What it's really like inside Rio's infamous 'City of God'

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL — Cidade de Deus (“City of God”) is one of the most notorious favelas in Rio de Janeiro. It’s also the most well-known, thanks to the 2002 film of the same name that won four Oscars for its depiction of the City of God as it once was: drug-ridden, lawless, and filled with an impossibly large number of guns.

But as I discovered during a recent visit to the City of God, the housing project has changed for the better. It’s still not the safest place in the world (I wouldn’t have walked around with a giant camera around my neck if I hadn’t been accompanied by a well-liked local), but Rio as a whole isn’t all that safe either.

These days, the City of God is a tight-knit, working-class neighbourhood — albeit one that most Rio residents have never set foot in — that’s desperate to shed the reputation of the “City of God” movie.

Built in 1960 by the government, City of God was part of a larger attempt to move favelas (slums, essentially) from the center of Rio to the outskirts. As of 2000, it contained 38,000 people in an area of about half a square mile.

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There are two thing that you notice immediately upon entering: narrow streets and lots of lime green buildings. Seriously, most of the buildings are green.

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My first stop: the home of Carla Siecos, a local journalist who runs an online newspaper for the City of God community. 'I want to show a different reality from the movie...to show the positive side of things' she tells me.

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She lives in one of the original buildings from 1960. It's sturdy and functional -- not unlike an apartment building you might find in, say, New York City.

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The City of God is safer than it used to be because of the arrival of the UPP (police pacification units that drive out drug traffickers) in 2009.

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'I can't imagine being here without it. Five years ago, I couldn't even let my son out to buy bread. There was bread and cocaine sitting next to each other (in the store),' says Siecos.

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In addition to the big concrete structures built in the 1960s, there are plenty of informal homes (and a few horses wandering around for good measure).

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Some don't look that sturdy.

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Others are friendly and festively decorated.

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There's a cultural center ...

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... and a commercial district that was, when I visited in the middle of a weekday, filled with people.

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Ivone Sebbio has been running her ice cream shop for years.

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She also offers a lending library for kids ...

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... who seem to be more interested in the ice cream.

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Kids are out in full force on the City of God streets.

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It's a sign that the neighbourhood is, if not thriving, at least in a somewhat hopeful place. When people feel comfortable enough to be outside, that's a good sign.

Ariel Schwartz/Tech Insider

Ariel Schwartz reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).

Ariel Schwartz/Tech Insider

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