- Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro (from the 1810s Onward) by Bruno Carvalho
Bruno Carvalho’s Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro makes a significant contribution to the understanding of Rio’s “multi-ethnic, multiracial, and multilayered” past (p. x). The book focuses on the neighbourhood of Cidade Nova (New City), which was created in the early 1800s, shortly after the establishment of the Portuguese Royal government in that city. Carvalho shows that although Cidade Nova was created to accommodate the newly arrived nobility, the region soon became a centre for the less fortunate, even holding in its adjoining hills Rio’s first favelas. From its creation, it became clear that the aristocracy preferred to settle in the areas near the sea, the South Zone, which is still today the area favoured by the most affluent residents of Rio.
Throughout the book’s introduction, six chapters, and conclusion, the reader is taken on a journey in Rio’s past from its sudden role as the centre of the Portuguese Empire through the urban renovations of the twentieth century that attempted to transform the old colonial town into a modern metropolis.
The book clearly shows how Cidade Nova was an unique area because of the confluence of multilayers of cultural spaces, possibly due to the multicultural nature of the neighbourhood — composed mostly of Africans, Afro-descendants, Roma, Jews, impoverished rural migrants as well as poor European immigrants. In this context, Carvalho argues that the Cidade Nova was fundamental in the creation of a genuine Brazilian culture by providing the physical space for these multicultural encounters. [End Page 616]
The six chapters are organized as historic layers showing an interaction that “could be described as porous: full of passageways, cumulative, marked by unfixed boundaries.” Overall the book aims to explain how Rio’s “environment of inequality and asymmetrical exchanges” allowed the thriving of a permeable cultural existence (p. 10).
Carvalho very well captures the relevance of the neighbourhood, especially of its public square, Praça Onze, as the bedrock of Brazilianess. In the 1920s and 1930s intellectuals and politicians began searching for what made Brazil Brazilian. The embraced answer was found in the apparent racial fusion and the contributions born out of this mixture. Yet, the author also illustrates that the experiences of Cidade Nova played a major role in influencing the literary narratives that in the twentieth century would be used to portray Brazil as a racial democracy and as the land of carnaval.
In addition, the author points out that while this acceptance of a national identity based on cultural mixture began to be prominent, urban reforms and political attitudes created a city that was becoming increasingly divided. By the 1940s, at the dawn of the automobile age, top-down modern urbanism destroyed the space once enjoyed by residents of the Cidade Nova and its adjacent favelas. Thus the same government that adopted samba as a national unifying force largely destroyed the environment that allowed its creation. Rio’s impoverished inhabitants had little choice, but to move further away from the city’s centre into distant suburbs and favelas.
The book also provides a framework to the city’s history of immigration. Although it does not detail the different migration experiences, it gives a portrait of the parish of Santana (which included much of Cidade Nova), which was the area where the number of foreigners surpassed that of Brazilian-born in the mid nineteenth century. Moreover, it shows that a significant proportion of the Brazilians who lived there were freed people (former slaves). Thus, the Cidade Nova is also helpful in understanding Rio’s racial interactions.
Readers should be aware that this book cannot be used as a historical tourist guide for prospective visitors as the Cidade Nova is barely recognized in today’s Rio. Praça Onze, considered to be the “cradle of samba,” is today just the name of a subway station. The construction of the Central Avenue in the early...