By Nathan M. Walters, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Prior to the pacification of Vidigal in November 2011, a visit to the favela was usually only made by adventure travelers, or those who had friends to escort them. The idea of a foreigner owning real estate and starting a business in the area was reserved only for a special group of forward-thinking entrepreneurs, those who saw the potential of a hillside that enjoyed one of the most stunning views in Rio.
Now, just a few weeks after the favela officially received its own Police Pacification Unit (“UPP”), more investors are looking to the hill questioning what the future of the area will hold.
Setting up a guesthouse (or pousada) in Vidigal prior to pacification was uncommon because it would only appeal to a very specific target market. Now Vidigal has been primed for this type of investment, with a distinct culture and close-knit community, quick access to Leblon and Ipanema – and those postcard views.
Austrian-born Andreas Wielend, owner of the Casa Alto Vidigal guesthouse, saw the potential. “I was looking for something other than the mainstream Rio experience,” he recalls.
Since arriving in Vidigal, Wielend has expanded his presence in the area by purchasing more properties and updating Casa Alto to accommodate more guests. Now open for two years, Casa Alto is enjoying increased popularity.
The guesthouse is booked solid for Carnival and have seen a steady increase in visitors – particularly Brazilian guests who had avoided the area prior its pacification.
Today UPP signs are prominently displayed and surveillance forces regularly cruise the streets of Vidigal. In a short time Wielend has seen the benefits the UPP’s presence has had for local businesses including his own. “UPP makes Vidigal look safer. In the long-term the UPP’s presence can be a good thing.”
It is still premature to declare the UPP’s installation a resounding success for all. Some, including Tito Braga, owner of Favela Vidigal Guesthouse, believe the UPP have brought “more frustration” with them, perhaps referring to the constant police presence and a corresponding sense of order.
Yet the interest in Vidigal as an area with the potential for development preceded the pacification and UPP, and is certainly no less appealing now. Although, as with all urban development projects, controversial issues arise.
Living in Vidigal has cost a fraction of other locations in Zona Sul, and new development has the potential to drastically increase rents and real estate prices, pushing long-time residents out. In short, gentrification.
For now there is only speculation of what the UPP’s arrival will bring, though trends in other pacified favelas provide reason for optimism. Wielend seems enthusiastic about the new found interest in the area, “There is something happening everyday. Right now we have a group of professional graffiti artists redecorating the guesthouse and we are starting our weekly ‘After Beach’ party on Sundays. Every day is a busy day here!”