Bridging the Gap: Housing Inequalities in Northeastern Brazil

November 8, 2011 • Blogs, The Globalist Notebook • Views: 2075

by Alexis Cruzzavala:

FORTALEZA, BRAZIL — I was recently invited to celebrate a friend’s birthday in the neighborhood Carlitos Pamplona. Traveling from my home stay in Papicú, I knew that the journey would require at least an hour on one of the local buses. But when I asked my host mother which bus to take, she grimaced and suggested that I not go.

“It’s already late,” she said, “and you don’t want to be walking around Carlitos Pamplona at this hour.” It was only five in the afternoon.

Despite my host family’s extensive travel history, it’s common for most middle class and wealthy Brazilians to shy away from and even resent the poorer neighborhoods. I was surprised by my host mother’s reaction, but determined to make an appearance for my friend. And now I was interested to see exactly why this neighborhood was looked down upon if my study abroad program—SIT: Social Justice and Sustainable Development—felt confident in housing a number of students there.

FORTALEZA: The view from Santa Terezinha: a clear distinction between the wealthier neighborhoods and the poorer ones. (Cruzzavala/TYG)

One hour and fifteen minutes later, I arrived in the central praça of one of Fortaleza’s most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods. The large apartment complexes that I was so accustomed to seeing out my bedroom window were nowhere to be seen; the majority of houses used faded commercial posters to mask their chipping façades. The praça itself was full of street vendors selling everything from cheese and meat on a stick to knock-off cell phones and chargers. Children were playing on a worn-down playground while a group of girls sauntered by giving me strange looks. I was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, but compared to them, in their neon colored spandex Bermudas and cropped Lycra tanks, I was terribly overdressed.

The birthday party was a hit, and the families that came to celebrate were just as loud and animated as the families I had met back in Papicú. As I was getting ready to leave, I asked one of the women there about the best way to return to Papicú. She suggested a moto-taxi; it would be safer than taking a bus late at night, she said, and taxis don’t usually hang around this part of town.

“The taxi drivers don’t like coming out here,” my friend’s lively host mother told me. “They claim it’s too dangerous.” The ease with which she said this reminded me of my own host mother’s words of caution earlier. This woman had lived her entire life in this neighborhood and, though she knew the crime rate was higher, she carried the same stigma commonly associated with her community.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to see this social stratification in neighborhoods. All over Brazil, the poor are pushed to the peripheries and ignored by both the higher classes and the government. The rate of violence is significantly higher in these areas; as a result, local businesses are too frightened to set up shop. The local and state governments are absent from the neighborhoods and choose to funnel money into new shopping malls rather than building community centers that could help keep children and young adults off the streets. Several NGOs do their best to help, such as CUCA, an organization founded two years ago near Carlitos Pamplona that provides after-school programs like dance and capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian style martial arts) to the surrounding communities.

Most disturbing, however, is the fear that defines the higher classes. Huge walls are erected outside apartment buildings and guards are on watch 24 hours a day. Friends of mine in Papicú had never even seen neighborhoods like Carlitos Pamplona. The stigma attached to those who live there is evident in any conversation when the question “Where are you living?” comes up.

To make matters worse, when Brazil won the bid for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, capital cities like Fortaleza saw an increase in urban displacement. Stadiums, hotels, and high-speed railroads must be built in a short period of time to accommodate tourists, yet the amount of free space is limited. So what does the state government do?

The easiest solution has been to buy back property from the poorer communities. Yet in neighborhoods like Montese, where residents only have proof of residency but not official proprietary documents, the price that the government is willing to pay is significantly lower than the property’s true value. In Montese, the government plans to evict 213 families in order to construct a high-speed railroad connecting the airport to the beach neighborhood of Mucuripe. Though officially this railroad is being built for the residents of Montese, many urban development organizations and NGOs claim it will only benefit the future tourists that the World Cup and the Summer Olympics will bring. The residents that will be evicted have been offered the option of moving into an apartment building—which has yet to be built, is located some 20 kilometers away from their community, and is in a neighborhood that is significantly underdeveloped.

Map of the houses set to be demolished to make room for the high-speed railroad in Montese. (Google Maps)

In the mean time, several NGOs and urban development organizations are working to gain land titles for the residents of Montese. At this point, it would be near impossible to move the development site for the railroad. But if land titles can be obtained, the people would be adequately compensated and would be financially capable of owning another house in the community. Construction on the railroad is scheduled to begin in January and expected to finish just before the start of the World Cup; time is running short.

Other neighborhoods are also expected to suffer as a result of the upcoming games. The favelas, or slums, that encircle the famous beach Praia do Futuro are home to an overwhelming number of construction sites for high-rise apartments and hotels. The gentrification of these communities is displacing many families to even worse locations where running water and electricity are luxuries. The sacrifice the urban poor are making for tourist accommodations and services has resulted in an amplification of the infamous socio-economic gap of Brazil and is becoming increasingly evident in the neighborhoods of Fortaleza

MONView of a street in the neighborhood Montese. (Courtesy Kelci Reyes-Brannon)

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NGOs and other organizations are doing their part to help ease the transition for many families and are fighting for the attention of the government. But until the government—whether state or national—intervenes, the degree to which these communities improve will remain on a small scale, and will be achieved only after putting up a fight.

When I returned home from the birthday party, my host mother immediately asked me what I thought of Carlitos Pamplona. I gave her my honest opinion. What began as a simple question became an hour-long conversation about the socio-economic inequalities in Fortaleza. She was surprised to hear that I cared so much about a neighborhood that was, for her, a lifetime away. Maybe she won’t visit it anytime soon, but I hope that even our simple conversation changed her opinion of a poorer neighborhood that is as foreign to her as Brazil was once foreign to me.

Alexis Cruzzavala ’13 is in Davenport College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger, writing about her experiences studying abroad in Fortaleza, Brazil with an SIT: Social Justice and Sustainable Development program. Contact her at alexis.cruzzavala@yale.edu.

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