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