares there is a trend towards the financializaion of urban land markets that has resulted in the exponential growth of disappropriation and expulsions around the world. One of the more radical and universal effects of hosting mega-events is the acceleration of the trends that Rolink identifies – except that in places like Rio de Janeiro and Brazil more generally, the pre-existing socio-economic conditions exacerbate the devastation that unfolds.

We know that in the years leading up to the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, more than 77,000 people were evicted, removed, or dislocated from their homes to make way for “socially necessary” infrastructure projects. And while it is true that any major urban intervention will require the removal of houses and communities, there are legal measures in place to guarantee due process, fair compensation, and legal recourse to violations of the right to housing. Yet when the mega-event wrecking ball descends, so too come regimes of exception that carefully sidestep democratic institutions so that “fast track contracting” (known as RDC in Brazil) can accomplish in seven years what would normally take twenty.

The acceleration of a city’s biorhythm for an event driven planning agenda will always most negatively impact those who are least able to defend their rights. In Rio, the urban poor have always been excluded from accessing the suites of rights that have permanent land tenure as their fundament. The historical wave of expulsions and removals that have happened under the mayorship of Eduardo Paes have coincided exactly with the pursuit of sports mega-events as a justification for “doing whatever” , as Paes once bragged.

These processes always take place in the literal geographic sense of the word, and they also demand a dis-placement. For David Harvey, this process fits within a larger paradigm of “accumulation by dispossession” but in Rio we have seen this take multiple forms in different geographic territories. One example, is the port region which was privatized through mayoral decree and public monies employed to guarantee the financial viability of the project. At the same time, the city government invested heavily in a light rail system that will serve to further valorize these newly private territories while ignoring other transportation projects that could have created a more viable network for the metropolitan region as a whole.

The Olympic Village, Olympic Park, and OlympicGolf Course are three more examples of state led gentrification projects that have taken public lands out of circulation, handed their management to private companies, and left no provision for social housing or models of sustainable urbanism. The state-led production of exclusive residential enclaves has again been sustained and justified through the expulsion of the poor (Vila Autódromo and other favelas in Barra da Tijuca), the construction of low grade transportation to return the poor to their former places of employment (BRT Transoeste), and the discourse of legacy.

The restructuring of urban circulations
Without question, the largest, most visible interventions for mega-events are always the transportation projects. Airports, metro lines, highways, tunnels, bus lines, light rail: Brazil’s investments in infrastructure for the World Cup and Olympics were historic in scope and cost. However, not all infrastructure is necessarily good. Witness the destruction of Rio’s perimetral, a very bad idea from the mid 20th century that has been replaced with a pedestrian promenade. In this case, pedestrian circulation has replaced automobile circulation in a rare attempt to return the center of the city to pedestrians.

More generally, however, if we look at the transportation systems developed as part of the “necessities” for the Olympics, we see a few troubling tendencies. The first is to concentrate all of the federal and state investment in the City of Rio de Janeiro to the detriment of the metropolitan region. The already exaggerated distribution of wealth to the City of Rio was aggravated, privileging expensive transportation solutions (metro and VLT) in the center and south zones, while ramming through sub-standard transportation (BRT) in the North and West.

There was a major investment in road building, as each of the 150km of BRT line also opened up more space for automobile traffic. Along the trajectory of the Transcarioca BRT there are narrow sidewalks, and at no point did any of the BRT lines take into consideration non-motorized transport. The re-articulation of all of the city’s bus lines to serve as feeder lines to the BRT system has had significant negative consequences for the residents of the North and West zones (not to mention those who live in the Metropolitan Region). These regions concentrate the majority of Rio’s population and have not benefitted from a more integrated and efficient transportation network, but have seen their mobility choices limited.

