9 Feruary 2014
If you have ever been to Rio de Janeiro (in real life or on google streetview) you know that Rio is a city of sharp geographical contrasts: shaped by a huge bay, various mountain peaks such as the famous sugar loaf mountain (Pão de Açúcar) and open sea beaches such as Copacabana and Ipanema.
The favelas can be found on top of pretty much every hill—easily recognisable by their slightly chaotic but still organised houses made of bare brick, leaving no space for a western-style street. The CBD and luxurious apartments are essentially found along the bay beaches and the famous south-end of Rio: Copacabana, Ipánema, Leblon. The north of Rio captures the classic Brazilian social problems of crime and poverty, which perfectly illustrates the obvious inequalities of the booming, emerging economy when you go South—where house prices compete with Central London.
Among this 11-million-people, chaotic, tropical metropolis, one district sticks out. Santa Teresa was once a deprived no-go area, without being a “proper” favela (though it’s on top of a hill). Rather, before the idea of gentrification made its way to Rio, nobody saw why old individual colonial houses were of any value, and the district was not particularly attractive to the “nouveau-riche” Brazilian upper class favouring the modern, luxurious, purpose-built towers downtown. Now, Santa Teresa is exhibiting its charm, playing with the cliché of a slightly run-down, but oh-so-charming and authentic, Latin American neighbourhood. Fancy organic restaurants, cocktail and samba bars pave the tiny winding streets of Santa Teresa; people sit outside on the pavement, as traffic is rather quiet (compared to the rest of Rio).
But the district has lost one of its main touristic assets: a tram. Until 2011, a “San Francisco style” yellow carriage was running up and down the streets of Santa Teresa—connecting this rather isolated part of Rio with the trendy Lapa district, and the busy city centre. Sadly, one carriage derailed back in 2011, and five people died in the accident. The line was closed immediately. For the locals of Santa Teresa, their bonde (tram) was not only the cheapest and most practical way to reach the city-centre, but also, it was a tourist attraction. Its presence made, not only the district, but also the trip there a tiny journey into the past.
The line should reopen in 2014, but so far construction works seem to be slow, and new train sets have been ordered but not delivered, while the old ones are left to rust. Needless to say the project is of little importance when half of Brazilian football stadiums and planned highways are nowhere near ready for the summer. Therefore, locals have formed a smart idea. Rather than moaning about the bus replacement service, they have marketed the tram nostalgia to tourists. Tracks, stations, warning signs and signalling are still in place, giving the neighbourhood a distinct touch of railway nostalgia: locals sit and chat on the platforms, station houses have been decorated with graffiti art. Also, splendid murals have made their appearance here and there, asking for the reopening of the line whilst decorating roads in a colourful way. You can buy t-shirts with the bonde crying, and the same illustration is found at the entry of many shops and restaurants, making the neighbourhood bond around theirbonde.
All in all, Santa Teresa is still a wonderful experience, and I have to say the tram marketing seems to be very effective—at least to me. I can only hope the cariocas get this urban jewel back as soon as possible.