When at the end of last year, Belo Horizonte’s [en] City Hall published a decree banning events of any nature from taking place at one of the most popular squares in the city, it was certainly not expecting to bring “beach life” to a Brazilian inland mountain town.
Belo Horizonte is the capital city of the state of Minas Gerais [en] in the southeast region of Brazil. Away from the coast, surrounded by mountains, the city has a vibrant cultural life with space for all subcultures and counter-cultures to co-exist and express themselves through various forms of leisurely gatherings and events. Praça da Estação [en] (Station Square) is a popular such venue.
From here, the city was literally born, for this is the site of the old central station, which served as the “port of entry” for people and materials during the construction and early days of Belo Horizonte in the late 19th century. The railroad is still used by those coming from the western and northern parts of the city, and it serves a line going all the way to the coastal city of Vitória, capital of the neighboring state of Espírito Santo. The old station building has been transformed into the Museum of Arts and Crafts bringing tourists to the city center. The large square in front of the station has in recent years been renovated, and even possesses two ground level inviting fountains that can be turned off to accommodate large gatherings. Praça da Estação is also the departing point of Belo Horizonte’s Critical Mass [en] and the main venue for the popular annual festival Arraial de Belô, as well as other live shows and various events that light up the social life of the Belorizontinos. Or was?
Last December in a decree published by the Mayor of the city, the square was condemned to become an empty space on the basis that it was necessary to guarantee public security, keep agglomeration to a minimum and preserve the public patrimony. Immediately, the decision met strong opposition by the citizens, for whom the square is an essential part of the city’s cultural life and who, as tax payers, contributed to its renovation. Bloggers discussed the new law, venturing the possibility of the decree being one step on the path to gentrification, in preparation for the Olympic Games of 2014.
A protest named Vá de Branco (Wear white) was called for January 7, gathering around 50 people who were looking for answers:
Porque a Secretaria de Segurança Patrimonial não propôs um debate com a população sobre a depredação na Praça da Estação?
Porque os eventos foram proibidos na Praça da Estação e não na Praça do Papa?
Porque poucas pessoas entram no Museu de Artes e Ofícios que fica na Praça da Estação?
Qual é o maior espaço central para eventos gratuitos em Belo Horizonte? Quais foram as depredações dos últimos eventos?
Why were the events banned in Station Square and not at the Plaza of the Pope?
Why only few people enter the Museum of Arts and Crafts which is in Station Square?
What is the largest central space for free events in Belo Horizonte? What were the depredations of the recent events?
From this meeting it was first agreed the need for the birth of a grassroots movement free of party affiliations and in favor of free local culture. And from the discussions that followed, a new idea was born: meeting in the square on Saturdays, and bring food, drinks, bikinis/shorts, towels, umbrellas, drums and guitars. In sum, turn the square into the city’s beach. An idea spread through the web’s social networks and put into practice by local citizens.
Ever since, Praia da Estação (Station Beach) became a stopping point in the Saturday routine of urban wanderers. A relaxed, humorous and yet assertive way to protest, an act of civil disobedience that make the delights of street vendors and bars around the square. The fountains, which are usually turned on at 11 am and 5pm sharp, remain strangely shut down on Saturdays, but protestors occasionally gather enough change to get a water-barrel truck to come by and hose the crowd.
Other attempts to agitate ‘Station Beach’were the Eventões or BigEvents, a call for people to bring “events of any nature” to a square where supposedly these had been banned. The Eventões gathered hundreds of people and caused some tension when police intervened to stop people from bringing in sound systems. The first Eventão ended with beach goers moving to the road and blocking traffic for a while, until moving to the also popular Viaduto, only a couple of blocks away from the square, well-known for hosting Belo Horizonte’s MCs Duel every Friday night.
The open blog Praça Livre BH became more than a mere informative of all the beach events. It has also extended its focus to matters of gentrification, evictions and occupations, offering solidarity to other popular movements in Brazil, like that of the students from Florianópolis, fighting for free bus fares. And some beach goers who protest on Saturdays in the coolest manner possible get serious during the week, attending public audiences in city hall. The first one took place on March 24th and in spite of the absence of local power high officials – such as the Mayor Márcio Lacerda, the president of the foundation for local culture Taís Pimentel, the local administration secretary Fernando Cabral, and Belotur’s president (the city’s tourism company) Júlio Pires – protestors could articulate their concerns regarding the uses of public spaces paid by public money, to Ângela Maria Ferreira, the regional cabinet-chief representing the above mentioned officials. They were assured by her that the situation was temporary.
In fact, finally on May 4th, the decree was revoked. But with one twist. Events on the square are now subjected to a minimum tax of R$9000 (USD$4950), which will only allow privately sponsored shows to take place:
Tal medida materializada pelos decretos 13.960 e 13.961 e editada na ultima terça-feira 4 de maio, pretende dar aos espaços públicos o mesmo tratamento dos “salões de festa”, pode?
And indeed, it now appears that the square will be hosting the virtual world cup sponsored by coca-cola company. Food and drink vendors, chemical toilets, big screens, security and the inevitable ticket offices will take over the square, and the discussion around the uses given by City Hall to the square intensifies. Citizens are now wondering if this is the future of their public spaces: controlling who has access at any given time and charge for it.
Essas intervenções se definem por moldes dos velhos projetos característicos de todas as modernas cidades erguidas sob os pressupostos unitários do capitalismo: limpeza de aspecto fundamentalmente classista, projetos infra-estruturais de custos estratosféricos, restauração de pontos turísticos e outros.
Such concerns meet current debates around the function of urban spaces. In anticipation of the next world cup in 2014, hosted by Brazil, and the Olympic Games, coming to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, citizens are now seeing the first signs of gentrifying public policy, imported from abroad as part of a global tendency of power to tighten control over the populations of the world. In Brazil, such concerns have been felt and denounced in various cities, particularly Rio and São Paulo.
Invariavelmente, as olimpíadas dão início a uma blitzkrieg contra pobres e moradores de rua, criando um verdadeiro estado de exceção. Zonas da cidade são praticamente fechadas a quem não tiver ingresso, as ruas são socialmente higienizadas e a polícia passa a agir com truculência animalesca contra os não convidados para a festança de gringo que vamos montar.
So, although there might not be any space in the square for a beach lover’s towel during the coming world cup, the Praça Livre Movement continues the struggle to free public spaces, and asks from its blog, if the new decree will fall like the one it came to revoke. Its implied answer lays in public action and the question becomes: how strong will this movement become and how many more such movements will we see rising in Brazil during the new decade.