By Tomi Streiff & Jane Hallisey

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Gamboa, a neighborhood many Cariocas wouldn’t dare to visit until not too long ago, is opening its doors. This weekend, 20 cultural initiatives will open their spaces to the public at the “Gamboa de Portos Abertos” Festival.

One of the first meetings of the organizers. Photo by Tomi Streiff
One of the first meetings of the organizers. (Photo by Tomi Streiff)

From Friday morning May 24th, until Sunday evening the 26th, more than 70 free attractions will await the public.

Gamboa’s oldest claim to fame is the Cais do Valongo, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2017. Historians estimate that 500,000 to 1 million of the 4.9 million slaves that were sent to Brazil disembarked at that wharf. This immense suffering would find its musical outcry–Gamboa would become the birthplace of Samba.

With the prohibition of slavery and the later diminishing importance of the port, this once-thriving, centrally located neighborhood on the waterfront started to decline.

By 1990 many of the colonial buildings would be nothing more than facades. Neglected by the city, the streets had become dirty and dangerous.

Emilio Rodrigues, Casa do Barista, one of the organizers. Photo by Tomi Streiff
Emilio Rodrigues, Casa do Barista, one of the organizers. (Photo by Tomi Streiff)

When Rio won the bid for the World Cup and the Olympics, one of the decisions was to gentrify this forsaken area with some of the billions that were expected to flow towards Rio from oil extraction. Keeping Barcelona’s Barceloneta or Buenos Aires’ Puerto Madero in mind, many grand projects were started.

The first step of the revitalization of the Porto Maravilha was to take down the Perimetral – an elevated highway blocking access to the waterfront – and create in its place the highly popular Boulevard Olympico.

But by the time the gentrification was to reach further inland, the price of oil had gone down, and the money flow had dried up or was frozen because the investors had been locked up for corruption.

The city abandoned the neighborhood, stopped running completed projects like the Providência Teleferico, a cable car that was built to connect Gamboa to Central Station. Projects such as the transformation of the grand buildings of former flour mill, Moinho Fluminense, into a shopping mall complete with cinema, medical clinic, hotel, restaurant, and luxury apartments, were canceled.

Drawn to its fascinating history and lively carnival culture, the halt of the grandiose projects didn’t hinder artists and musicians from trickling into the bohemian neighborhood. They installed themselves in some of the ample and relatively affordable spaces.

The slow but steady influx was welcomed by the few already existing cultural projects, like the IPN Museu Memorial created after a slave cemetery was discovered in Gamboa in the 90s.

Washington Fajardo, an urbanist formerly head of the Instituto Rio Patrimônio da Humanidade, has said: “Porto Maravilha was a very ambitious project. Unfortunately, the city ran out of money. I’m happy to see that there is now a grassroots movement revitalizing the area in their own, slow way.”

Verônica Pereira who will perform at “Livramento & Amor”. Photo by Tomi Streiff
Verônica Pereira, who will perform at “Livramento & Amor.” (Photo by Tomi Streiff)

Vastly diverse cultural projects installed themselves, mostly unknown to each other. But a few months ago a critical mass was reached.

The groups started reaching out to each other. Soon 20 cultural projects had joined to realize “Gamboa de Portos Abertos”.

Emilio Rodrigues, owner of Casa do Barista, a school for baristas said: “Gamboa de Portos Abertos has totally changed how I feel when I walk about the cobblestoned streets of Gamboa. I constantly run into other members of the project and feel, now this is my neighborhood.”

From Friday to Sunday the twenty locations will open to the public offering music, workshops, theater, atelier visits, neighborhood tours, flamenco lessons served with paella, a Biodanza happening, a tennis tournament on the grass, and various parties that will last through the night.

The diverse program, for adults and kids alike, of more than 70 free activities will culminate Sunday afternoon with a stilts procession onto Gamboa’s central square, Praça Harmonia. Once again, Gamboa will be shining.

But all this is only a beginning. As more and more artists move into Gamboa they join the initiative to realize what the government, with all its billions, didn’t achieve: to turn Gamboa into a friendly, lively neighborhood with culture and living spaces in a centrally located part of the city. This time, the change comes from the bottom up.

Verônica Pereira, a performer, says: “Sure, soon we’ll sit down to plan “Gamboa de Portos Abertos II”. But the network we created is about much more. We’ll try to prove that creating a vibrant and enjoyable environment to live in is possible, even in a huge, troubled city like Rio.”

What: Gamboa de Portos Abertos

When: Starts Friday, May 24th at 10 AM, until Sunday, May 26th, midnight

Where: Gamboa (Center), twenty locations

Entrance: Free

Program: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/a70518_a386754b544247c2a34485b01791f9e5.pdf

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