Fly Me to Alemão

A Sky Ride Above
Rio’s Shantytown

Just in time for its 446th birthday — and three years ahead of the opening game of the World Cup — Rio de Janeiro is launching this month its new public transportation system: a sky ride above stunning vistas of one of its biggest shantytowns, the Complexo do Alemão.
The $74 million project is expected to carry 30 thousand people a day on its 152 gondolas, along a 2.1-mile, 16-minute route over the neighborhood. It’ll be a significant improvement to the city’s clogged and antiquated public transportation, which hasn’t seen any in over three decades.
For the usual acolytes of the mantra “the marvelous city in the country of the future,” it’s another proof that state and federal governments are serious in their pledge to address the most urgent woes of the city and country with cutting edge and innovative solutions.
For critics, it’s nothing but another example of the cosmetic makeovers Rio goes through periodically, designed to please and entice foreign visitors. Considering its price tag, many would rather see more emphasis in improvements in the quality of life on the ground of the favela, rather than giving tourists yet more opportunities to photograph it.
As it goes, the complex of irregularly built housing, literally piled on top of one another on winding streets and narrow alleys, still lacks running water and a sewer system, and power is often illegally tapped from street illumination posts.
A 2000 survey estimated its population at over 65 thousands of mostly unemployed cariocas who, until late last year, were ruled by several drug and arm traffic gangs. A bloody occupation by the Army and federal police left hundreds dead but seems to have driven survivor criminals to nearby shantytowns.
Alemão‘s location, squeezed among prime real estate owned by the city’s wealthiest, was always a factor behind countless confrontations between its conflicting gangs and the local police, which is as plagued by rampant corruption and power grab disputes as the criminals they were supposed to curb.
Many of its residents were also survivors of another of the country’s many waves of lopsided “progress,” the so-called “Brazilian miracle” of the early 1970s, sponsored by the military dictatorship of the time. In this context, a sky ride above all does sound like an investment on appearance but not substance of the complex’s deep-seated social alienation.
But less than a week from the multibillion-dollar pagan feast, the Carnival, who wants to play the spoiler? At this time, talking about the many contradictions of this city’s vision of its own future is anathema.
Who cares that even the big party itself is produced and performed by many of the inhabitants of Rio’s many favelas, for a precious millionaire crowd?
Not us. And that’s that. By the way, have we mentioned our costume for this year’s parade? We’ll tell you all about it later.

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