Finding “o Contorno”

Friday, July 18, 2014
10:00 am-2:00 pm
Warm and sunny

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This morning, Tamara and I headed towards the “Contorno,” the inner ring of Belo Horizonte. The city was traced at the end of the 1800’s following the typical European grid layout, but also incorporated wide diagonals crossing the straight grid while connecting emblematic spaces, parks, and crossing the inner loop relying on overpasses. Walking along the “contorno” might offer a general perspective of the city and allow us to trace center-periphery, inner-outer differences. Since the grid of Belo Horizonte seems to be so structured and systematic, we need to find “some sort of system” to guide our first expedition.

We headed through the park, “Parque Municipal Américo Renné Gianne,” and it only took us 2 minutes to start being followed by a middle-aged [homeless?] man. He spoke Portuguese too fast for us to understand what he was saying but still he was very persistent. He smelled like alcohol and was clearly asking for money. The only word I could follow was “almoçar,” similar to the Spanish “almorzar” – to have lunch. He followed us for a long time, and I was stricken by his insistence and the way he kept grabbing my arm; a practice that would be unheard of in Chile, less so in NYC. After crossing the entire park, we were able get him lost. Tamara said: “It took you less than 2 minutes to pick up a boyfriend!” – To what I replied: “no lipstick tomorrow!”

The park is very green, with lots of huge trees, exuberant plants, and colorful flowers. I remember a small lake and some kind of fair with rides for kids. There was a small cart with polaroids hanging; a man was offering photography services; he had a small plastic pony for kids to pose for the camera. Our concern for escaping our new friend made us lose our sense of direction, and we ended up taking the “contorno” in the opposite direction to the course we had intended. It was hard to keep our sense of direction as we navigated the city, partly because of the diagonal avenues, the capricious geography of Belo Horizonte, and partly because many streets do not have their names signaled.

Soon after we reached the highway, we passed by a bus stop. A woman was holding a notebook where I could read many numbers handwritten with blue ink. I guessed she was counting buses or timing them somehow, similarly to what “sapos” – “frogs” do in Santiago, perhaps. An old man was making beats with his hand hitting a metal pole, making a really nice sound. He was wearing two metal rings, making a noise that reverberated inside the hollow metal pole. We asked him to play for us so I could record the sound with my phone. He seemed to be shy and I did not pressed “record” on time, wasting our first sound opportunity. He soon jumped on a bus and a young guy asked us for directions, which seemed funny since we looked like total foreigners displaying our cameras and maps.

We walked by a tall, beautiful tree, trapped in-between a tall, solid wall. The wall seemed to be built purposely avoiding the tree, making an U-shape around it. We also walked by a small bar-restaurant with a sidewalk café in front of the highway, which seemed pretty desolate; white plastic tables were facing the heavy traffic. We also saw many interesting modernist buildings, displaying a lot of concrete and clean geometrical shapes. Different time periods seem to overlap in a any frame of the city landscape; in between the modernist architecture, many strange postmodern buildings emerge. These newer machine-like structures [apparently from the 1980’s and 90’s] are distinguished by the use of a pastiche of materials and colors.

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We walked underneath several bridges and underpasses covered with graffiti. In the middle of the highway, there was a wide ditch covered with concrete beams. We could not see from the sidewalk what it was: “is it a highway? – Oh, NO! It’s a river!!! Poor, constrained river seemed to be trapped in between concrete walls, in the middle of a highway; it reminded me of the Mapocho River in Santiago, at a much smaller scale. We have later found out that there are many hidden rivers in Belo Horizonte, and some of them have been covered relatively recently.

The loud traffic noise suddenly faded out as soon as we encountered a new bike lane under construction and a huge, new-looking shopping center. We could see many long pedestrian overpasses connecting the inner and outer city, and the spectacle of long bridges in front of us. After zig-zag walking long overpasses, we approached a subway station. A neighborhood map in the station allowed us to locate ourselves: only at that point we realized that we had walked in the opposite direction we had intended, towards the outer neighborhoods of Belo Horizonte. These overpasses, reminded my of the “pasarelas” crossing urban highways in Santiago. It made me think how architects and planners are always drawing highways on paper – or a screen – focusing exclusively on connectivity and functionality, without paying attention to the ways these elements impact the lives of residents in very concrete ways. How long does it take to walk across those extensive, long overpasses? Do they invoke fear at night or when empty?

We approached an area that seemed to be like an informal settlement, clearly some kind of self-construction, erected by city residents without much technical or professional guidance. Small and modest houses are built out of brick and some of them are painted with colorful colors. Despite the modesty of the dwellings, all of them display satellite dishes hanging from their façades. I was also surprised by the enormous amounts of cables taking over the landscape. Probably in these informal settlements most people are “colgados;” they illegally “hang” from the electric matrix, avoiding paying electricity utility bills. Posts and cables constitute an important element of the urban landscape; we forget about these elements while living in cities of the global north.

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Garbage is a continuously present element in public space; you can find piles of garbage in empty lots and residual spaces, as well as on sidewalks everywhere. We also found in this area a couple of huge, empty buildings, some kind of urban ruins. What is the purpose of keeping those structures empty? What use were they given before becoming abandoned?

