In Vila Autódromo, Resistance Continues 1 Year After Rio Olympics

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A demolished house with a sign that translates to, "Not everybody has a price" stands in front of the Olympic Media Center building. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)
A demolished house with a sign that translates to, "Not everybody has a price" stands in front of the Olympic Media Center building. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

Revisit our August 2016 story on games-related displacement in Rio de Janeiro and how it compared to Atlanta and other Olympic host cities. 

Just under a year ago, in the Maracanã — Rio’s fabled soccer stadium — the Olympic flag was passed to representatives of Tokyo, where the 2020 Summer Games will take place.

It is customary for the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to close the games by declaring them the best ever. On Aug. 21, 2016, Thomas Bach did not disappoint.

"These were marvelous Olympic Games in the Marvelous City," Bach said. "History will talk about the Rio de Janeiro before — and a much better Rio de Janeiro after the Olympic Games."

Even as President Bach was celebrating all his organization had done for Rio, about 15 miles from the Maracanã, a celebration of another sort was underway. The site was Vila Autódromo. It used to be a neighborhood of more than five hundred families. Now it’s an outpost of 20 small, identical houses. Theresa Williamson was there.

"Their doors were open in these 20 new homes," Williamson says, "and people were out flowing into the street. And people were serving food — things like barbecue, and rice and beans, and stew, and kind of Brazilian fare, and there was music playing."

Williamson, a city planner, is the Executive Director of Catalytic Communities. For years her organization has been providing support to residents of Rio’s favelas, the neighborhoods built over generations by thousands of the city’s workers. Some of the favelas are dilapidated and dangerous. Others are vibrant and welcoming. Vila Autódromo was one of the latter.

On that August day over a year ago, when the people in Vila Autódromo had had their fill of rice and beans and music, many of them began marching toward the Olympic Park. They carried with them a message:

"It was a 'look what you’ve done' tone to it," Williamson says. "And it was also a 'we’re not going away.'"

Triple Threat: The IOC, Private Developers And Brazilian Authorities

Before the 2016 Games began, while the paint was still drying on some of the Olympic venues, we spoke with people who’d visited Vila Autódromo, located on a lagoon near what became Olympic Park. Well before the games and the 2014 World Cup, developers had coveted that real estate. The two mega-events provided them with the leverage to act.

Last August, I spoke with geographer Chris Gaffney about how that leverage was applied.

"Where you go in and you give money to one person to leave," Gaffney says. "You go in and you destroy their house. You leave the rubble and then their neighbors have their property devalued, because there’s rubble that hasn’t been cleaned, and rats, and you’re living in a place that looks like it was hit by a bomb."

The house of Maria da Penha Macena is demolished on March 8, 2016. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)
The house of Maria da Penha Macena is demolished on March 8, 2016. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Or in this case, a lot of bombs, and some wrecking balls. But at night you couldn’t see the broken stone and piles of garbage the city had stopped collecting, because the city had also stopped turning on the street lights.

How well did those tactics — the result of a powerful partnership between private developers, the IOC and the authorities in Brazil — work? A year after the 2016 Games, it’s a question we can answer, at least as regards that particular favela.

Even before the first bulldozers appeared in Vila Autódromo, the residents fell into several categories: those who accepted, albeit unhappily, the inadequate offers of compensation for their property; those whose homes were seized by means of eminent domain; and the people most determined to resist those outcomes. Members of the third group gathered at the Residents’ Association. It had a headquarters. And on Feb. 24, 2016, a day Theresa Williamson remembers vividly, that headquarters was demolished by developers.

"Right when it happened, there was a sense of, 'It’s over. This is over,'" Williamson says.

"But then, very quickly, it just felt like it took on a non-territorial nature. All of a sudden, Vila Autódromo wasn’t the physical space of the community. It was a movement. Or it was an idea. It was a concept. It was something bigger. And actually by the next day, people had spray painted 'Residents’ Association' on homes all over the community. It was kind of a way of saying, 'You know what? We don’t need that particular physical space.'"

From The Rubble, Resistance Springs Anew

The destruction of homes and public spaces in Vila Autódromo inspired — among those most determined to remain — a greater commitment to resistance.

One of the more vocal resisters was a woman named Maria da Penha.

"She always used to say, 'Not everyone has a price,'" Williamson remembers. "You know, 'I didn’t put my house up for sale, so my house has no price. I’m not interested in moving. So, why is there this assumption that everything can be bought and sold?'"

For 20 families, that rallying cry worked. Though they could not prevent the bulldozers from leveling their homes, they would not agree to leave Vila Autódromo. For those families, the state ended up building 20 white houses in the empty space where there had been a thriving community.

"They almost felt like little suburban U.S. lots on a kind of cul-de-sac," Williamson says. "But they were small."

And they were all the same, until one family put a barber chair in front of their house and offered the other residents haircuts. And until another family added a ramp to their home. Necessity and imagination bred more innovations.

That tiny neighborhood — the remains of Vila Autódromo — was where the counter-closing ceremonies march began. But by the time it happened, the spirit that had animated the favela had been transplanted. As had Heloisa Helena, a practitioner of Candomblé, a religion based on African beliefs and rituals. Helena wasn’t at the party in the neighborhood of the 20 homes. Maybe it was too hard for her to come back to the site of Vila Autódromo, because of the home she’d once owned there.

