On Tuesday May 6, the Vila Vidigal Neighborhood Association, Catalytic Communities, the Intersectoral Forum of Vidigal, Albergue da Comunidade and Vidblog Vidigal hosted the third of four debates in the “Fala Vidigal” series looking at the process of gentrification in the community, this time discussing the impact of new entrepreneurs in Vidigal.
While the first debate examined the process of gentrification and the second debate opened up discussion for residents to express their hopes and fears for the future, this third debate of the series gave residents the opportunity to ask new entrepreneurs about the costs and benefits of their projects to the community.
A crowd just shy of 150 people attended the event, mixing lifelong and recent foreign residents, students and journalists. The event opened with a twenty minute video of interviews with leaders of a range of existing community organizations within the community. About ten different community groups, including A.M.A.R (Vidigal Women’s Association) and the NGO Horizonte, discussed the development of their organizations and the work they are doing to benefit the community.
A panel discussion was then launched. Eight establishments notable in the wave of new and gentrifying development in the community were invited, including: Alto Vidigal, Bar do Laje, Winfinet, Bela Vista Imóveis, Move ID and Las Empanadas. Only two attended, however, with Fábio Ghivelder representing the new art school being set up in the community by famous Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, and Conrado Denton representing the upscale Mirante do Arvrão hotel. The rest of the panel was comprised of two members of Vidigal’s Neighborhood Association, President Marcelo da Silva and Diretor André Gosi, as well as Theresa Williamson, Executive Director of the NGO Catalytic Communities, as mediator of the debate.
Fabio Ghivelder first shared the ambition of the Vidigal Arts School, owned by the internationally famous Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. The project aims to be an arts and technology school for children from 4 to 8 years old. Free of charge for the community, it would be self-funded, without exterior sponsors, and offer a unique visual education syllabus to youth. He shared his concern the establishment was not being fully welcomed in the community, both citing a moratorium on their building just announced the previous day, and a robbery: “I’d like to put in brackets that last week we were robbed at the construction site and they took the builders’ money. We’re trying to do something positive and get given a cold shower like this.” He then finished his presentation announcing that prestigious American institutions such as the MIT or Blue School in New York supported this visual education school, and that they could potentially create exchange programs with these establishments.
Conrado Denton then explained the project of Mirante do Arvrão, an upscale hotel and a bar situated at the very top of the community. Having opened in November 2013, the sustainable building, offering an impressive view on Rio’s coastline, is using solar panels and was partly built using ecological materials. He also stated that the twenty employees hired at the hotel were residents of Vidigal.
The debate was then opened up to resident comments and questions. Claudio, resident of Vidigal, asked Fabio Ghivelder, “Will the project (Vidigal arts school) potentially include areas of sports and leisure?” referring the shortage of space for kids to play in the community, to which the new entrepreneur replied that the focus of the school was on arts and unfortunately did not include any sport program. “We’re focusing on what we do best to give these kids more tools in life; I agree with you that leisure spaces are lacking, but I am unfortunately the one capable to provide that.”
Neighborhood Association President Marcelo da Silva then asked, as a complementary question, if in future there could be infrastructure linked to arts implanted in Catorze, an area in the lower part of Vidigal. Fabio affirmed the ambition of the project, replying that people were already thinking of replicating the school in other places, if it proves successful. “There is an interest to replicate the project in public schools; but it is still only an ambition. So once again: think small, and do it well.”
Conrado Denton completed Fabio’s response: “When we finished our hotel, we helped to reform the sport area behind the neighborhood association. The place was bad and we helped, for example to install mats. We also tried to implement a hydroponic project on some roofs of the community [allowing residents to cultivate vegetables via an irrigation system] but unfortunately we didn’t get enough support from the residents to realize the project, which would be very, very good for the community.”
Half an hour through the event, William de Paula, known as “Ninho” and responsible for mediating the questions, reached the heart of the subject when he asked both entrepreneurs: “Are you aware that you have an influence, in a certain way, in this process of gentrification, real estate speculation, by creating your projects in a part of the morro [hill], which, until three or five years ago, was one of the most dangerous parts; […] Are you aware of this?”
