A Review of Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro 

Culture and Urban Reform in the Marvelous City

by | Mar 17, 2014

Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro  By Bruno Carvalho Liverpool University Press, 2013; Series: Contemporary Hispanic and Lusophone Cultures, 235 pages.

In her book Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, Susan Buck-Morss cautioned against the growing trend in the academy towards specialization. Specialization, Buck-Morss points out, creates arbitrary boundaries resulting in “disciplinary isolation.” To avoid these shortcomings, Buck-Morss called on scholars to “expand porosity” among the disciplines. That was in 2009. Fast forward to 2014 and enter Bruno Carvalho, assistant professor at Princeton University, whose groundbreaking new book Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro defies specialization and will no doubt become a model for scholars engaged in interdisciplinary research. Porous City explores the history and culture of Rio since the 1800s and the processes through which marginalized cultural practices became mainstream. In so doing, Carvalho develops a rich analytical concept which, incidentally, he also calls porosity. Through porosity, Carvalho sheds light on a paradox that is central to Rio and perhaps to all of Brazil: that is, the coexistence of mobility and segregation. Or, as Carvalho puts it, “social-racial mixture and cultural inclusion can abet other forms of exclusion, just as stratification does not preclude fluid boundaries.”

In Porous City Carvalho draws on methods from literature, history and urban studies, weaving together an impressive array of sources—including travelers’ accounts, novels, songs, maps and paintings—as he investigates the intersection of urban development and cultural production of Praça Onze, one of Rio’s most compelling and enigmatic public squares located in the now-razed Cidade Nova neighborhood. If you have never heard of Praça Onze, you are not alone. Most cariocas—as Rio residents are called—only know it as a subway station. However, you have no doubt heard of, and perhaps danced, the samba, a symbol of Brazilian national identity whose origin and popularity are, Carvalho argues, intrinsically tied to Praça Onze and its surroundings.

Built by Royal Decree in 1811, Cidade Nova was located between downtown Rio and the residence of the newly arrived king. The royal family had great plans for Cidade Nova, but nature intervened. Yellow fever struck the city in 1849, causing the wealthy residents of Cidade Nova to leave the area for more salubrious housing along the ocean on the city’s southern edge. While yellow fever contributed to the demise of what was supposed to be Rio’s richest neighborhood, Carvalho argues that the epidemic played a key role in the emergence of a more complex, albeit poorer, neighborhood whose impact on the cultural imaginary of Rio—and Brazil—was greater than anyone could have predicted.

Lured by cheap rents, favorable location, and closeness to public transportation, Cidade Nova would become home to several ethnic groups, including Afro-Brazilians, gypsies, European immigrants and Jews. Carvalho’s careful examination of the Jewish presence in Cidade Nova and their place in the history of samba is one of the book’s many contributions. Yet, despite being one of Rio’s most diverse communities or, as Carvalho writes, a place of “multi-ethnic encounters and a permeable cultural life,” Cidade Nova was often portrayed in the contemporary media (and by scholars today) as predominantly black. So much so, that by the 1920s it was simply known as “Little Africa.” Not coincidentally, Cidade Nova developed a reputation for being unruly, uncivilized, unhygienic and home to Rio’s “dangerous classes.” Carvalho tells us that such racially charged notions had a lasting effect on Cidade Nova, making this centrally located neighborhood appear faraway and marginal in the minds of elite cariocas.

Carvalho argues that Cidade Nova was not marginal or particularly violent or an “ethnic ghetto,” despites its reputation. Instead, it was a “fluid frontier.” To substantiate these claims, Carvalho conducts a close reading of several works by known and less known writers to highlight just how entwined well-to-do cariocas were with Cidade Nova. Machado de Assis is a case in point. Though he reproduced many of the stereotypes associated with the area in his early writings, Machado would later develop a more nuanced take on Cidade Nova, depicting characters who, though from Cidade Nova, were neither defined by nor bound to the area. Rather, characters like Elisiario from the story An Errant Man moved about the city with relative ease. Much like the author’s later characters, Carvalho explains that Machado circulated throughout the city, including Cidade Nova. By focusing on Rio’s porous quality, Carvalho offers a highly original interpretation of Machado as not simply a writer of Rio’s elite but as a writer intently aware of the larger transformations brought on by modernity and their effects on the urban poor. Another author with an interest in Cidade Nova was Manuel Antônio de Almeida. In Memoirs of a Police Sargent Almeida describes the music of Cidade Nova in such great detail that, according to Carvalho, it reveals the author’s ties to the stigmatized neighborhood and Rio’s porosity more generally.

