A Look Inside Rio De Janeiro’s Oldest Favela, Threatened by Gentrification and the 2016 Olympics

A photographic tour of a rapidly changing neighborhood, where development has been in some cases disastrous for the people who have lived there the longest.

Brazil 2014

By Ariel Schwartz

April 21, 2014

Also published by Fast Company's Co.Exist

Brazil's favelas are translated as "slums" in English, but they're really more comparable to U.S. public housing. Favelas are more than just a place to live--they're often tight-knit communities inhabited by families who have lived there for generations. Nowhere is this more true than in Providencia, which at an age of over 100 years, is the oldest favela in Rio de Janeiro.

The paradox of Providencia and many of the hillside favelas is that they feature breathtaking views of the city below. In other urban areas, Providencia's land would be considered prime real estate for the wealthy. But because Providencia is a favela--and not a wealthy enclave--it faces infrastructure challenges that aren't as much of a problem as in the city below. (Though Rio in general has issues with dirty water, in the favelas, water quality is particularly unreliable.) It's also dealing with gentrification due to its proximity to certain Olympic venues.

During a reporting trip to Brazil, I took a tour of Providencia with Theresa Williamson, the founder of Catalytic Communities, an NGO that supports the rights of favela-dewellers. Here is what we saw, in pictures.

The steps leading up to Providencia, first settled in 1897, were built by slaves. Today, Providencia is an important center of Afro-Brazilian tradition.

Accessing Providencia is a slog--our van couldn't make it all the way up the cobblestone path, and the steps can be tricky to navigate for less able-bodied residents. In theory, this $65 million cable car system to the city below should be able to help. But residents suspect--rightly so--that the cable car is intended more for tourists brought by the 2016 Olympics than for Providencia locals.

The proof: Some 30% of residents are being evicted to make way for the project. Street art, created as a partnership between professional artists and the local community, is being used to combat the evictions by drawing attention to its victims.

More favela art.

Mauricio Hora, an artist and Providencia native, has an exhibition in the favela cultural center called "Favela Hill." Before pacification, kids used to run into this building to find shelter from gunfire. His photos depict Providencia in both its past and present states.

While the pacification process has undeniably staved off violence in the favelas, Williamson says that residents often think of the process more as a police occupation rather than a pacification.

At one point, the city wanted to remove some homes from the favela to make way for a tourist viewing point, but local pressure prevented the plan from going forward.

The homes in Providencia, often made of brick, concrete, or reinforced steel, are well-made. They don't necessarily look pretty from the outside, but that's because residents tend to invest their money in more practical improvements.

Residents of Providencia have water, sewage, and electricity services--but the quality isn't always up to par. During Carnaval, water services are shut off so that water can be diverted to the Sambadrome, the home of Rio's famous samba parades.

As of 2011, Providencia is a "pacified" favela, which means that drug traffickers have largely been driven out, and police presence has dramatically increased. According to the Guardian, there are now 38 police pacification units and 9,000 police that have been established in favela communities. The pacified favelas have all been pacified for a reason. Providencia happens to be adjacent to a big port revitalization project in the city--and it's close to some Olympic venues set for the 2016 games.

Favelas are often referred to as "slums" in English, but residents of Providencia (and many other favelas) are often working class, taking jobs in construction, domestic service, and in the port below. According to Williamson, more and more residents are also going to college.

Because Providencia towers above Rio, residents rent their rooftop space for radio and television stations.

Like so many favelas, Providencia has stunning views of the city.

Ariel Schwartz reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).