This limitation takes the form of transportation funnels that connect Barra da Tijuca to the West and North and South zones. Of the seven major transportation investments made for the Olympics and World Cup in Rio, five connect to Barra da Tijuca   - a neighbourhood that is not built on a human scale, that is zoned for exclusive condominium communities, and within which residents do not use public transportation. While the Linha 4 of the Metro will inevitably benefit the 50,000 residents of Rocinha that commute times to the employment-rich areas of Rio’s Zona Sul and Centro, the opportunity cost of this investment will only unfold over decades. It is also yet to be seen how the metro will function on a daily basis as it is likely to be full at its point of origin in Barra da Tijuca.

While the city government has said that it managed to elevate the percentage of the population that takes public transportation from 18% to 63% within seven years, there is not yet any data that support the claim (frequently and erroneously repeated in major media). We have not seen any administrative decision that seek to change the Brazilian ideology of car ownership as a fundamental right, nor have we seen infrastructure projects that would encourage people to use their cars less frequently or to drive fewer kilometers (such as park and ride, or multi-modal transport stations).

The development of Rio’s mega-event transport systems is directly linked to the financialization of the urban land market. On one hand, the valorization of urban territories through the development of transportation projects facilitates expulsion and removal through eminent domain and gentrification. On the other hand, the city justifies removal through claims that the poor can continue to have access to job markets and environmental amenities because the transportation lines will serve to reduce their commutes. However, this reading is also limited, as the weight of the opportunity costs for not creating new circulatory pathways through the metropolitan region as a whole will eventually cause more traffic congestion, more wasted hours in buses and trains that have not been modernized and will further marginalize those who live in the metropolitan periphery.

The extensive projects that have been forced through Rio`s planning system have given the impression that the city has really made progressive changes to its urban circulations. Yet the lack of urbanization that has accompanied the projects, along with the violent urban ruptures that the BRTs have occasioned along their trajectories have been accompanied with shocking stories of forced removal and displacement that call into question the social utility of using a mega-event as leverage to restructure circulations that are pre-determined by a 16 day party.

The consolidation of elite exception
The two above processes are intimately linked with the planning process for the global spectacle, as well as the ability of vested interests to extract maximum wealth from the host city. While there is evidence to suggest that the investments unlocked by the arrival of the event have the capacity to stimulate the local labour market in the short term, there is scant evidence to prove that long-term benefits accrue to the host city’s economy or to its citizens.

To the contrary, the very structure of sports mega-events consolidates the socio-economic realty of the institutions that are responsible for their realization. Both FIFA and the IOC are based in Switzerland, shrouded in secrecy, and gain enormous profits form their events, while assuming almost none of the financial risk. These institutions depend on local governments to sign onerous hosting contracts that enforce a suite of exceptions and guarantees. Of course, the local collaborators are also searching for rent-seeking opportunities for their political and economic coalitions and in order to accomplish the task of accumulation, install regimes of exception (and temporary, non-governmenal autarchies) that consolidate both the opportunity for wealth making and exclusivity.

These practices range from the granting of special visas to foreigners, tax exemptions for corporations, the closure of city streets, legislation against ambush marketing, the “cleaning” of urban space (billboards and homeless), to differential models of policing for different spaces of the city. This last item is much discussed, as the ostentatious display of firepower during mega-events functions on multiple symbolic and practical levels.

On the geo-political level, hosts use the exhibition of tanks, jet fighters, and NASA like command and control centers to show the rest of the world that they are capable of handling external and internal threats. On the national level, these same weapons are used to control borders, fight organized crime, or to crush social movements. At the local level, military ostentation is meant to ensure the continuity of the event, guarantee the safety and security of teams, delegations, officials, and tourists while making doubly sure that there are no “interruptions” to the maximum circulation of these groups in the city. As one gets closer to the event, the security varies: ostentatious on the outside, invisible on the inside. 

These security dynamics extend to the way in which the city as a whole is imagined, projected, and constructed. The Olympic city is a place to be photographed, where the landscape and the experiential dynamics of place are consumed through selfies, where the police are there to guarantee the exercise of the right to consume and to be consumed. In the non-Olympic city, the official desire is that the cameras will never go there, that tourists will never be tempted “to stray” into the suburbs, into favelas, or off of Pure Island. The tourist routes as described on the Visit.Rio website are almost all in the Centro and Zona Sul (the Feira Nordestina in São Cristóvão is the exception). We saw that the continuing tragedy of violent police incursions into favelas continued apace during the Olympics: the deaths of police and residentes are inevitably excused with phrases such as, “it would have happened anyway, you can’t blame the Olympics for that.”

