By Felicity Clarke, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Lapa, Rio’s frenzied center of culture and nightlife, is undergoing major changes as a series of initiatives to improve safety, regulate business and conserve the heritage of the area take effect.
Heightened presence and activity of the citywide public order guards, Choque de Ordem, in conjunction with the restoration and regeneration work by the Municipal Secretary of Culture project “Lapa Legal” are transforming a neighborhood that has suffered from neglect in the past and been notoriously dangerous.
One of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods, it is also a historic central neighborhood that fell from colonial grace to become a bohemian hub of culture and nightlife activity with a dark edge.
The home of samba, the Selaron Steps and the city’s most concentrated music scene, Lapa is one of the most visited parts of the city. As such, the current initiatives look to improve the area’s track record as a site for muggings, often armed.
Launched last month, Lapa Legal’s work includes introducing municipal guards on 24 hour patrol, improved illumination, ambulances, and creating a Lapa Cultural History Nucleus as well as pedestrianizing the area surrounding the Lapa Arches at weekends. There is also the ongoing restoration of the famous white Arches sponsored by Santander bank.
For Carolyn, 28, a British expat Lapa resident, the initiatives are an improvement on previous apathy to the area. ‘It’s good that it’s more open and it feels like they’re trying to make it safer, which is positive because they weren’t doing anything before.”
The most obvious development in recent months has been the establishment of an authorized night market running Wednesday to Sunday with up to 82 registered sellers. Along the Arches at Largo da Lapa run rows of Antartica beer-sponsored food and drink stands. For the vendors who successfully applied for a stand and license (recipients were selected at random), the changes in the area have been well received.
Diego Alencae, 19, from Pernambuco has sold beer and soft drinks in Lapa with his mother for three years and now works an authorized stand on the strip between the lanes on the main road. He says, “It’s improved relations for the stand sellers. It used to be a complete mess, crazy, and we were lost. Now it’s more organized and safer.”
While the bright blue stands are increasing, there are still many unauthorized sellers and regulation is yet to reach the parallel street, Rua Joaquim Silva, where Izabel Melo from Santa Teresa has had a caipirinha stand for the last four years.
She does not currently have a license but anticipates receiving one soon. She too is positive and says, “Everyone wants the change and to improve Lapa’s economy and tourism. For example, with the roads closed it’s much better.”
The reduction in crime and restoration work are universally welcomed, however some argue that the initiatives threaten to kill the cultural vitality of Lapa.
Serginho Ferret, 30, is a musician and jewelery maker from Rio Grande do Sul who plays his customized guitar to a dancing crowd under the Arches in Lapa: “Lapa was much more culturally alive in the past, like in the 1990s. I started playing in 2004 and there was art in the street and more space to make music.”
Lately Serginho, whose portrait appeared in Gustavo Stephen’s recent photography exhibition Images and Words in the Center of Rio at Centro Cultural Federal Justiça, has had his performances stopped by Choque de Ordem guards. “They don’t want us playing so they stop us and move us along without explanation,” he claims.
The balance between creating a safe, regulated area and retaining the vibrant spirit of Lapa is the greatest challenge in the attempt to develop and regenerate the neighborhood. Speaking at the launch of the Lapa Legal project last month, Rio mayor Eduardo Paes looked to reassure people that keeping the character of Lapa intact was part of the plan.
“There can be lively disorder, it’s part of the locale. No one wants to transform Lapa into Germany… but it needs organization,” Paes told his audience.
On Friday night, the groups of tourists The Rio Times spoke to were enjoying the caipirinhas and crazy atmosphere. Sipping a caipirinha in the market area of Largo da Lapa, Dan Williams from the UK had only arrived in Brazil the previous day. “It’s brilliant,” he enthused. “It does seem dangerous because of the stories people tell you, but it feels fine here.”