Some images show many different layers of times and social classes compacted in one frame: the profile of the surrounding mountains, empty buildings, new slick buildings, walls, palm trees and garbage piles laying on the sidewalk. These images illustrate the contradictions present in this city we are now discovering. Side by side, you can find a huge shopping mall, highways, overpasses, and informal barrios. Other images depict improvised constructive solutions, satellite dishes, webs of electric cables, and clothes drying under the sun.

Documenting small details of the urban landscape allows me to make visible invisible materializations of people and social processes. These material traces reminds me of Hekman’s notion of “disclosures” (2010). For Hekman, disclosure is the process through which a reality shows itself or comes to light. Different perspectives, concepts, or theories might disclose different aspects of a unique reality. Disclosures allow us to access the world; by following the material effects of social processes in the urban realm, we might better understand urban-social phenomena and unearth different aspects of a reality.

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Since we had lost our intended route, we continued going towards Santa Tereza, a neighborhood marked in our map as an area one of “gastronomic interest.” Maps don’t tell us a clue about the geography of a neighborhood, I thought, while suddenly facing a steep, uphill street, which we had to walk in order to reach a park named “Praça Duque de Caixas.” This undulating geography reminds me of one of my favorite cities: Valparaíso, and old port extending over the hills like an amphitheater, looking towards the Pacific coast of central Chile. Santa Tereza seemed very lively, with lots of small stores and restaurants, and many people were out on the street. We entered a bar, “Bar do Walter,” and sat down to take a break and drink a shared “Antartica.” The owner was very nice; he asked us where were we from – “Chile,” we both replied, since it was too complex to explain Chile and New York–Poland. He asked us if we had visited “Ouro Preto” – “We just arrived 2 days ago, I tried to explain in half Portuguese, half Spanish. He started talking about Ouro Preto and brought a small photo book of Diamantina, his city of birth, pointing out to the important icons of this Patrimony of the Humanity. A younger guy brought us a flier for a party and told us we should come back to dance “forro.” We kept commenting how welcoming people are in Belo Horizonte!

We stayed at the bar for a bit and visited the “sanitario” – toilet, which was decorated with images of artists – like Frida Kalho and Andy Walhor, among others. The bar was decorated with newspaper clippings, a Brazilian flag, and a few other images of famous people. After 30 minutes or so, we continued our walk, heading towards the “Praça.” The park had many tall trees and a beautiful church. There was a school by one of its corner and many kids were entering and leaving the building. Walking on “Rua Salinas” should take us straight to the “contorno,” and perhaps we could finally find it.

While walking downhill along “Rua Salinas,” I noticed a widespread use of different security dispositives: sophisticated barb wires and electrified fences signaling: “Perigo! Risco de Corte” – Danger! Risk of electrocution.” While I had previously heard of this phenomenon, I was still surprised to see how widespread electronic fences are in this apparently middle class neighborhood. Many houses had sophisticated electrified fences, warning signs, and tall gates to protect their private space from the street.

We found some very effective graffiti with social content, with slogans such as: “O consumo te consume” – “Consumism consumes you” and “e se nós perdêssemos essa espécie de medo que nos suaviza INUTILMENTE?” – “What if we lose the fear that softens us USESSLY?” We also saw many tags everywhere.

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Walking downhill, we could see layers of different times and types of architecture, with electric cables always intervening the landscape. Among these layers of buildings, we saw the tall towers of a yellow church ahead of us. The street was very steep, and somehow we managed to lose our way again. There was a moment of confusion. The street names we could spot were not found on the map and vice versa. In one intersection, two street signs with the same name made it more confusing: Rua Azurita crossing “Rua Azurita”…! The lack of regularity of peripheral streets is much harder to navigate than the city center. In the midst of all this confusion, a guy approached us to ask where “Rua Mendez” was! – He must have been extremely confused in order to ask us! Finally, after reaching “Rua Raul Mendez,” we could finally make it to the famous “contorno,” only 3 hours or so after the beginning of our journey.

While walking Belo Horizonte, a feeling of familiarity prevails. Getting lost does not make us feel unsafe or insecure. An idea that lingers in my mind is the proximity of other bodies while traveling the city. For example, the way a homeless man kept touching my arm in order to grab my attention. Today [Sunday night], we were seating at a sidewalk café with Tamara, Francisca, Jo, her friend, and little Gabriel. Gabriel was sitting on his mothers’ lap, and one of the waiters walked by and made a gesture of affection by petting the kid’s head (but he did not seem to know her). This would never happen in NYC and most likely, not in Santiago!

Music is always present in the street. On Saturday afternoon, we headed towards Mercado Central, taking a break from our work at the studio. As soon as we crossed the street, we found a gathering of people around a stage where young kids were singing Hip Hop songs. The scene seemed to be something like an “open microphone” and there were many people of different ages gathered around the stage. A few blocks past this scene, we found another street party; there were huge speakers sitting in the middle of street and two men (one in his 20’s and the second one much older) dancing to funk music. They seemed very talented dancers, skillfully and coordinately dancing a choreography. An older man was dancing by himself, near the huge speakers. Many people were standing around, watching from the sidewalk. Some of them casually joined the dance party. My first thought was: “They are probably doing this show to ask for money” – similarly to the spectacles we usually see in New York subway stations and trains. But NO, they were just dancing for the fun of it!  Later we were told that they do this performance every Saturday afternoon!

Every night we hear music in our apartment, coming from the street. We haven’t been able to exactly pinpoint where the party is taking place; we think it comes from the park in front of the train station nearby. Does people really party every night in Belo Horizonte?

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