Opinion, By Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO – The Mayor of Rio has announced that he wants to turn Av. Rio Branco into a pedestrian mall, and that before you can say “The World Cup is here!” he’s going to eliminate ALL motor vehicles from the Quadrilateral bounded by Candelária and Cinelândia (East/West) and Av. Passos and Primeiro de Março (North/South).
No motorcycles, no private cars, no government cars, no taxis, no vans, no buses, no trucks, nothing with wheels save bicycles and (probably) Fire Trucks, Police Cars and Ambulances. Hizzoner says he will turn Av. Rio Branco into the garden spot of Rio de Janeiro, with leafy lanes, flowery kiosks, no more CO2 pollution. We can breathe again!
Will it work? There are places where it has been successfully done – Denver’s downtown has a pedestrian mall, a charming street with trolley cars and trees. But Denver has intersecting side streets where automobiles are allowed. People can park at the public garages, trucks can deliver groceries to restaurants, the postal service can deliver the mail, etc. The Mayor has not divulged how his Plan will deal with these services.
Moreover, there’s one huge difference between Denver’s and Rio’s downtowns–the street vendors called “camelôs”. Denver doesn’t have any, whereas Rio’s Quadrilateral is infested with thousands of them.
The fact is that almost everything being sold by camelôs on the streets is illegally produced and distributed. The most obvious case is pirated DVDs and software. The next most obvious is when you see dozens of guys out there selling one particular type of doll or computer device or imported candy – you just know those “fell off a truck”. The bulk of the camelô trade, however, is off-books (“caixa dois”) merchandise on which no taxes are paid. Allegedly “reputable” manufacturers have created separate distribution channels where everything is in cash and nothing appears on anyone’s books.
There are exceptions. Fruit and vegetables and other pushcart purveyors are probably honest. Some of the umbrella sellers may have purchased the goods they miraculously begin touting as soon as dark clouds glower overhead. Where they store them, of course, is a mystery only to the tax authorities, who could impound them if they wanted, which they don’t. Why don’t they? Because urban legend has it that camelôs are decent people, unemployed or unemployable, not just thieves or receivers of stolen goods.
Given the unswerving unwillingness of the authorities to chase camelôs off the streets, the Curmudgeon is certain that the Quadrilateral, once freed from fume-belching vehicles by the Mayor, will become one continuous “camelôdromo”, the Great South American Souk, overrun by scads of Quad Squads, i.e. men raucously hawking ill-gotten wares.
Hizzoner has proclaimed that his Grand Plan will be given a Beta launch on Saturday June 26th, when the Quadrilateral will be closed to motor vehicles. Anyone who works downtown knows it’s hard to find anyone there on Saturday mornings, and virtually impossible to find anyone after 1pm. The Mayor knows this too (he’s not stupid) which is why he’s scheduled the “test” for a day when nobody in their right mind will want to come downtown. The test will be proclaimed a great success, and Hizzoner will proclaim his determination to implement his Plan.
The Curmudgeon is reminded of the teaser line on posters for the 1974 John Boorman film “Zardoz” – “I have seen the future. And it doesn’t work.”