Walking through Rio de Janeiro: Short Reflections on Memory, Emotions and the City    

By Yuri Gama

Cities are a tangled mess of spaces that incite memories, desires, symbols and meanings. As time passes, we develop a more complex notion of place and create, sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously, a collection of maps connecting all of these factors and associating them with people that we encounter in our everyday life. Authors such as Ítalo Calvino[1] and Rebecca Solnit[2] have written about how the way we inhabit cities contains more meanings than the eyes can see; an avenue is not just an avenue but a combination of stories with people, places, and feelings that have shaped us through the years. These meanings emerge when the eyes see beyond the form of the objects and spaces, recognizing the emotion and memories embedded within their histories.

The first thing that came to my mind after being invited to collaborate with The Metropole was to write about the city in which I was born and then left when I was 8 years old: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In contrast with traditional political-historical analyses applied to urban development changes in Rio between 1840 and 1940[3], or sociological reports on favelas and affordable housing projects dating from the 1950s to the 1980s[4], I will present reflections on how I saw Rio in 1994, at the age of eight, and again two decades later at the age of 28 (in 2015); throughout I will explore the expansion of my mental map of the city and how the city became more cohesive in my mind although socially and economically segregated in its geography.

In 2015, after being away from Rio for 20 years, my cab navigated through the narrow streets of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas on a sunny summer afternoon. I peered outside the window at the lagoon as shy tears fell on my lap with an overwhelming feeling of saudade.[5] Because of my absence from Rio for so many years, I could not differentiate between my lived experienced and what I had imagined. I remembered the times when everything seemed very big and distant from me. Now the beauty of Rio appears to me marked by the conversation between hills and buildings, the meeting of the asphalt and my nostalgia, in the unknown combination of my living memories with the constructions of my mind. Throughout my journey, Rio was unveiled to me slowly and confusingly. I struggled to see the city in its entirety. All I could visualize was a blurred image of different places disconnected from each other. Even though the city contains its history written in the alleys and wide opened urban squares, Rio never confided in me regarding its past; so I needed to dig.

2 newsstand
A typical newsstand in Rio

When I was 8 years old every newsstand, building, and signpost seemed so much larger than me. According to my father, following my slow pace, we used to take 20 minutes to walk from my building to my favorite newsstand. I remember that over the course of these walks, I used to greet all the janitors and the newsstand workers. I used to make my own time to have a walk, but I never consciously made sense of the path itself. Twenty years later, twice I tried replicate the same walk: the first time with the intention of capturing all the details and activating my old memories, while on the second I just wandered on auto-pilot. Through this experiment, I noticed all the same trees were closer to my height and seemed greener, and I recognized only one janitor; for my amusement, I consciously connected every single aspect of the course to the gaps in my memories. In my recollection of the 1990s I did not have to cross as many streets as I had to this time. As a young boy, I could not see the end of buildings – they all seemed infinite.

Although not as busy as during the twentieth century, Rio’s newspaper newsstands still represent a remarkable feature of the city. Since their emergence in the 1910’s and through the hard work of the Italian immigrant Carmine Labanca[6], newspaper newsstands (called bancas de jornais in Portuguese) gained recognition; they appeared in every single neighborhood and created a place for public socialization and leisure around the printed matter of the daily news. Bancas were definitely a huge piece of my childhood in Rio: along with things like comic books and bubble gum, I used to buy trading cards of futebol[7] players from Italy and Brazil.

3 rodrigo de freitas lagoon
A View from Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas

The overlapping of stories and myths that abound in Rio are visible through the conversation/conflict between the asphalt and the hills. Whether you are walking on the beach or staring from one hillside to another, one can see asphalt stripes crisscrossing the hills. At times this can be viewed as a remarkable landscape, and in other moments, as a social-economic division between classes. From Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a natural lagoon located in Zona Sul, one can see the strip of upper-middle-class buildings attached to hills. On the opposite side of the lagoon, you see a sand belt with beaches such as Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon. Although the lagoon was not man-made, throughout its existence the place was shaped by society. By the 1970s the local government, working with corporations, came up with a real estate plan focused on the construction of fancy condominiums that became part of Rio’s skyline in the late 1980s.

