Regulating Public Space on the Beachfronts of Rio De Janeiro

By Godfrey, Brian J.; Arguinzoni, Olivia M. | The Geographical Review, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Regulating Public Space on the Beachfronts of Rio De Janeiro


Godfrey, Brian J., Arguinzoni, Olivia M., The Geographical Review


New Year's Eve is one of the biggest celebrations in Rio de Janeiro. Copacabana Beach, where outdoor stages feature holiday shows, boasts the largest festivities. Since 1976, when the Meridien Hotel first sponsored a beachfront fireworks display, Reveillon has become a major public event in Rio. Once a traditional religious occasion among Afro-Brazilian Candomble and Umbanda devotees, the event now attracts some 2 million people to the beaches. The revelry mounts as crowds assemble to watch the midnight fireworks, while well-to-do groups attend exclusive parties in high-rise apartment buildings overlooking the beaches. This juxtaposition of elites and masses symbolizes the sharp social contrasts of Brazilian society. Underneath the outward camaraderie, tensions simmer over status, access, and safety. Although affluent elements prefer private settings for their exclusivity and unobstructed views, widespread fears of crime, violence, and other dangers also contribute to a retreat from public space. In fact, tragedy has occasionally marred the New Year's parties. In 1988/1989, a chartered yacht sank while attempting to sail in rough seas from Botafogo Bay to Copacabana, killing fifty-six people on board. In 2000/2001, a Reveillon fireworks explosion hurt fifty spectators and killed one tourist on the beach, prompting a relocation of the fireworks to offshore boats in subsequent years. In 2008/2009, Ipanema Beach canceled its festivities for fear of insufficient security. On New Year's Eve massive secui ity forces now mobilize on Rio's beaches (Farias 2006; Valle 2008).

Stark social contrasts and concerns with public safety are hardly unique to Brazil. The literature on public space points to common issues of defensive design, surveillance, and segregation in world cities. Debates have centered on the privatization of public places and struggles for democratic rights to the city (Sorkin 1992, Mitchell 2003; Low and Smith 2006). Given high levels of income inequality and social stratification, residents of Brazilian cities have become preoccupied with issues of security. Teresa Caldeira related contemporary discourses of crime and fear to "the increase in violence, the failure of institutions of order (especially the police and the justice system), the privatization of security and justice, and the continuous walling and segregation of cities" (2000, 51). Other scholars have also documented spatial separation by class and race, the retreat of affluent groups from public space, the rise of gated communities and shopping malls, and problems of policing in the favelas (Telles 1992, 1995; Souza 2005; Vargas 2006; Chase 2008).

Rio de Janeiro vividly displays these polarizing urban trends. Despite the city's marked sociospatial divisions, residents still widely regard seaside sidewalks and beaches as democratic spaces of public accessibility and diversity, where classes and races mingle freely. Our study examines these claims in terms of urban renewal and public-order programs on Rio's beachfronts. We review relevant debates and present evidence from local interviews, field observations, official reports, and newspaper accounts. We argue that beaches highlight tensions between social order, status, and hierarchy on one hand, and democratic rights, social diversity, and accessibility on the other. These paradoxes of national life and popular culture, known as the "Brazilian Dilemma," can be discerned in the public space of contemporary Rio.

THE BRAZILIAN DILEMMA OF PUBLIC SPACE

Based on Gunnar Myrdal's classic interpretation of problematic U.S. race relations, An American Dilemma ([1944] 1962), the anthropologist Roberto DaMatta similarly used the Brazilian Dilemma to point out the coexistence of contradictory elements in a distinctive national context (1991, 1997). His concept stressed such dialectical pairings as elites and masses, the house and the street, and personal relationships and impersonal laws. …

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