The shifting of resources combines with the opening of public cofferes to gruarantee the provision of security, health care, emergency services, energy, water, food, transportation, financing, etc. for the Olympic City and Olympic Citizens (Family) before and during the event. This is essentially a transfer of public resources to the wealtheiest sectors of Brazilian and global society. The costs are borne by the public and now that Rio de Janeiro state has declared a calamity, those who have benefitted from this transfer of wealth will continue to benefit disproportionately after the event has passed. There are two reasons for this.

The first reason is the well-documented condition that Brazilians who have enough wealth to privatize their daily lives do so as soon as they are able. Thus, with the rise of the “New C Class” Brazil also experienced a rise in private car ownership, an increase in private schools, and a surge in private health insurance. These represent the privatization of mobility, education, and health care. Brazilians also have privatised secutiry as never before and this sector has seen tremendous growth. The privatization of residental landscapes also comes with private security, as porteiros, guards, and 24 hours cameras demand cheap labor pools that live in the perifery.

With the bankrupcy of the Rio State Government, those who were able to consolidate their sócio-economic position within the last fifteen years will be able to continue to access their constitutional rights to housing, education, security, and health care through market mechanisms. Those who are forced to depend on the public for basic services will find that their rights have been eroded as a consequence of the transfer of wealth demandeded by a decade long series of global parties.

Vacuums of institutional responsibility and accountability
One of the most impressive moments of Thomas Bach’s (IOC president) speech during the closing ceremonies was the finality with which he left the stage. After presiding over the flag transfer ceremony from Eduardo Paes to the mayor Shintaro Ishihara, and waiting through a bungled speech by the Carlos Nuzman of Rio 2016, Bach said, “Thank you Rio, goodbye!” He then turned and walked off the stage.

Goodbye and thanks for all the billions. Bach’s speech did not mention the massive contortions that the city had gone through to host the IOC’s party. Nor did he mention how the IOC would stay involved in the future development of the city, or encourage a team of urbanists to ensure that the so-called legacy projects would be completed. He said goodbye, as in “We’ll never see each other again.” It wasn’t a até a próxima, que seja logo, or even the German auf weider sehen…just the short, curt, English goodbye.

This phrase struck a particular chord with me because it is indicative of how the mega-event business model works to create vacuums of responsibility that permit large institutions, governments, and NGOs to push forward massive projects based on promises to the public that can later be ignored without consequence. For instance, the cleaning of 80% of Guanabara Bay was a proposal included in the Rio 2016 bid book. The bid book was agreed to by the IOC and the City of Rio as the guiding document for the Games, but neither would take any responsibility for the completion of the project. The City always said it was a State responsibility and the IOC said that it was a promise of the bid committee. The bid committee ceased to exist once Rio 2016 was contracted by the IOC and even though may of the same people from the bid worked for Rio 2016, they would not revise their projections or take responsibility for the lack of completion of the promise. Similar lacunas were found throughout the preparations for the World Cup and a the list of incomplete, overpriced projects from that tournament grows, so too does the obvious non-utility of most of the stadiums build for that one month of football.

In Rio, it is unclear if there are any institutional channels through which the population will be able to measure the development and implementation of the so-called legacy projects. It is not at all certain that the handball arena (Arena do Futuro) will be dismantled and reconstructed as public schools, or if these schools will be able to make good use of the very particular architecture. While this could be an interesting architectural intervention, there is as yet no evidence whatsoever that it is going to happen.

And if it doesn’t will there be any agency or individual that can be held responsible? The mayor will be out of office, the governor will have moved on, the organizing committee will no longer exist, and the IOC will be cooling its heels in Switzerland. The party is over, the hangover is coming, and the billions are being stuffed into Swiss bank accounts. Valeu a pena?

