By Charles Cooper
After days of travel on buses and boats, on our final full day in Brazil the Pace filmmaking team, along with Prof. Claudia Green and her business students, got to explore Vidigal, one of Rio’s soaring hillside favelas (informal urban settlements), the way countless residents do – step by step by dizzying step.
Our guide there was Theresa Williamson, the head of Catalytic Communities, a nonprofit group that is trying to help Rio’s several million favela residents press their case for more rights and services. Vidigal has roots dating back 117 years and has gone from being a haphazard, lawless slum to a functioning community, albeit one that still has a significant crime problem, inadequate education and other issues.
But an emerging threat, Williamson told us, is driven by the improvements that have come over time: gentrification. As the police have cracked down on gun violence and sanitation and electricity access have improved, property values have risen. The 2016 Olympics have further fueled speculation. Residents are being squeezed out.
We followed Williamson from the coastal ring road up through winding alleys, many narrow enough to allow passersby to touch walls on both sides, stopping at a shrine marking the 1980 visit of Pope John Paul II, who pressed Brazil’s government to tackle urban poverty. We passed a new boxing and martial arts gym and saw the improved favela school. There were still nest-like plumes of wires where residents over the decades had hacked electricity from city power lines. But there were also new meters and modern connections, signifying the shift toward a safer electrical system, but also a costlier one.
Toward the top, we stopped to videotape an interview with Williamson next to Vidigal House, a youth hostel with a sweeping view of Leblon and Ipanema Beaches. Just around the corner, she pointed out a new – and walled — four-star hotel, which reflected the shifting situation in the community.
After leaving the favela, we returned to the hotel, but for many of us the respite was brief. We soon boarded another bus and headed out to visit the fabled Christ The Redeemer statue, perhaps the most iconic sight in a city full of remarkable vistas.
Listed as one of the new seven wonders of the world, the statue stands 30 meters high and was dedicated in 1931. Beckoning with open arms, the Cristo is actually the largest art deco project in the world.
Getting to Corcorvado mountain in Tijuca State Park isn’t easy. Once we got outside the city, we took a winding road over both cobblestone and pavement and through twists and turns resembling Lombard Street in San Francisco.
And did we mention, yet again, the steps?
Once we got where the vans dropped us off, we had about another 10 flights worth of steps to get to the monument. As we explored, a dramatic veil of rain clouds and mist flowed around us and the statue.
Our last full day in Rio closed with a farewell dinner at one of the best steakhouses in Rio. It was a great time to reflect on the trip and all that we accomplished so far.