Summary and Keywords
All cities are forged by politics. But Brazil’s “informal” neighborhoods—and especially the favelas that now shape every Brazilian urban landscape—have an especially raw link to the political world. Favelas and other informal settlements are vital to Brazil’s cityscapes; they are also spaces historically defined by weak formal regulation and tenuous urban citizenship. In the informal city, property tenancy, city services, and basic civil protections were historically defined as privileges rather than rights. This was not for lack of claims-making; favela residents demanded urban belonging and engaged in intense legal battles over issues of property and regulation long before Brazil’s “rights to the city” movements gained international recognition. But Brazilian institutions proved mostly unwilling to recognize those claims, forcing informal residents to rely on a wide range of political strategies to achieve some modicum of permanence, citizenship, and rights to the city.
Urban informality and urban politics thus developed in tandem in Brazil before 1960, as favelas successfully rooted themselves in Brazil’s most significantly “informal” cities: Rio de Janeiro (Brazil’s national capital until 1960 and the birthplace of the term “favela”) and Recife (the Northeast’s regional capital, long Brazil’s third largest city, and a hothouse for the politics of informality). In both places, informal politics involved grassroots mobilization, symbolic contestations in the public sphere, and engagement with a remarkably diverse tangle of activists, patrons, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, politicians, intellectuals, artists, policymakers, and politicians. Informal residents were agile and effective political actors, who managed collectively and incrementally to establish favela residents’ de facto right to occupy Brazilian cityscapes. At the same time, the contradictions of favela politics made it difficult to convert de facto permanence into juridically enforceable rights to the city. The outcome was a politics of permanence rather than a politics of equality, the results of which are still all too apparent in Brazil’s contemporary urban form.
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