02 September 2016

Scorched earth

Success. We knew the word was coming, as it always does after billions have lined the pockets of private industry and the population has been exposed to the delights of global consumer culture, while slaving to pay the rent, catch a bus, protect their kids from police invasions, buy beans, work all day, catch a bus, repeat. What are the metrics for success? 

Re-invention. A way to say that the commodification and privatisation of urban space allows for the development of projects that never would have happened otherwise. But who planned these projects, how, when, using what criteria? 

If only the event is capable of creating the urgency and necessity to develop projects on a monumental scale and even though we may have to accept the reduction of democratic participation, the transfer of lands and money, the consolidation of elite privilege, etc...isn't it worth it to have a had the world focus on the city for 16 days? Isn`t the legacy of the party enough to sustain us even though those spaces are not fit for daily purpose? What has been re-invented for whom and under what conditions? What is the post-Olympic city? What was the pre-Olympic city? What is the non-Olympic city? What was life like during the 16 days of the Olympics, for whom, under what conditions? The question of was it worth it is almost irrelevant as now we have to hold people accountable for the piles of bullshit they laid on and to find creative ways to use what was left behind. 

These are questions that do not have easy answers and over the history of this blog, I have traced the outlines, contours, and vectors of Rio as it clattered to the end of a mega-event cycle that began back in the mid-1990s. Now that the construction projects have stopped and the dust is settling, there may be a chance to re-evaluate what happened, but the past is as uncertain as the future in Brazil. The differing interpretations of what happened this week in Brasília are enough to make a geographer weep with exhaustion. 

What has become clear, without a shadow of a doubt, is that the Brazilian event cycle connected with the sinusoidal crises of confidence, repression, progressive politics, violence, liberty of expression, party and hangover that define the Brazilian episteme. Rio was under contract for big events from 2003-2016, the 13 years of PT rule. There was a sense of optimism during this period that began crashing just before the 7-1 and disappeared ever more quickly after that. Ironic that the week between the Olympics and Paralympics has seen the finalisation of the impeachment process. With the floodlights burning out, Brazil seems likely to take a long jump backwards. 

The Temer government and its media lamba-sacos have made their intentions clear: no more attempts at egalitarian wealth redistribution, consolidate the inviolable power of the white landed class, ignore race and gender difference (indeed, ossify the existing structures), and violently repress any and all who get in the way of the new project. While there are massive structural reforms that need to be undertaken in Brazil to reduce bureaucracy, restructure the economy, open space for investment, and deal with the massive urban crisis exacerbated by PT policies, there is a sense that the social agenda of the far right is going to dominate the political debate. The 2014 elections ushered in the most conservative congress since the dictatorship, and that laid the rotten foundation for a haunted house of cards.  

Some have suggested that the events were a way for Brazil to strut its emergent self on a global stage, but it should hopefully be obvious that demonstrating a capacity to build and organize on a massive scale does not in and of itself bring lasting benefits. Cariocas should be proud that they can put on the world's biggest parties, but when the entire apparatus of the state is directed towards that end, it is not so surprising that it was an operational success for the primary stakeholders. The non-Olympic city is more segregated than ever and now that the state is broke and the city`s finances are only coming to light, there will be little money or appetite to diminish this distance. 

As I have said since the beginning, events carry opportunity costs that are too great for a society that has not resolved the basic provision of rights, the minimal delivery of public services, or addressed issues of race, income disparity, class, environment, gender, education, etc.  The PT made some remarkably positive strides in this direction but in pursuing the event agenda guaranteed that their social and political base would be excluded from the cities that they struggle to build and live in every day. Of course, Brazil's current crisis is much greater than the event cycle, but the fact that the Olympic Flame snaked through Brazil and was met with more protests than any other torch relay (in a national context) in Olympic history, at the same time that the Rio de Janeiro power base of the PMDB was undertaking a scorched-earth political campaign is a coincidence too obvious to ignore. 