Conrado Denton assumed having a role in a way in this process, as he explained: “I think so. This process of gentrification, which is a word I don’t like, is similar in other communities: when the UPP is installed, some feel comfortable investing in a community, so it is normal that the prices go up, for the new services installed or the ones that will happen. In our case, when we began the hotel in Arvrão, the area was already hosting Andreas of Alto Vidigal, and when we arrived we also saw, apart from foreign businesses, that some residents from the community were comfortable investing there, which is the case of Casa da Tapioca, which saw an opportunity of creating a business where they live, and took advantage of the new customers, the new residents and the tourists who came up there; this process of gentrification should be taken advantage of by the residents of Vidigal.”
On the other hand, Fabio Ghivelder took more distance in his answer: “I feel a bit less concerned. I think we have much less impact on the increase of prices and rents here, as schools and gentrification have very narrow links. Maybe I am wrong, maybe you can show me that our presence up there contributes to gentrification, but I will confess to you that I am not seeing it that way.“
As a reminder, Theresa Williamson added: “There is a difference between a neighborhood receiving investments and developing with the present residents who take advantage of this development, and gentrification, which by definition is when the development occurs in a way that the ones that live there can no longer afford to stay–meaning a development of the territory but not the people. Improvements are made, but not for the people who live there.” She then summarized observations made during the previous debates: “I think we have seen in the previous debates in Vidigal that the people living here wants upgrading, they want to see the problems of the community solved, while its qualities are kept. And one of these qualities is accessibility [in prices]. The others are culture, conviviality, friends, neighbors, network, exchange, the many community NGOs… Things that people don’t want to lose.”
Miguel Plaza, a Spanish architect and resident, contributed to the debate focusing on public space. He first asked about the inaccessible hotel deck, to which Conrado justified: “The deck is part of our site. We gave it as a gift to the community, for the residents. Why is the deck not ready yet? Because of money shortage. We didn’t had enough [funds] to finish the direct access to the deck. […] Why are we leaving it closed? Because as we didn’t finish the construction of the access, we thought it would be dangerous for people to climb up there.” However he affirmed their plans to finish its construction.
When asked by Miguel about the height of the Vik Muniz arts school–which has caused enough concern among residents to result in a moratorium on building, because its height is seen as threatening the stunning panorama from Vidigal’s #1 lookout public space, Arvrão–Fabio Ghevilder explained that modifications have been made to the initial project to stay as respectful as possible. The security of the construction for a high building was also taken in consideration, as Fabio explains: “The structural walls are four times larger than they normally would be. The foundations are buried twelve meters below the surface, to avoid landslides. The best way to construct these days depends not on a matter of budget but on a matter of security. We considered making a 200% safe project, which was also lowered in height to respect the view.”
Alex Gillott, an English community resident heavily engaged in cultural preservation work there, took the mic to express vividly her opinion on Mirante do Arvrão’s sudden appearance in the community. It was “dropped like a bomb”, contributing to a considerable rise of price: “How many residents cannot pay their rent anymore in Arvrão, and had to move? I know that the project you wanted was not supported by the residents, it was not a project that residents wanted in a favela. […] You came here aiming profit: you bought, you bought more houses, but what about the rest? The family owning Casa da Tapioca already left, many people are moving out […] The profit-making potential that came with the hotel is very strong, and the change is very quick. You built a project that most people here don’t like, what else could you do to contribute to gentrification here?”
Conrado defended himself: “I see Vidigal as a neighborhood like any other. A free neighborhood, where people sell their properties the way they want. The economy is free; it is the way it is. We arrived in Vidigal and were very well supported.”
Alex continued her critique of the hotel’s attitude with regards to the community: “You came to make a profit. It has become natural, with pacification, to come to profit. But it [Vidigal] is not a simple neighbourhood, it is a favela […] A lot of families already moved out, sold their house, because they could not pay the rent. […] You are responsible for these changes. For the people who grew up here, it is very difficult. You have to respect it.”
The hotel’s representative reacted: “I respect this very much but I disagree with your opinion. I believe that we arrived here, offered jobs, we make our events mainly with our neighbors, they work directly with us, in many events.”
The animated discussion ended with a suggestion from Alex: “I think you don’t see the impact you have on Vidigal’s residents. There is a balance. I think that you have to give back [to the community] part of what you earn, a percentage of your profit. It has to become a project that they [the residents of the neighborhood] want more.”
