- Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro by Bruno Carvalho
Sophia Beal, Bruno Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Cidade Nova
Henri Lefebvre observes that “no space ever vanishes utterly, leaving no trace.”1 Bruno Carvalho’s Porous City is a masterful testament to the traces of the bygone neighborhood of Cidade Nova. Though it is now mostly covered by a stretch of President Vargas Avenue, this Rio de Janeiro neighborhood had many previous identities. Road construction ultimately caused Cidade Nova’s demise, but also brought about its birth. It was created by royal decree in 1811 by filling in swampland, in part to build a road to shorten Dom João’s commute from his São Cristovão residence to the Royal Palace. It later became known as Little Africa, a yellow [End Page 96] fever hotbed, a “Jewish neighborhood,” a hub for carnival and dance halls, a birthplace of samba and maxixe, and a red-light district, all part of its multilayered identity as a place that was at once geographically central but socially marginal. Carvalho writes, “Like nowhere else in Rio de Janeiro, the neighbourhood was intimately connected to the city’s first inhabited morros (hills, later called favelas), the port area, the bohemian quarter of Lapa, the downtown (Centro), and early working-class suburbs” (2). Though the name Cidade Nova may only resonate for many readers as a Rio de Janeiro subway stop, this area of the city once included many well-known urban locations: the Praça Onze, the Mangue, and the Campo de Santana.
Carvalho’s analysis makes comparisons to New York and New Orleans, exposing patterns in how urbanization has influenced popular culture. Like Rio de Janeiro, these two US cities have become known for cultural expressions (particularly music and dance) with popular roots and a bottom-up trajectory, despite topdown urbanism (particularly road construction) that destroyed or bisected the very neighborhoods where this cultural production flourished. Also, like in these other two cities, the cultural elites in Rio de Janeiro have oscillated in their opinion about popular artistic expression. For the carioca literati—who were primarily white, affluent, and Catholic during the timeframe of the study (the 1810s to the 1940s)—Cidade Nova was associated with unrestrained and nonnormative culture. This took many forms in different decades: singing washerwomen, Gypsy parties, street music, Afro-Brazilian and European prostitutes, dance club revelry, carnival celebrations, Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies, and Jewish music. Despite often racist or anxious reactions to popular culture, Carvalho shows how “white elites often explain and perform their collective identities as Brazilian through a cultural repertoire historically tied to urban poverty, marginality, and non-whites” (201).
The most lasting contribution of Porous City is its analysis of how cultural texts position themselves vis-à-vis Cidade Nova. Pegged as a place of lawlessness, and obviously a place of racial and religious intermingling, artists portraying the neighborhood chose their perspective carefully. Did these artists want to align themselves with Cidade Nova? Did they choose a voyeuristic gaze that distanced them from its inhabitants, while simultaneously revealing titillating details for readers’ enjoyment? Did they exoticize, celebrate, or condemn the activities practiced in this neighborhood of the popular classes? Throughout the book, Carvalho makes use of four terms of positionality: aqui (here), aí (there, where you are), ali (there, but close by), and lá (over there). The use of these terms to describe Cidade Nova in cultural texts unveils prejudices, othering, and feelings of belonging. The theoretical frame that most convincingly joins the chronological chapters in the book is this idea of position, which helps untangle how cariocas have experienced, repurposed, and imagined public space. [End Page 97]
While some of the cultural texts mentioned are used merely as source texts that help tell parts of Cidade Nova’s story, most texts are closely analyzed, revealing how their artistic (mainly literary) elements express the meaning Cidade Nova held for residents and visitors. For instance, Chapter One analyzes—using Manuel Antônio de Almeida’s novel Memórias de um sargento...