As the Paralympic flame is set to be lit in Rio under an unpopular and illegitimate government, we can only hope that things will not turn out to be as bad as we expect them to be. Hopefully we will learn a lesson from Rio 2016 and not set the bar so low as to consider anything but total disaster a metric for success. 

24 August 2016

Cidade do Selfie

 Rio`s new iconographic landscapes
The City of Rio de Janeiro is undoubtedly situated in one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world, with one of the most pleasant climates, and is surrounded by oceans and mountains that provide escapes from the summer heat. The iconic physical landscapes are complimented by iconic architectural and urban designs: Cristo, Parque do Flamengo, Calçadão de Copacabana, Sambódromo, Arcos da Lapa, Maracanã. Now, the city government has added the VLT, BRT, and the Museu da Amanhã to the pictography of the city.

As I was watching the closing ceremony of the Olympics, one of the commentators on SporTv said: “This has been the selfie Olympics.” And then it struck me: this was the selfie Olympics in the Cidade do Selfie.

Central do Brasil w old selfies on the wall
When tourists, commuters, workers, vagabundos, and geographers walk into the main hall of the Central do Brasil train station they are faced with murals that depict the city around them. On front of the Rio Sul Shopping is always a gigantic mural of some scene in the Zona Sul. In restaurants and bars, the pictures on the wall are always of Rio. It’s not uncommon to see Cariocas preening in front of their cameras and then flipping through their selfie collection while stuck in traffic.  There is a Brazilian fascination with the selfie that I will leave to the anthropologists to dissect, but I would guess that Rio is the epicenter of this phenomenon that may come from a historically situated condition of perpetual self-reflection on the natural beauty of the city.

A brilliant place for a selfie
Of course, Brazil and Rio are not alone in this, as the selfie as a mode of personal expression has gown around the world to merit more serious attention. The selfie phenomenon may indicate a general switch in human consciousness or simply a different way of experiencing the world, or it may be just another way of fetishizing lived experience as an act of consumption. With the explosion of cell phones and digital cameras, photography has become such an integral part of our daily lives that we forget that as recently as 15 years ago, we still printed our pictures, increasing the time and space between the moment of the picture and its remembrance.

In the cidade do selfie, I take a picture (with a me-phone) and immediately look at it, admiring my own beauty and marveling at my good fortune or privileged leisure before the moment or experience has actually passed. The collapsing of personal experience into a constant echo chamber of selfie reflection may eventually force us to evolve longer arms and more delicate index fingers, but it does not permit much space for reflection about the world in which the selfies happens. It is as if we are afraid that we will not remember where we were ten minutes ago without encapsulating the moment in a photo.

The selfie is a perfect expression of reality within the Olympic Bubble. As with the USAmerican rower who was so adamant that she would “row through shit for you”, the Olympism is a self-referential moral system that projects the desires of the individual onto Others as a means of justifying that pursuit. The gringa was never rowing through shit for anyone but herself and completely ignored the rather obvious fact that she can choose to do this while the people who live here are rather mired in it.

It is within this selfie bubble that Thomas Bach can say “There was no public money involved in Rio 2016” or that the IOC “is not responsible” for the risk that whistleblowers run when denouncing state sponsored doping programs. The Olympic City is always a city constructed to be photographed, within which Olympic tourists descend to take selfies, consuming the landscape and experience before heading home to show their friends and family their pictures of themselves in front of iconographic scenarios specifically constructed for their selfies.  Thus, Olympic urbanism meets Samsung and begets 916 million instagram photos in 16 days. 

The selfie is part of a larger trend towards the instant historicization of the present and recent past. Within an hour of the closing ceremonies, there were already retrospective montages of the Games that encapsulated the best moments for us, before we could think about it ourselves. The government is rushing to say that the Games were a success without allowing the dust to settle. Play-acting president Temer launched a press release yesterday saying that “The World has rediscovered Brazil” – a tidy articulation with the IOC’s “A New World” slogan. How did the world rediscover Brazil? What world? What Brazil? What (re)discovery? This way of promoting and interpreting Rio’s mega-event cycle is fraught, eliding problems and challenges that can only be adequately digested and addressed with the passage of time.

