Atlantic Cities

Just How Much Neighborhood Transformation Can You Get From an Art Project?

Since 2005, Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn (“Haas and Hahn”) have organized three large-scale painting projects in Rio de Janeiro’s slums, or favelas. The by now well-known Santa Marta intervention, shown below, covers the facades of 34 homes.


The artists in front of the Santa Marta intervention.

Now, Haas and Hahn want to paint the entire favela of Vila Cruzeiro. That’s hundreds of individual homes. As with previous projects, they plan to go door-to-door asking residents for permission to paint their homes. They’re also working on a flexible design concept that would allow each house a say in colors and patterns.


A before and after visualization of the proposed Vila Cruzeiro intervention.

In their "Return to Rio," the duo hopes to leave behind a visually stunning neighborhood that stimulates the economy and local pride, as well as a fully-trained crew that can self-organize future painting projects. This ambitious goal is fueled by a recent success in Philadelphia. Commissioned by the city and its famed Mural Arts Program, Haas and Hahn employed dozens of local youths to paint the facades of stagnant commercial properties in North Philly. Jane Golden, the executive director of the Mural Arts Program, says she's now inundated with business owners’ requests to be a part of the project. Many of the young painters have also continued working in various community art groups, Golden says.


Favela painters at work

Haas and Hahn’s previous projects in Rio’s favelas have led to similar results. Together they've employed around 30 locals, many of whom have since been able to find jobs as a result, painting or otherwise, according to Hahn. "Even if they become bartenders, we can testify they are dependable workers," he says. The Santa Marta work alone has also attracted plenty of international attention, and tourism.

Nevertheless, stimulating a commercial district in Philadelphia is undeniably different than remaking an entire residential favela community. Charles Heck, a graduate student in geography at Florida International University, has been living and researching in Santa Marta. He estimates that tourism to Santa Marta has improved the incomes of fewer than 100 residents, out of about 6,000 people living there in total.

Heck says many Santa Marta residents have also criticized the project for being just another form of maquiagem (makeup) — or a superficial cleanup of the slums. In advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, similar "makeup" projects have also included "Police Pacification Units" that reside in the favelas full-time, overhead cable cars, and gastronomy tours.

Meanwhile, the more urgent and pervasive problem in Santa Marta is still its inadequate sewage system, which lacks capacity and reach. Residents complain to city officials about inundations regularly.

"They have seen so many projects come and go without addressing the sewage system issue, that many of them are quite jaded about improving the appearance without improving the reality," writes Heck in an email. While Haas and Hahn’s new endeavor is bursting with good intentions, any notion that scaling up the favela painting project would improve living standards for an entire community would be flawed.

Currently, the duo is using Kickstarter to raise $100,000 for employing locals and purchasing supplies. Hahn says if they don’t raise enough funds through Kickstarter, they’ll keep looking for other ways. 

All images courtesy of Favela Painting.

Jenny Xie is a fellow at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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