Almeida was not the only one swept up in the music of Cidade Nova. Over the years, thousands more would ride the streetcars to the neighborhood for the music and the all-night parties. The most famous venues in Cidade Nova were located around Praça Onze. Among them the legendary house of the baiana Tia Ciata, one of Rio’s renowned Candomblé priestesses. It was here, a place Carvalho calls a “bastion of Afro-Brazilian spiritual, cultural and social life,” that in 1917 the first samba was created. Tia Ciata looms large in the history of samba. Indeed, Rio’s best-known samba acts at the time were in some way tied to her house and Praça Onze. The list is long and Carvalho explores them in great detail, but the most emblematic were Pixinguinha and his band Oito Batutas. Pixinguinha, a descendant of slaves, was a pioneering sambista in more ways than one. In addition to defining the style, he helped to break down racial barriers associated with samba by performing in elite clubs throughout Rio, and he secured samba’s popularity when the Oito Batutas toured Paris in 1922. Samba’s rising popularity was also due to the growing interest in Carnival, which, as Carvalho argues, was also tied to Praça Onze. In fact, Carvalho writes that the first modern carnival parade composed of competing Samba Schools was held in Praça Onze in the early 1930s, attracting thousands of people. The street carnival of Praça Onze would remain Rio’s most popular until the early 1940s, when the square and most of Cidade Nova were destroyed to make way for President Vargas Avenue. Carvalho’s argument that samba, Carnival, and other practices associated with Praça Onze constituted “spheres of Brazilian life that allowed for the greatest porosity in a society of deep inequalities” is all the more relevant when we consider that these practices were often persecuted by the state.

Around the time that cultural practices associated with Afro-Brazilians were gaining popularity, another equally significant process was underway that would forever change Brazil’s national identity, namely the valorization of racial mixture. Much like samba and Carnival, Carvalho argues that Cidade Nova was also central to this development. According to Carvalho, one progenitor of this idea was the writer Lima Barreto, the most vocal critics of the infamous Pereira Passos reforms. Carvalho argues that Barreto’s notion of a collectivity born out of racial mixture was deeply tied to the author’s experience of the rich cultural milieu of Cidade Nova. Barreto’s proposition that a more authentic Brazil was to be found not in Rio’s Europhile elite circles but in places like Cidade Nova was later picked up by the Modernistas, an group of influential writers, poets and painters who found excitement and inspiration in Cidade Nova. A few years later, President Getúlio Vargas would make samba, Carnival and the idea of racial mixture symbols of Brazilian national identity as part of a larger effort to portray Brazil as a land of racial harmony. However, as U.S. filmmaker Orson Welles would find out, Vargas’ embrace of Afro-Brazilian popular culture and miscegenation had its limits. A Praça Onze enthusiast, Welles set out to make a Good Neighbor era film that prominently featured samba and street Carnival. The film was never completed because, as Carvalho argues convincingly, Welles’ less commercial depiction of samba and Carnival as well as his insistence on working with Afro-Brazilian musicians and actors and filming Rio’s favelas clashed with local authorities, who preferred the image of Brazil in Walt Disney’s Saludos Amigos—a film that portrayed an idyllic city of Rio and elite (and mostly white) ballroom carnival. It is a sad irony, Carvalho points out, that the same government responsible for turning samba, Carnival and the idea of racial harmony into symbols of Brazilian identity censored a film that sought to celebrate those expressions. More importantly, that same government also oversaw the destruction of Praça Onze, the place that gave rise to those cultural expressions in the first place.

Finally, in tracing the history of Cidade Nova from a central place in the Royal city to a “marginal” but diverse community known as the cradle of samba until its destruction, Carvalho sends a warning to those in charge of preparing Rio for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. He reminds us that no matter how well-crafted and attractive on paper, Rio’s large urban redevelopment projects have a troubling legacy. On the one hand, urban interventions such as highways and tunnels made the city more accessible and, as a result, cariocasliving in distant parts of the city are now closer than ever. But, on the other hand, urban reforms pulled them apart. Urban interventions tore through established communities like Cidade Nova, displaced residents, and spurred the growth of Rio’s notorious favelas. Put another way, state-led efforts to modernize Rio have further divided the city along the lines of class and race. Sadly, there is reason to believe that history is repeating itself. The question that Porous City prompts us to ask is how many would-be Cidades Novas are being destroyed as Rio prepares to host these mega-events, and what impact might that have on Brazil’s cultural development? The answer is not yet known; however, the solution may well be in the methodology. In the same way that scholars like Carvalho seek to incorporate several methods, approaches, and sources in an attempt to arrive at a more comprehensive and balanced perspective on complex historical processes, so too should urban planners pursue a more porous and inclusive approach to planning that takes into account a variety of voices–including the urban poor. Only then will Rio become the marvelous city it aspires to be.

Spring 2014Volume XIII, Number 3

Marcio Siwi is a Ph.D. candidate in History at New York University. His dissertation explores urban development and cultural production in São Paulo and New York after WWII. Prior to pursuing a Ph.D. Marcio worked at David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

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