Based on research revolving around the urban reforms undertaken in the then federal capital of early twentieth-century Brazil, the book A grande reforma urbana do Rio de Janeiro: Pereira Passos, Rodrigues Alves e as ideias de civilização e progresso (The great urban reform of Rio de Janeiro: Pereira Passos, Rodrigues Alves, and ideas of civilization and progress) offers a fresh reading of Francisco Pereira Passos (1836–1913), mayor of Rio de Janeiro from 1902 to 1906. André Nunes de Azevedo, a professor of history at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ), refutes an interpretation prevalent in the first half of the 1980s: that the reforms were driven by the politician’s desire to rid the city center of its poorer dwellers. Taking a divergent view, Azevedo paints an ambivalent picture of Pereira Passos and argues that he instead intended to “civilize” the city’s lower classes by encouraging them to frequent a renovated city center.
Rio’s urban reforms, which had been advocated since 1843 by Henrique de Beaurepaire Rohan, then director of municipal works, were planned and orchestrated by the mayor and engineers appointed by Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves (1848–1919), who was president of Brazil from 1902 to 1906. The group was led by Paulo de Frontin, chairman of Clube de Engenharia, a civil association founded in 1880 to advance the development of the civil construction sector. The federal government undertook to rebuild the port and surrounding streets to streamline the flow of imported goods to the city’s merchants and boost agricultural exports. It would also be responsible for widening and embellishing Avenida Central (now Avenida Rio Branco), which begins at what today is the Praça Mauá square. In addition, the federal program built institutions that became icons of the urban landscape: the National School of Fine Arts, the National Library and the Monroe Palace, which was later demolished in 1976. The mayor’s program, for its part, consisted of building the Municipal Theater, channeling rivers, laying out new streets in the city center, creating avenues to connect the suburbs to the center, and developing urban infrastructure. “These major reforms were attempts by the government to leave behind the so-called ‘slave paradigm’ that then substituted for urban infrastructure,” says Azevedo.
The term “slave paradigm” refers to the use of slave labor to perform tasks such as carrying drinking water and sewage and transporting people and goods, a practice linked to the imperial family’s arrival in Rio in 1808. “The solution created by the court to address the lack of infrastructure when they arrived was to resume a century-long tradition of Colonial Brazil, that of using slaves to carry out these tasks,” says Azevedo.
Rio had, as a result, become the city with the largest number of slaves in the West. “In 1840, more than half of Rio’s population were slaves,” says the researcher. With the Abolition and the proclamation of the Republic, government authorities had to rethink their mode of organizing municipal services to a fast-growing population. In 1890 the municipality had a population of 525,000 people; 16 years later it had grown to 811,000.
Architect Nireu Cavalcanti, a scholar of Rio’s history and author of several books on the subject, says that at the turn of the twentieth century city authorities’ views on public health were still under the influence of hygienism, although the movement had emerged in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. Within these concepts, city planners sought to increase ventilation by widening streets, raising street grades further above sea level, and leveling hills. This was believed to help reduce the spread of disease. Houses and tenements in which multiple families shared a single bathroom were also to be demolished as part of reform. “Construction of a sewage system beneath the city had begun in 1886. In 1874, a building code was adopted requiring all houses to have individual bathrooms and septic tanks, leading to the demolition of buildings that were not compliant with the code,” says Cavalcanti. A zoning map showing the locations of streets, buildings, and land lots was developed that year by a commission of engineers and used as a reference in the reforms.
A conservative modernization
Not only were the federal and municipal governments responsible for separate tasks in the reforms, but they were also motivated by different values, according to Azevedo’s research. Rodrigues Alves, he says, wanted to remodel the city and erase from it its reputation as a pestilent town, riddled with epidemics and endemics, thereby providing a renewed stimulus for European immigration. “The president was a member of an affluent coffee-growing family in São Paulo and was facing a labor crisis due to the abolition of slavery,” says Azevedo. Rodrigues Alves also wanted to modernize the port in order to balance public finances, as federal tax revenues then mostly derived from import duties.
In Azevedo’s view, the overarching value in the federal reforms was that of progress within the narrow meaning of material development, whereas the municipal program aspired to bring about a civilizing process through aspects such as social cohesion and access to culture. “This involved notions of civility such as not urinating in public spaces, spitting in streetcars, going shirtless in public, and selling all manner of merchandise on the streets,” he said. Azevedo reached these conclusions after researching primary sources including a wide range of official documents kept at the Republic Museum, the National Library, Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa, the Brazilian Academy of Letters, the National Archives, and the General Archives of the City of Rio. “In Rodrigues Alves’s speeches and letters, the word “progress” was employed as the highest value to be pursued in the reforms, while Pereira Passos emphasized the word “civilization,” says the researcher.
Based on the premise that Pereira Passos adopted civilization as the overarching value of his program, Azevedo argues that it was not the mayor’s intent to banish indigents from the urban core as is commonly held in the historiography of his reform. Although the widening of the city’s streets and demolishing of its slums did lead to the displacement of these families from the center, this was not his primary aim: “The district of Espírito Santo was an area thronging with wretches and yet it was left intact by the reform. Conversely, the districts of Candelária and Sacramento, where the upper-middle and upper classes resided, were entirely destroyed,” he reasons.
