The carnival of Recife and Olinda bears little resemblance to the floats and samba of Rio commonly associated with it abroad. Typically, a small group of people gets together to pay for the band of musicians that goes at the front of the “bloco”, headed by a standard-bearer. If you buy the T-shirt (which pays for the music and other trappings) you’re a member, so the bloco may grow considerably larger over the years. I don’t know how many there are, but it feels like hundreds. On the day everyone gathers at the starting point, then eventually they head off around the city, the band leading the way, singing their song. This generally occurs once at the “preview” during the weeks leading up to carnival, where there will be more space and time, and then again in the city centre during the four days of carnival proper. Carts and stalls appear selling beer and snacks. The whole thing is in principle regulated by the municipal authorities, with agreed routes, but the impression is one of utter anarchy, in its element in narrow, winding streets rather than processing along an avenue. It is the city’s Saturnalia, a safety valve. Despite the democratic symbolism of the people taking over the street — good luck to you if you are caught up in the middle of it in your car — there aren’t generally any obvious political overtones, though I’m told that was more common in the past, and there is almost never any trouble. Carnival continued every year throughout the miltary dictatorship (1964 – 1985).
Over the past twenty years the city has grown vertically, the height of apartment blocks in proportion to advances in construction techniques and the inflation of property prices. The seafront is a particular hotspot, and the logical conclusion of the process can be seen in Boa Viagem, the city’s main beach, which is now obscured by shadows just after lunchtime. The view from the apartments that cause them must be spectacular. A number of new projects of forty storeys and more, such as the twelve-tower “Novo Recife” on Cais Estelita, are in the pipeline for the old city centre. If they are built they will transform and dominate the skyline, not with new civic buildings, nor the engines of commerce (in the spirit of the World Trade Centre in New York) — but with lavish accommodation for the city’s most privileged individuals, turning their back on it to face the open sea.
While the symbolism of such developments is important, their impact is also very concrete. As a housing model, they are predicated on the car, surrounded by high walls and electric fences, creating an urban desert around them, with no contact between residents and neighbourhood. These streets are not only unattractive and unwelcoming, but dangerous. They create the divided, walled-off city as well as symbolising it. This social deficit is compounded by environmental ones: increased traffic, higher flood risk because of the displacement of green areas, and large temperature increases for the same reason, compounded by reduced ventilation. These costs affect everyone but are ignored by the developers, who benefit from such infrastructure as the city has as a common good, but put very little back.
It is a classic market failure, where the absence of effective regulation means the leading criterion for housing and other projects is the developer’s profit, not the collective impact on the shared space of the city. More dwellings do need to be built, and the private sector needs an incentive to do so, but this change in the urban landscape should take place in a coherent manner that takes account of the needs of all social groups and that will make the city a more pleasant place to live in the long term, with diverse and bustling thoroughfares and open spaces. Neither a developer nor the architect nor the prospective purchaser can easily have such an all-round view of the city as the complex social system it is, and so there is a need for effective, transparent and robust planning.
Protest in Latin America tends to be associated with revolution, regarded as a challenge to the political order rather than a sign that it is in good democratic health — or one of the checks and balances needed to stop government drifting towards an arbitrary, authoritarian stance and being hijacked by special interests. “Empatando tua vista” [blocking your view] is a new carnival bloco advancing just such a local, specific protest about the unsavoury property speculation that is tearing the city apart. The format departs from tradition in that the participants, dressed as indentikit skyscrapers in pastel shades, go to other carnival events where they tower over the crowd, blocking the view and discussing the issues with all comers.
My wife, Edinéa, is in the thick of the action, helping make the costumes and rallying the troops, so I really had no choice but to get involved. As a result, I’ve seen a lot more of carnival this year than of late, and spending it in such company does seem to show it in its best light, just as carnival itself flourishes at the intimate scale of the traditional urban fabric that is under such threat from bland development centred on individual aspiration, rather than a sense of community and place. That community — the human face of the abstraction “civil society” — is also a concrete thing, or perhaps it would be better to say flesh-and-blood, embodied in the conviviality of the streets. This city could do with much more of it.