What we know today as Lapa was outside the city walls in the mid eighteenth century. The city itself was surrounded by hills and wetlands and suffered from a chronic problem with the drinkable water supply.
From the top of the hills that surrounded the city, the Carioca river was born, where slaves would seek out the scarce but quality water after a several hour hike. Thus, the channeling of water from these springs into the city had begun, in the mid-seventeenth century.
The work dragged on for decades and was the subject of a lot of controversy over the best way to use the water and the best path into the city. In 1721, the canalization reached Desterro hill, which is where the Santa Teresa Convent would be built. Between the hill and the city, however, stretched 300 meters of swamps and lagoons, to be overcome with the ancient Roman technique of building arches, a bridge for the water.
The Carioca Arches were built by slave labor, using stone, brick, sand, lime and whale oil. The first fountain was opened in Largo da Carioca in 1723, won over the population, and paved the way for the expansion of the city.
To leave the city, one would use the Caminho de Matacavalos and a road that bordered the Sentinela lake, going through the Mataporcos hamlet (current today Estácio) via the Jesuit priests’ Engenho Velho and following along the wildernesses, toward the Minas Gerais Captaincy. On this road were travelers, peddlers and soldiers, leading troops of donkeys, carrying sugar, coal and all kinds of merchandise. The road was also used by the two French expeditions that invaded Rio in the eighteenth century.
At the end of the century, Rio de Janeiro was an obscure place. Portuguese culture showed strong inherited traits from ten centuries of Arab domination. The women at the time occupied a subordinate position and were unaware of most of the goings-on in the city, except that which happened within view of their balconies. One would also see men walking through the streets, important politicians, large groups of slaves, masons, barbers and those without a defined profession, and African women that were rented out or house-bound, who had acquired Muslims habits, wearing colorful clothes, head cloths and trinkets.
In the mid nineteenth century, Rio de Janeiro, capital of the Brazilian Empire, was a mostly black city: with an estimated 130,000 inhabitants in 1838, where at least two-thirds were slaves. Many aspects of late colonial city stuck around: public cleanliness was poor, the lighting was by rare lamps lit by fish oil, sewage ran down gutters in the streets and the means of transportation were limited to a few cars, many horses and the first horse-drawn bus, the so-called gôndolas.
The suburbs of the city were being progressively occupied, especially after the arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family in 1808, fleeing the war in Europe and bringing numerous courtiers and extensive government bureaucracy.
From Lapa’s old farms and estates, new aristocratic houses were emerging. The southern road that led from the Largo da Lapa to neighborhoods like Catete and Flamengo, were disputed by the elites, as also were streets like dos Inválidos, Lavradio, and Resende, newly–opened up on the Pedro Dias landfilled marsh, behind the arches.
The area, which was rapidly urbanizing, had tripled in the period between 1838 and 1888 and, at this point, the old Boqueirão lake, an ocean pocket coming through the floodplain and which allowed navigation for small moorings, had become a swamp. This is why, in 1790, the then–viceroy Luis de Vasconcellos covered over what was left of the lake, where he built the first city park, the Passeio Público.
The Lapa was, since the Carmelite priests moved there in 1810, one of the main stages for the Holy Spirit feast, the most important event in city at the time. For five weeks, the people reveled in the stalls set up in the Largo, lit at night by a spectacle of fireworks.
The Turn of the 20th Century
Rio de Janeiro had undergone a radical urban reform in the early twentieth century. The Pereira Passos administration built avenues and a modern port in the old colonial town, banned the breeding cows and pigs at the edges of the city, vaccinated the population and banned the homeless from begging in the streets. He promoted expropriations and demolitions, pushing out a large number of the destitute and workers from the central area.
In this context, Lapa also had several of their rundown homes and slums demolished in a few weeks in order to build the avenue Mem de Sá, which still required the razing of the Senado hill and the landfill of what was left of the old lakes. On this avenue, the most significant symbol of modernity was operating – the electric trolley, which took workers that the city center no longer housed to the new suburbs.
