Reinventing Rio

The dazzling but tarnished Brazilian city gets a makeover as it prepares for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games

People of every income level and skin color mix comfortably on Rio's gorgeous beaches like here at Ipanema-Leblon. (Eduardo Rubiano Moncada)
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New museums with bold architecture have long been an easy way of raising a city’s profile. Rio’s Modern Art Museum on the Aterro do Flamengo did that in the 1960s. Since the 1990s, Oscar Niemeyer’s UFO-like Contemporary Art Museum in Niterói has been the main reason for tourists to cross the bay. And construction will soon begin on a new Museum of Image and Sound, designed by the New York-based firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, on Copacabana’s Avenida Atlántica.

Culture is the one area where Rio holds its own in its decades-old rivalry with São Paulo, its larger and far richer neighbor. São Paulo boasts the country’s most important universities, newspapers, publishing houses, recording companies, theaters and concert halls. But Rio remains the cradle of creativity; Brazil’s dominant television network, Globo, is headquartered in the city and employs a small army of writers, directors and actors for its ever-popular soap operas. Also, Globo’s nightly news is beamed across Brazil from its studios in Rio. But more importantly, as “a city that releases extravagant freedoms,” in Piñón’s words, Rio inspires artists and writers.

And musicians, who play not only samba, choro and now funk, but also bossa nova, the sensual jazz-influenced rhythm that gained international fame with such hits as Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Girl from Ipanema.” One evening, I joined a crowd celebrating the reopening of the three cramped nightspots in Copacabana—Little Club, Bottle and Baccarat—where the bossa nova was born in the late 1950s.

“Rio remains the creative heart of Brazilian music,” said Chico Buarque, who has been one of the country’s most admired singer-composers for over 40 years and is now also a best-selling novelist. São Paulo may have a wealthier audience, he says, “but Rio exports its music to São Paulo. The producers, writers and performers are here. Rio also imports music from the United States, from the Northeast, then makes it its own. Funk, for instance, becomes Brazilian when it is mixed with samba.”

Popular music can be heard across the city, but the downtown neighborhood of Lapa is the new hot spot. In the 19th century, it was an elegant residential district reminiscent of New Orleans and, while its terraced houses have known better days, many have been converted into bars and dance halls where bands play samba and choro and the forró rhythms of northeastern Brazil. In the weeks before the pre-Lenten Carnaval, attention turns to Rio’s escolas de samba, or samba “schools,” which are, in fact, large neighborhood organizations. During Carnaval, the groups compete for the title of champion, taking turns to parade their dancers and colorful floats through a noisy and crowded stadium known as the Sambódromo.

Rio is also a magnet for writers. As a legacy of its years as the country’s capital, the city is still home to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, which was founded in 1897 and modeled on the Académie Française. Among its 40 immortels today are Piñón, the novelists Lygia Fagundes Telles, Rubem Fonseca and Paulo Coelho and the author of popular children’s books, Ana Maria Machado. But even Fonseca’s novels, which are set in Rio’s underworld, rely on São Paulo for their readership.

Except for music, Cariocas are not great consumers of culture. Alcione Araújo, a playwright and lecturer, thinks he knows why. “In a city with these skies, beaches and mountains, it is a crime to lock people inside a theater,” he said. And he might have added movie theaters and art galleries. Walter Moreira Salles Jr., who directed the award-winning movies Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries, lives in Rio, but looks beyond the city for his audience. A painter friend of mine, Rubens Gerchman, who died in 2008, moved to São Paulo to be close to his market.

But Silvia Cintra, who has just opened a new gallery in Rio with her daughter Juliana, prefers to be close to her artists. “São Paulo has more money, but I think that 80 percent of Brazil’s most important artists live and work in Rio,” she said. “São Paulo treats art as a commodity, while the Carioca buys art because he loves it, because he has passion. Rio has space, oxygen, energy, everything vibrates. The artist can work, then go for a swim. You know, I have never felt as happy about Rio as now.”

Cariocas have long accepted the hillside favelas as part of the landscape. Writing in Tristes Tropiques, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described what he saw in 1935: “The poverty-stricken lived perched on hills in favelas where a population of blacks, dressed in tired rags, invented lively melodies on the guitar which, during carnaval, came down from the heights and invaded the city with them.”

Today, although many of Rio’s favelas still lack running water and other basic necessities, many have improved. Brick and concrete houses have replaced wooden shacks, and most communities have shops; many have schools. Until around 20 years ago, the favelas were relatively tranquil, thanks to the power of the bicheiros, godfather-like figures who run an illegal gambling racket known as the “animal game.” Then the drug gangs moved in.


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