Heloisa Helena was displaced from Vila Autódromo and its lagoon, which was central to her Candomblé rituals. (CatComm | RioOnWatch)
Heloisa Helena was displaced from Vila Autódromo and its lagoon, which was central to her Candomblé rituals. (CatComm | RioOnWatch)

"There were several rooms," Williamson says. "A kitchen. There was a garden all around it, where she planted special trees — some of them were medicinal or had religious purposes for the rituals she would carry out. She had animals. Dogs. You know, cats. I believe turtles. And you would go around the back, and there were a couple of rooms that she had allowed people to come and live, who were needing homes in the community."

Heloisa Helena’s home also had the ingredient most important in real estate: location, location, location. Her house abutted the lagoon, which was central to her rituals.

"People would come from other parts of Rio to get support from her," Williamson says. "That home was incredibly sacred to her. It was a lot more than a physical dwelling."

The home was an impediment to the IOC and the developers who wanted to gentrify the area. So they pressured Heloisa Helena to leave. She says the pressure included death threats.

"So I saw her when she was really feeling at her worst," Williamson says. "She was shaking and clearly disturbed by what she was experiencing from the city. And we wanted to do whatever we could to expose that."

"So she’s been pushed, essentially, to the urban fringes. That’s what she was able to afford to buy with the compensation that would meet her needs."

Specifically, Helena has been pushed 60-90 minutes from the life she had built for herself, the life with which she had comforted others.

Helena began writing about what had happened to her for a website managed by Theresa Williamson. It helped to tell her story. And that story felt familiar to many of those who read it. Like Helena, they were living far from family, friends and work.

Some of the former residents were placed in public housing not far from Vila Autódromo. It was substandard, and unlike their previous neighborhood, it was not of their making. They and their parents and their grandparents hadn’t built it. But their displacement, and the displacement of roughly 70,000 additional Brazilians, is only part of what the Olympics wrought.

Footing The Bill For Empty Promises

Gaffney, with whom we recently reconnected, has been studying the impact of mega-events on host cities, including Rio, for more than 10 years.

"I was in Rio for the Olympics," Gaffney says. "I spent 10 weeks there, before the games and during the games, and a little bit of follow-up."

"Is the situation better or worse than you anticipated it would be?" I ask.

"That’s a really hard question for me to answer, because I was pretty negative before," Gaffney says. "And it’s worse than I thought."

"All of a sudden, Vila Autódromo wasn’t the physical space of the community. It was a movement. Or it was an idea. It was a concept. It was something bigger."

Theresa Williamson

Gaffney says that the games exceeded projected costs by more than a $1.5 billion. And it’s not the IOC that picks up the tab. It’s the people of Brazil. That sad truth was reinforced after the games when Carlos Nuzman, the head of Rio 2016, traveled to Switzerland to ask the IOC for around $40 million to help cover the shortfall. The answer was "No."

But what about the improvements the games were supposed to bring to Rio?

"What we saw in terms of 'legacy' benefits were that the bay was not cleaned up," Gaffney says. "There was very little improvement to the water quality in the city. There was no improvement to the sewage capacity of the city, and we saw vast areas of public land being opened up for real estate speculation, instead of solving the problems of homelessness and gentrification that the city was experiencing."

There were some improvements to parts of the public transportation system, but most of them were of minimal benefit to the poorest citizens of Rio. And because hosting the games further burdened Brazil’s sinking economy, even some of what was in good shape before the Olympics has deteriorated. Daily tours to the Maracanã, where those closing ceremonies took place, have been suspended. The facility is in what CNN described as "a state of decay." The stadium’s power was cut off months ago. Nobody had paid the electric bill.

The Legacy Of Vila Autódromo

But out of the displacement and despair, a new energy has been born. Heloisa Helena has moved beyond writing about her personal loss. She has spoken before the Human Rights Commission of the Brazilian Senate. As Theresa Williamson has put it, Helena has "found her voice." And she’s not the only one.

"Yeah, the people who stayed in Vila Autódromo, they were the ones that resisted the hardest," Williamson says. "They were the ones who didn’t negotiate with the city at any point in the long five-, six-year battle. And so they’ve really taken on this personality, this characteristic of being a resistance zone."

They’ve even established the open-air Eviction Museum, which features such artifacts as the barricade the residents built to prevent traffic through the neighborhood during the games.

These days, the remaining residents of Vila Autódromo welcome tourists and tell them stories of resistance. They have inspired their fellow citizens in other favelas to embrace their rights and fight for the land they’ve made their own.

"It’s amazing how the community has kept itself very much on mission," Williamson says. "Even a year, almost, after the Olympics, just keeping the memory alive of the community, of its resistance and also the message of hope."

Perhaps that’s the ultimate legacy of the Rio Olympics. A vulnerable people, fed lies about the improvements the games would bring and then forced from their homes, has figured out how to regard themselves not as victims, but as champions.

This segment aired on July 22, 2017.


Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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