Prolonged consideration, public engagement, and collective action are actions that the Olympic Cidade do Selfie does not encourage. It is the Cidade de Nós Todos that needs to be constructed in its stead.

22 August 2016

Seven years a slave

It’s over, save for the lawsuits and corruption scandals. And the Paralympics, impeachment, debt servicing, white elephants, new weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the police, an impending collapse of public security and health care, the return of the mosquitoes, municipal elections, and peering into the void of (un)accountability.

There have been a number of very good reflections on this most recent global spectacle, but within these there are always some points that need to be though through more thoroughly. Here’s one from S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated:

“Rio? It came nearly as advertised: Exhausted, ragged, a city and its nation in crisis. What else should we have expected? Brazil is not the world’s sole victim of financial crisis or political paralysis, just one of the worst. That it still managed to revitalize its decrepit port and build a $3 billion, 10-mile subway extension, the first line of an urban light-rail system, and an efficient rapid bus network used on Aug. 12 by a record 855,000 passengers, not to mention host the world amid its suffering, verges on the heroic.”

The word “revitalization” is a euphemism used the world over as a substitute for gentrification, expulsion of the working class, and financialization of urban territories. We know that Rio’s port region lacked investment for decades, but this is partly because the region was zoned against new residential construction, has few supermarkets or schools, and turns into a no-person’s land after 6pm. The solution? Privatize through decree, handing over five million square meters of land with more than 6,000 empty buildings to Brazil’s biggest construction and real-estate firms.

Within this area, the city government decided to cover itself with urban bling, building a cripplingly expensive light rail system that is itself designed to valorize the territories within the port zone. This is a perverse investment that will rust into disuse as soon as it stops being a tourist attraction (The English only need to see it once). The center of Rio is prone to flooding and large pools of water will necessitate a systemic shut down of the because of the center rail could electrify pedestrians. In this case, the VLT cars are equipped with batteries to take passengers to the next station, where they will disembark and the VLT will stop running until the water recedes. Genius.

An efficient bus system? I don’t think that Price ever tried to get a bus that was not linked to the Games. If he had, he would have found that Rio’s bus stops lack a map or even an indication of which buses will pass, when, or where they go to. I pointed this out on Twitter a month back and the mayor posted a picture of the Olympic transport map. Fine. From the height of a parachute, it looks like a functional and efficient system, but in a city that has the third worst traffic in the world, to talk of efficiency is to miss the point entirely. There is no public transportation in Rio, there is no map of the bus system, and city planning agendas are dictated by a cabal of special interests.

And finally, the metro. This is the last project that Rio needed and the city and state have wasted a historic opportunity of record cash flow to construct a metropolitan transport network that would serve the needs of the population and not the tourists going from Copacabana and Ipanema to Barra. There are innumerable testimonies about the folly of the metro and while they did manage to get it done on time for the Games (at many billions over budget), are we to celebrate this as a heroic and pyrrhic victory, or simply as another example of the Games capturing the long term planning agendas of a metropolis of 12+ million? Please. Just because a lot of things were built in a short period of time, it doesn’t mean that they were the right things to build in the right places with a modicum of transparency. These transportation projects were responsible for the majority of the 20,000 homes destroyed in the largest cycle of forced removals in the city’s history.

Despite this perspective, which likely comes from an ignorance of the context of Rio’s urban contortions, I agree with Price’s assessment that for Rio 20sicksteen: “The underlying message: Take an eye off the sports for even a moment, and you risked disillusion or dismay. You call that an Olympics?”

Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times parachuted into Rio to cover the Games and like his colleague Roger Cohen, whose unfortunate whinge I debunked in the last post, has showed just how easy it is for a seasoned professional to lose their critical faculties when confronted with covering the global spectacle. Jacobs tries mightily to listen to critics, but he won’t allow himself to be distracted from the debased narrative that the Games are really good for all of us, even the poor. To wit:

“But the criticism aside [my incredulous italics], the Olympic Games in Rio have profoundly altered this city of six million, yielding a revitalized port; a new subway line; and a flush of municipal projects, big and small, that had long been on the wish list of city planners.”