After the old Carioca aqueduct was disabled, in 1896, the Arches began to be used as a bridge for the Santa Teresa tramway. During the Pereira Passos administration, Lapa took on a French atmosphere, with the afforestation of Largo, the recovery of the public promenade and the construction of the Lapa candelabra (Lampadário Monumental da Lapa). These were also the final days of the Lapa beach, swallowed by the Beira-Mar landfill that ran across the edge until Botafogo, destined to be replaced by the elegant mansions of the bourgeoisie of the time.
20th Century, Part 1
In the first third of the century, Lapa was called “Montmartre Carioca“, its restaurants and cabarets housed the busiest nightlife, the most famous women, the most renowned hustlers. The nightlife there, offering options for all tastes, boasted its absolute diversity. If at coffee table politicians and businessmen gathered, or even intellectuals like Villa-Lobos, Manuel Bandeira, Mário de Andrade and Rubem Braga, at the next table, there might be samba group playing or the best hustlers of the era.
Before the decline came, with the crackdown on brothels and hustling, promoted by the Estado Novo, and the prohibition of gambling in the postwar period, and before the rise of Copacabana, Lapa experienced nights of pure brilliance. The authentic hustler (malandro) became, back then, a figure of folklore, and Wilson Baptista himself gave in to temptation and sang: “The São Januário trolley / takes another worker / It’s me going to work.” (I’ll write a post on this topic, and link to it here).
Behind the magic aura of bohemia and the nightlife, Lapa was also industrial zone of small establishments in the area of furniture, clothing, and food & beverages. Until the 70s, the street of Arcos, was the symbol of industry – Fundição Progresso, for safes and stoves.
In the morning, while bohemians were on their way to the trolley stops, Lapa was already being taken over by truckers, shippers, and traders who began to assemble in the open market square outside the arches. At noon, the so-called “xepeiros” (poor people who would buy the worst-selling trinkets at the street markets, at a reduced price) began to arrive and then soon after, Lapa began to prepare for another night of glory.
20th Century – Part 2
In the postwar era, amid the decadence of bohemia, the razing of the Santo Antônio hill began in the 50s, with the aim of opening up space in the city center for people and vehicles. Lapa, neighboring the construction sites of large buildings that appeared on the horizon, entered into a period of deterioration of the old urban centers. It is in this context that some famous homes moved to nearby addresses, such as the Capela Restaurant and Casanova Cabaret. Other houses narrowly escaped extinction, such as the Sala Cecilia Meireles, which still operates there.
In the 60s, a government project came about to build a large avenue that cuts through the center from north to south, a repetition of the Pereira Passos feat, giving relief to the former Central Avenue. Right in the middle was Lapa. The plan was later abandoned, but Lapa was narrowly erased from the ‘map’, because inside a few year period, entire neighborhoods were razed and countless buildings were demolished.
The renewal process lasted until the 70s. The Fundação Progresso, which had been closed in 1976, was to feel the impact of sledgehammers when a mobilization of neighborhood artists, intellectuals and residents saved it from demolition, transforming it into a symbol of cultural rebirth.
After the cataclysm of the 70s, the Lapa nightlife began to heat up again. The Sala Cecilia Meireles assumed the role of the city’s main concert hall for instrumental music, with exceptional acoustics. The Asa Branca, with a dance floor and live shows is an important space for popular music, repeating the old style of performance halls. The current circuit of bars and restaurants with all kinds of food shows the revival of the city center’s nightlife.
One of the highlights of Lapa’s nightlife is the Circo Voador, a mix of popular dancehall and showhouse, which resides in a public square behind the arches. Under the Arcos of Carioca, the many faces of the city have once more begun to mix together. Bohemians walk the same sidewalks as paper trash collectors, street vendors hastily fight for a place among the thousands of buses that run daily where, two centuries ago, cows grazed at the edge of a pond.
Lapa has been urban, suburban and rural. After being born again, under the sign of convents and seminaries, it had a troubled life, as the queen of the city nightlife. Stage of the most daring work of its time, the Arcos da Carioca reached the 21st Century, full of vitality, transforming itself again into the heart of downtown nightlife.