The Rio Before Our Time

Realizing the community mentioned below was unable to be found when I went looking for it the other day, I did my best to find out why it was deleted but discovered no clues. However, I did find this 2015 article, which I’ve translated below.

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“Upon seeing old photos of Rio de Janeiro, many internet users comment: “I would like to have lived in that time.” The nostalgia for a time that wasn’t experienced by members of the internet generation – and, sometimes, not even by their parents – goes beyond the reality which the image depicts. Even so, it’s a common comment in the virtual community O Rio de Janeiro que não vivi, created by Bruno Macedo, in 2012. The page, which has more than 60K followers, shows a series of images of the city – such as the Praça Paris in the 1930s, the trolleys passing along Rodrigues Alves avenue, in the Port Zone, at the start of the 20th century, or a tree-lined Jardim do Méier in the 1920s, – which became the Masters dissertation subject of Thiago Mendes, “Memória e cidade sensível: Fortaleza e Rio em comentários no Facebook”. Mendes analysed, via posted comments, how visitors of the two Facebook communities see each city. He is from Fortaleza but has been living in Rio for the last two years. Speaking with him, the focus was on Rio.

“The internet users’ interest is more about what the places’ memory brings them. And, from what I could gather, this memory is centered a lot more on the senses, on the memories connected to smell, taste and hearing, than merely on the visual aspect”, commented Mendes. He explains that within these memories other stories come to mind, such as those told by their parents or grandparents. “Like that kind of comment that says how their grandfather would say he used to get the trolley at Largo da Carioca, or how he liked it when his parents would take him to get a coconut juice drink at Bar Simpatia, downtown, which had a taste he remembers to this day.”

Presented with due credit, the photos bring about comments that situate them to the time in which they were taken and a little of the history of the place. All of them were found online, many from the collection of Augusto Malta, belonging to the Biblioteca Naciona and made available to the public online. Aside from evaluating posted comments, Mendes also interviewed the creator and administrator of the page, Bruno Macedo, who, as would be hoped, revealed himself as someone in love with the memory of the city.

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While there are several comments about Méier and the surrounding areas, the most photographed places are in and around downtown, followed by neighborhoods in the Zona Sul. In many comments, Copacabana still appears as the epithet of the Cidade Maravilhosa. “There’s room for stories, to exchange experiences and even debates among the page’s followers, which gathers users from different generations, as expected in virtual communities. Among the diverse cited memories, everyday examples appear in the posts, such as “I used to run so I wouldn’t have to pay for the trolley at (transport terminal) Tabuleiro da Baiana. I hope my kids don’t read this.” (ie, the person took the trolley w/o paying).

But, in most cases, the comments are impregnated with nostalgia, even among the youth that live in a different time very much distant from the one in which the photos were taken. “This nostalgia many times speaks of a city and of a past that’s been idealized”, he explains. This idealization is also associated with the time in which Rio was the capital of the Republic, as opposed to its declining years, after the capital was transfered to Brasília. “Some visitors to the site come to say that ‘it was a crime to have stripped that title from the city’, seeing it as the start of the ex-capital’s decline”, cites Mendes.

Mendes thinks that, as with any idealization, a certain amount of imagination enters the picture. “It’s when the internet users daydream about a photo, make confessions, saying, for example, they’d like to wear the kind of clothes worn at the start of the 20th century.” This nostalgia is what makes the internet users associate the old images with a time when life was easier and more relaxed, many times forgetting all the difficulty and poverty back then. “The large majority of people see an idealized tranquility in these photographs of the city; few of them reflect on the actual situation. They speak, for example, of the elegance of the era’s clothing, remembering a soap opera character from TV in a scene from the start of the 20th century. Few think about Rio as a city that’s hot, and that our grandparents must have sweat a lot wearing those heavy clothes, many times more appropriate for a European climate. Until someone more realistic comments that the city smelled bad, as much from sweat as from the animal feces and the varied dirtiness of the streets.”

He says that some commenters demonstrate some old habits: “Ir à cidade, an expression that one can still hear today which meant going downtown and, in most cases, was an important occurrence for someone who was poor or living in the most distant regions of the city.” The page administrator says, of those who have authority to say it: “My grandparents lived on an unpaved street in Marechal Hermes. They were as poor as could be, but when they went to the cinema downtown, they went out impeccably dressed. To “go to the city”, at that time, was something important.”

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But if the past is idealized many times, the future is also, as if it’s going to bring about the solution to all of today’s problems. Images of the Port Zone, for example, for some internet users, make them think of the modernization efforts for the 2016 Olympics. “The city, today, is very much seen as an Olympic City. And, apart from the traffic, the construction is made out to be something that will change the look of the city for the best, which might return a bit of the old landscapes to the residents”, explains Mendes.

It’s quite true that, as things normally go in virtual communities, there are divergent voices and, sometimes, even debates. The image of one of the pavillions built during the Carlos Sampaio government for the 1922 Universal Exposition, which marked 100 years since Brazil’s Independence, also shows the dismantling of the Castelo hill, demolished to facilitate the circulation of air that, according to the sanitarian talk of the 19th century, would improve the climate and, along with it, people’s health. The images also show that the big house at the top of the hill served as residence for the city’s poorest, mainly blacks and those of mixed race.

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It’s one of the photos that get people talking about social issues. “There’s comments that say that, because of the favelization, the hill really had to be demolished. Others defend the opposite, since the area housed the first colonial buildings, from the time of the city’s foundation. Some posts say: ‘It was a historic crime against the city’s memory’; ‘So, the solution to poverty is to demolish all the hills?’; and ‘There would have to be a Pacifying Police Force right in the middle of downtown’, write the internet users, stuck in a heated debate, in which a separation between rich and poor emerges, favela and asphalt, and mutual ressentment.”

In his conclusion, Mendes highlights that the main point of his dissertation was to realize that, more present than the institutionalized memory, for each of the so-called “places of memory”, as is the case for the monuments and historic buildings, we create “memories of places”, lived in the everyday experiences of each person. “There are internet users for whom Copacabana brings back the walks they took as children, or the place on the beach they used to frequent. For others, downtown might mean memories of beer at the Simpatia bar, with friends.” He says that what makes the page visitors leave comments are their lived experiences, or even those they’re told by relatives or people close to them, remembered in stories and tales told to sons and grandsons. “And the fan page recomposes a little of those personal memories, shared by the users, forming a mosaic of thoughts and stories about the city.” – by Vilma Homero (original is here)


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