This is, as I described in the last post, technically bullshit. The Transcarioca BRT line was on the wish list of city planners – in the 1960s. This line, identified as the T-5 in the Rio 2016 bid book, was originally called the Linha Azul in the Doxiadis urban plan of 1965. The Linha Amarela, also part of this plan, smashed through the dense neighborhood fabric of the Zona Norte  in 1995 to connect Barra da Tijuca with the Linha Amarela (a project facilitated by João Havelange’s intervention with the military dictatorship). The Transcarioca has added another perverse layer to the automobile fantasies of Rio’s elites. This is not urban planning, it’s a residual ideological perspective that continues to shape urban governance and planning in Brazil. 

Jacobs doesn’t interview urban planners to test his theory, but turns to an analyst at Moody’s who says: “It’s undeniable that the infrastructure that has been built for the Games will benefit the population once the Olympics are over.” Where is the evidence for this claim? There is none, just a blind belief that any infrastructure is good infrastructure, with no consideration of the opportunity costs, or that the lines are privatized and already provide intermittent, crowded, sub-standard service for the urban poor while opening ever more space for cars.

But Jacobs isn’t done yet, turning his myopic pen to the Port. Here I consolidate his comments on the port region into one:

Then there is Meu Porto Maravilha, or My Wonderful Port, the historic waterfront that for decades was cut off from downtown Rio by a hulking elevated highway, its 19th-century warehouses left to molder. Plans to rehabilitate the port, first put forth in the 1980s, had long been stymied by a lack of money and insufficient political will…The $2.5 billion rehabilitation, much of it financed through the sale of air rights from adjacent properties and tax incentives to developers, included demolishing the viaduct and funneling traffic through a new three-mile tunnel…Over the next decade, the developers plan to build 500 apartments that they say will be affordable to residents of a nearby favela. Many of these residents are descendants of the half-million African slaves who first arrived in Brazil at Valongo Wharf. The wharf’s recently unearthed foundations are scheduled to become part of a museum that will also include a forgotten slave cemetery.”

Again, the port region was privatized through decree and there are 6,000 vacant buildings in the Port and Centro regions of the city. There is a housing deficit of some 220,000 homes in Rio, yet developers say they are going to build 500 apartments that will be available to residents of favelas (probably Providência, where dozens of houses were removed for the authoritarian imposition of a cablecar). 500 apartments? This somehow will erase the historical debt of the odd half-million slaves dumped on Brazil’s shores? The money has been spent on the expensive to maintain, yet environmentally “sustainable” Museu da Amanhã – a place dedicated to forgtting about the past.

The “air rights” that Jacobs talks about are called CEPACS and were the principal financing mechanism for the PPP of Porto Maravilha. CEPACS are rights bought to build above the current zoning restrictions, which have had the effect of increasing real-estate speculation and fostering gentrification in other Brazilian cities. Usually, these are sold on the open market, but as the private sector did not come forward to buy enough of them to make viable the privatization, CAIXA, a Brazilian state bank, bought all of them for R$8 billion. 100% public risk + major transfer of public lands to the private sector + spectacular urbanism predicated on global consumption = a place that Jacobs can really get into, despite the obvious problems inherent in pulling off this kind of project in corrupt and opaque Rio:

“It’s hard to get excited about the Olympics when our hospitals are so overcrowded and people can’t find jobs,” she said. But sitting in the shadow of a new science museum by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, Ms. Lima said she had changed her mind. “I’m sure there was a lot of corruption and waste that went into this, but the end result is gorgeous and really cool,” she said. “This is definitely a place I’m going to come back to again and again.”
The Olympic Boulevard is an improvement on what was there before, no doubt, but what it was turned into during the Olympics was a pathway for global brands to stuff our faces with sugary drinks, watery pilsner, smart phones, imported cars, and innumerable opportunities for selfies. While having a new public space for Cariocas is welcome, there spatial tropes that appeal to the international tourist class make it yet another scenario to be consumed, another place to be “done” (to use the gringo traveler lingo). Jacobs, as the Brazilian saying goes, pisou feia na bola, making the least of an opportunity for balanced coverage.

