Once Unsafe, Rio's Shantytowns See Rapid Gentrification : Parallels First came the day trips for foreigner tourists to the shantytowns. Now, young Westerners are living in formerly no-go areas — with yoga classes and sushi restaurants following. Business is booming in Rio de Janeiro's favelas, but some residents complain they're being priced out of the market.

Once Unsafe, Rio's Shantytowns See Rapid Gentrification

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/187325080/189305834" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Finally this hour, to Rio de Janeiro. In advance of the World Cup and the Olympics, police there have worked to eradicate crime and violence from the city's many shantytowns. The effort has brought peace in some areas where drug gangs once ruled. Now, these former no-go neighborhoods are drawing young Brazilian professionals and foreigners with cheap real estate, yoga classes and even sushi restaurants.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on the gentrification of Rio's favelas.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: A new, gastronomic guide to Rio's shantytowns, sold for a cool $35, has just been published. A new boutique hotel perched on top of one of Rio's previously most dangerous favelas is about to open and yes, there's a jazz club and yoga, too, new services catering to a new kind of favela resident.

NATALIE SHOUP: It's actually very conveniently located for my work. And so this kind of has like, a good amount of transportation to every part of the city. So it's nice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's 22-year-old American Natalie Shoup. She's an NGO worker, and she's living in the favela called Babilonia, or Babylon. It, like many favelas, is located a stone's throw from the most affluent areas of the city. Natalie, for example, is only a few hundred feet away from the tourist beach at Leme, and very near to the beach at Copacabana. She says the main reason she moved to a favela was because it was cheap. Property in Rio is among the most expensive in the world these days, but that's not why she stays.

SHOUP: I always say I feel a lot safer at night walking here than I do in Copa or Leme. I like, sprint through Copa or Leme, when I get off the bus. And then once when I start walking to home, whoa.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That feeling of security in favelas like Babilonia is the result of a government project called pacification. In the past, police used to raid the favelas, battle with the drug gangs and then withdraw. But now, a specially created cadre of cops, called Police Pacification Units, live and work in certain favelas full time, providing a permanent security presence.

In places like Babylon, it's been a success. The drug gangs have been driven out and now, foreigners are moving in. It's a similar story across town in the favela called Vidigal, where 23-year-old Kate Steiker-Ginzberg lives.

KATE STEIKER-GINZBERG: Do I have ocean views? I have 180 degrees of ocean views living here in Vidigal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's one of the ironies of Rio that it's the poor who have the best views in the city. Many of Rio's favelas crawl up the verdant cliffs here, the makeshift cinderblock homes sprout from the creases in the hills, overlooking the long white beaches and tourist hotels where the affluent come to play down below. In Vidigal in particular, the views are breathtaking, but it's not just the vista that attracts Steiker-Ginzberg.

STEIKER-GINZBERG: There's a lot of young people - and a lot of students - that come here with this idea of, how can we come to the community and without romanticizing the life of the favela, but how can we come and live here; and really try to learn from a place, and try to insert ourselves?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is another reason why many foreigners and Brazilians with means are coming to the pacified favelas these days - money.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's nighttime at the Fenix Sushi Bar in Vidigal. The sound from a nearby club blares out over the area. Sushi restaurant owner Nelio Perriera Da Silva is on the phone, wheeling and dealing. He's a Vidigal native. A former tour guide, he's now an entrepreneur. He not only owns the sushi restaurant but is Vidigal's only real estate broker, and business is good.

NELIO PERRIERA DA SILVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a hot property market, he says. There are a lot of speculators coming in, foreigners, Germans, Americans, French and Italians. In 2006, you would pay about $2,500 for a house. Now, that same house is worth $75,000. This is the moment to invest. It's hard to find places now, but this is the next big thing, he says. Gentrification, when it comes, is always complicated and controversial. These are still areas where the predominantly poor live.

At the top of Vidigal, Roberto Lorino is one of the success stories.

ROBERTO LORINO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he opened his sandwich shop with the proceeds from the sale of his house for $100,000 to a gringo, or foreigner. There are more foreigners buying here now than locals, he says. Pacification has been a good thing. You used to have pay taxes to the drug gangs. Now, you don't, he says. Many tourists come here now, he says. Other residents are building rooms to rent to tourists coming for the World Cup or the Olympics. Many have even started advertising on Airbnb, but that doesn't make 54-year-old resident Ebilene Rodriguez Periera happy.

EBILENE RODRIGUEZ PERIERA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says the locals are being priced out of the market. Rents have gone up, and those who can't afford to pay them are leaving the neighborhood to other more dangerous favelas. The residents are not being allowed to enjoy the new security, she says. All the new restaurants and hotels are for the foreigners, she says, not for us. Services, too, are still spotty. Garbage is strewn on the streets. Electricity and water cut out regularly. Still, for many Cariocas, as the residents of Rio are known, the changes here are a sign of hope.

Seventy-five-year-old Brazilian lawyer Moacir Prado is here on a day trip after reading about the new restaurants in the community, in Rio's main newspaper. He lives by the beach and says he would never have ventured here before. As he stares out over the makeshift houses, out to the ocean, he says his city has turned a corner.

MOACIR PRADO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is the rebirth of Rio, he says. But for every success story, like Babilonia and Vidigal, there are other examples that show security and improvements are tenuous, at best. A few days ago, drug traffickers briefly took over a favela that had been pacified for almost three years; ordering restaurants, shops and schools to shut. Among the business affected, one of the eateries profiled in that new glossy favela food guide.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.