Rosa Batista, a resident of Vidigal for 8 years and member of the network of Vidigal community organizations, the Vidigal Intersectoral Forum, also expressed her feeling that the new entrepreneurs were not sufficiently taking into consideration the history and culture of the community, or the existing elements of the favela: “I think that Vik Muniz’s NGO could also support the other NGOs that already exist in Vidigal. We want progress, yes we do, but we want to continue here, because we love this place, we lived here for a long time, we suffered from a lot of things together, which the people who are arriving now have no idea of, and we still suffer here from difficulties of accessibility–this road [Avenida Niemeyer] being closed during mornings is a problem to get to Barra da Tijuca [the lane opens one way only every working day until 10:30 am], lack of water, electricity breakdowns, and now, difficulties to live […] You have to understand that in a favela, there is a history.” She then asked the audience to show the community spirit shared among the crowd: “ Do you see this place as a “bairro” [district] or a favela?” Most of the people answered: “Favela!”
Fabio replied: “We have a great respect for this community… We chose this place to develop our project because we like it here. Personally, I am here for the community. When you ask the community if this is what they want, it is great for me to hear; because if the people do not want a school, free of charge, owned by someone who could bring a lot of visibility here, we should know. I do not know anybody in the world who would say that a school is not good. I am confident in telling you that the project is 100% respectful and 100% integrated to what is happening.”
A relative of the owner of the Casa da Tapioca then stood up to respond to Alex Gillott’s intervention, that it was the family’s choice to move out: “Today, a lot of people sell their house to earn good money–eight years ago, you would earn only R$2000 for a small house… You have to see that people may also be selling for their benefit, for their well-being. The owner of Casa da Tapioca did not get pressured to sell.” She then advised: “People, think well. Today our area’s value is going up; it is a fact. If you have the opportunity to sell your house for a good amount of money, sell it!” She then insisted that if the new businessmen wanted to create social projects in the community, residents should support it.
After conducting a survey of residents at the previous “Fala Vidigal” events, Sara Junger, founder of the Albergue da Communidade community homestay project, observed that most complaints in the area of Arvrão were concerning the volume of the late parties hosted there. She questioned Conrado: “How can you keep a balance with the noise, that perturbs the sleep of residents, in an area of Arvrão which was traditionally quiet? But all of a sudden, you have these events?… Also, it would be great if there would be discounts for residents of the community attending the parties, or potential cultural events,” also evoking the generally expensive prices at these events. Conrado responded by saying that they were trying everything they could to satisfy everyone: “At all the events that we give at the hotel, we separate a quantity of tickets at a more accessible price for the community… About the noise, as we know each other for a while, you must know that we always go to the houses of the residents, ask how it is, if we are bothering them–we always ask our closest neighbors, the ones who are directly concerned with the noise,” he explained, although part of the crowd vocalized doubts to his statement.
Sara continued: “Another issue concerns the line of [community] minivans during the nights of the event; residents feel they are being set aside in favor of the clients of the events rather than residents. Would it be possible to have a separate transportation system for people going to the events?”
Conrado replied that they already tried to arrange meeting points for minivans going to the events, to avoid impacting the common minivan line. Marcelo from the neighborhood association added: “The resident association held many meetings, with the moto-taxis drivers as well as the owners of the minivans… We talked about the impact they had on traffic and the problems they were creating. It was confirmed that there would be a normal rotation which would pick guests up for the events together with residents. And that everyone would pay the same price. Unfortunately, this cannot be the responsibility of the association. It is the responsibility of the owners of the minivans, of the moto-taxis.”
The statements on new entrepreneurship in Vidigal ended when a minivan driver from the community followed up, supporting the new businesses: “It leads to very good resources for the community, for everyone, new residents, persons with a different culture, it benefits everyone.” He remarked: “Vidigal is not a favela anymore. Vidigal is a ‘bairro’ [formal neighborhood]. In favelas, there are precarious shelters, there is misery. Here there is no such thing… The only real difficulty here is accessibility and traffic.”
Throughout the event, different opinions from residents about the new entrepreneurs in the community emerged, contributing to a productive debate.