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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