The best commentaries I have read have, not surprisingly come from Brazilians. Two of the many excellent commentaries coming out today build upon what Vanessa Barbara wrote in the New York Times on Saturday: 

Brazilians boo every athlete who’s not Brazilian, we boo the foreign journalists and we boo ourselves, just for the noise. Yet, many of us are interested only in making a good impression on the same foreigners we seem to despise; we want the country to look pretty on camera, despite the cost for those who live here. Every positive article about the Olympics in the international press is like a gold medal. For me, this is a more serious complex: the one where you will do anything just to impress the visitors and try to disguise problems, instead of fixing them.”
Two other notable commentaries came from Luis Eduardo Soares, a Brazilian luminary that is able to see the whole and the parts. In today’s Guardian he wrote:

Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, has done everything to try to stop a parliamentary inquiry commission being opened in the municipal chamber to investigate spending on the Olympics. Of the original promises made by Paes for the Games’ legacy, mainly involving investment in urban mobility and the reduction of pollution, barely half have been met on time. The Games’ proposed budget of $13bn was exceeded a long time ago – but a lack of transparency over the real costs has fuelled suspicions of corruption.”

And as Soares is perhaps the expert on public security in Brazil, it is worth reminding everyone that the during the Games no fewer than 8 people were killed in Rio’s northern suburbs (not counting the continuing massacre of political candidates in the Baixada Fluminense):

“Between 2003 and 2015, 11,343 people were killed by police in the state of Rio, mainly by military police. The overwhelming majority of victims are young, black and poor. Investigations, when they do take place, are generally inconclusive. In other words, extrajudicial executions are indirectly authorised by governments, institutions and the population itself, with people widely believing that the killings will reduce crime. Yet in the first seven months of 2016, 60 police officers were also killed.” This is in stark contrast to the rapid response of Brazilian police to every claim made by gringos, even the vapid eterno-bros from El Norte.

Add to these observations the continued transfer of public assets to private hands in Barra da Tijuca, the news that the rabidly machista CBF is considering a total elimination of the women’s national team, Neymar’s hypocritical 100% Jesus (0% bom senso) headband which cut off the slow trickle of blood to his head, Paes equally tight malandro chapeu during the closing ceremonies, the constant sight of the Brazilian military raising flags and marching off in lockstep when the same forces do the same thing with the Brazilian flag in “pacified” favelas, the non-transparency of the Rio 2016 organizing committee that spent more than R$200 million renting and repairing Ilha Pura but won’t fund a centavo of the Paralympics, Nuzman declaring that yellow is the new red, and Bach saying so long thanks for all the billions, see you in Tokyo…among all this there is the programmed decline of Oligarchic infrastructure, expertly identified by Mariana Calvacante:

“Summer Olympics, like other mega-events and massive redevelopment schemes necessarily entail the production of ruins. Two types of ruin are usually related to Olympic games or large urban development projects: the first refers to the ruins of the city before the Olympics, and they take the shape of demolitions, that in turn usually entail evictions. These are the ruins of “creative destruction” that draw attention to the sudden erasure of recent pasts, and they lend themselves both to nostalgic and critical discourses. These ruins come before the Games, and their remains are to be erased by the Games, in exchange for the promise of “legacies” that vary from city to city.

The very prematurity of these ruins renders legible the predicaments of the project of Rio as an Olympic city. Their particular temporal structure bespeaks of a process of decline before reaching its own projected or imagined peak. Instead of a future that becomes outmoded over time, the material decay and constitutive unfinishedness of Rio’s Olympic structures reveal the monumental and in the end unachievable scales of Olympic planning in Rio de Janeiro.”

More to come as there are ever more bits of the Olympic puzzle to be put back into the box, shaken up, and reconfigured as a more just and livable city.


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