4 beach.jpg


5 coconut kiosk
“Toni do Coco” Food kiosk/Quiosque de Côco

Walking from Lagoa to the beach, I could see that the old food kiosks remained, but all the main symbols from 1994 had been assaulted by the irrefutable force of transformation wrought by time; the public building attached to the square was doomed to decay and the school near the church was completely renovated. Unfortunately, my favorite quiosque[8] owner was not there anymore. By the time I stopped at the beach, one of his friends told me he had moved back to an unknown city in Northeast Brazil. Historically, food kiosks or quiosques in Rio de Janeiro have had two main moments: one in the early 1900s that ended with the urban reformations of Downtown led by Pereira Passos (1863-1913), and the other that started in the 1960s with the installation of shacks on the city shores.[9] To be honest, when I arrived in Rio I thought the quiosques were gone because of the reforms for the 2016 Olympics. I’m glad I was wrong, because they are still a charming tradition just like the bancas de jornais.

6 street fare - feira.jpg
Brazilian Fruit Market Feira

Moving away from the beach, I traveled to the well-known feira – the Brazilian fruit market. Similar to farmer’s markets in the United States, these small food stands intend to provide fresh and frequently organic vegetables, fruits, cereals, nuts, meats, dairy products as well as local dishes such as pastel, caldo de cana, and tapioca. In my mind such fare never existed along my path during the 1990s. After stopping to eat a pastel and drink a caldo de cana, one of the sellers informed me that he has been working in that feira for more than 20 years, despite my recollection.

It was then I realized the possibility of living a new story in an old city during a short summer trip. At that very moment, my childhood in Rio felt like a dream or a book that I had absorbed into my own personal history—something that actually never happened to me. These words are the product of my bittersweet feelings and my blurred memories of a city that courses through my veins and my heart. As a child in 1994, the year my second grandfather died and the Brazilian national futebol team won its fourth World Cup, I was not aware of how far these places were from each other, not even if they were in the same neighborhood. Fast-forwarding to 2015, with improved spatial awareness, I could visualize some borders between neighborhoods, and the interconnection among streets, supermarkets, schools, churches, and parks. I still do not know much about Rio or its history, and definitely have much to learn, but through this experiment I had the opportunity of understanding a small part of how the city became more cohesive in my mind although socially and economically segregated in its geography.

Yuri Gama is a member of the Urban History Association, and Latin American History PhD student at University of Massachusetts Amherst researching the urban history of Brazil with focus on Northeast cities in light of the global context of the Cold War era.

All photos taken by Yuri Gama; featured image (at top): Downtown Rio circa 2015

[1]    Ítalo Calvino with Invisible Cities.

[2]    Rebecca Solnit with Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

[3]    You can see the urban renewal changes by Pereira Passos in the early 1900s at the digital project of Rice University called imagineRio http://imaginerio.org/#1500/15/-22.904581659589166/-43.191890716552734////

[4]    Example: Janice Perlman with O Mito da Marginalidade: Favelas e Política no Rio de Janeiro. RJ: Paz e Terra, 1977.

[5]         Definition of saudade: Deep, nostalgic, and melancholic longing for something or someone, or the will to relive experiences, situations or moments that are already gone.

[6]    Juarez Bahia with Dicionário de Jornalismo: Século XX. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Mauad, 2010.

[7]    Soccer in Portuguese.

[8]    Quiosque can be translated as kiosk. A small hut designed to sell food and beverage, but well-known for selling coconut and coconut water in front of the beach

[9]    You can read more about these reformations through Teresa A. Meade with “Civilizing” Rio: Reform and Resistance in a Brazilian City, 1889-1930.

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