For Azevedo, Pereira Passos undertook a “conservative integration”, creating a road network designed to provide four links between the center and the roads leading to the city’s outskirts. Three of these avenues were completed. Three workers’ villages were also built around the city center, placing workers at walking distance from the workplace. “Passos wanted the low-income populace to visit the new urban core and absorb the culture that emanated from its theaters and libraries. He built bandstands in town squares where these families were treated to classical music performances. He required city dwellers to be clean and presentable in public. In this respect, he can be thought of as having adopted the concept of civilization espoused by the affluent European bourgeoisie,” he explains. According to Azevedo, these ideals were incompatible with the traditions and conditions of former slaves and laborers, who walked the streets covered in soot from manual toil. “His program was conservative in that it sought to achieve integration based on standards that were irreconcilable with the realities of underprivileged social groups and without democratizing access to wealth,” he says.
A historiographical debate
The construal of Pereira Passos as a politician who sought to exile the low-income populace from the center of Rio derives from a historiographical current based on neo-Marxist and structuralist theories that arose in the 1980s, explains Margareth da Silva Pereira, a professor in the Graduate Program in Urban Planning at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). A landmark in this current was a master’s thesis by historian Jaime Larry Benchimol, now a researcher at Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ). Defended at UFRJ in 1982, his paper compared Pereira Passos’s program with the reform undertaken by the prefect of Paris, Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809–1891), between 1852 and 1870.
In her article “O passado como construção: Perfis da historiografia sobre o Rio de Janeiro – Temas e problemas (1978–1992)” (The past in construction: Profiles of the historiography of Rio de Janeiro – Issues and problems [1978–1992]), published in the proceedings of the 13th Seminar on the History of Cities and Urban Planning of the University of Brasília (Brasília, 2014), Pereira, who in 1988 defended an unpublished thesis on nineteenth-century Rio, explains that until the late 1970s urban planning studies were done by economists and sociologists. Benchimol’s thesis was one among a fresh series of papers on the subject largely written by historians. A master’s thesis defended by Sérgio Lamarão at the Institute of Urban and Regional Planning and Research at UFRJ in 1984 is another example. Centered around the remodeling of the port, it underlines the mutually complementary roles that the federal and municipal governments played in the reforms.
Lamarão notes that as part of Pereira Passos’s renovation program, a design contest was organized for the building facades along Avenida Central and many of the contestants appeared to draw inspiration from Parisian buildings. The historian mentions buildings such as the Municipal Theater as examples of this influence. “But on Avenida Central, all Parisian traces were subsequently erased. Little evidence has remained on this avenue, which is now lined by its third or fourth generation of buildings,” he writes. The demolitions began in 1910, just four years after Avenida Central was officially opened to the public, according to Pereira.
For Cavalcanti, however, there is little evidence at all of Parisian influence on the design of Avenida Central. “The avenues constructed with median strips in Rodrigues Alves’s period, for example, had no equivalent in the Parisian reform,” says the architect. But he believes the origin of this association may be found in the French and German textbooks used in undergraduate engineering and architecture programs at the time. Regarding the displacement of the low-income populace, Lamarão says that spatial hierarchies had already been forming in Rio when Pereira Passos’s transformation program began. The works only accelerated this process. “Whatever was on the right of way for Avenida Central was razed, including tenements, small shops, and factories. This earned the mayor the nickname ‘demolisher’ and was even the subject of plays at the time,” he says.
While recognizing European influence in the mayor’s concepts of civilization, Azevedo believes that, unlike the program carried out in Rio, the Parisian reform was indeed intended to keep the low-income classes out. “The Parisian plans used radial avenues forming semicircles to cut poor citizens off from the city center, while Rio’s plans indicate that the opposite was intended,” he says.
Pereira, for her part, contends that, like Haussmann’s program, that of Pereira Passos prioritized hygiene, embellishment, and traffic, neglecting a fourth pillar of the emerging science of urban planning—social justice. Despite the divergences among researchers, she believes the differing perspectives on the reform are mutually complementary: “It is not a matter of placing historiographies in opposition against each other, but of showing the contributions and boundaries of each current.”
In describing the legacy left by Passos’s renovation program, Azevedo draws special notice to the tram line atop the Carioca Aqueduct. “Passos had the tram line, a modern invention at the time, run directly over a historical monument that had been erected by a Portuguese official in the eighteenth century. He built a road up the Corcovado so people could have a view of the city from above; he created Avenida Atlântica, in Copacabana; and he built the oceanfront avenue. These are all among Rio’s postcard attractions to this day.”
The images illustrating this article were discovered by historian Adriana Martins Pereira and explored in her doctoral thesis defended at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP). Her research was published in a book titled Lentes da memória – A descoberta da fotografia de Alberto de Sampaio (1888–1930) (Lenses of the past: The discovery of Alberto de Sampaio’s photographs [1888–1930]). In the amateur photography clubs of the period, of which Sampaio was a member, portraits and landscapes were the most common motifs. Photographing the urban environment was uncommon. Innovatively, then, for his time, Sampaio photographed events taking place in the center of Rio de Janeiro, among them the opening of the Monroe Palace in 1906 as part of the renovation undertaken by Pereira Passos. The 19 images he captured that day provide a different perspective from that of professional photographers.
“Sampaio’s images show that, on the day it was opened, the palace had not yet been completed, whereas in the photographs published by professionals it is portrayed as if finished,” says Adriana. In an image published in Kosmos magazine in 1906, for example, a hand-retouched photograph shows a finished palace years before the works had been completed. This difference is primarily due to Sampaio looking at the city from an amateur’s perspective and not to his taking a critical view of the building being opened unfinished. “Sampaio had no intention of exhibiting these photos, not even in amateur clubs. He planned to keep them in family albums.” Although amateur photography collections typically suffer from poor preservation, Sampaio’s legacy has remained remarkably intact. Among the reasons, explains Adriana, is that the photographer’s family still lives in the same century-old house and for decades the collection was never removed from its place.