Brazil revives graceful colonial neighborhoods Tourists, artists find historic niche

November 21, 1993|By New York Times News Service

SALVADOR, Brazil -- Welcoming patrons to his stylish new restaurant here, Elon Carneiro Coelho's eye was caught one recent evening by the bust of an ancient Greek healer brooding in a wall niche across a narrow cobblestone street.

"My father studied medicine there," he said, waving toward Brazil's first medical school, a decaying neoclassical landmark of Salvador's historic center, the Pelourinho. "But my generation always avoided coming here. Despite the historic buildings, we always saw the Pelourinho as ugly, rundown, dangerous."

But in a turn of the generational wheel, Mr. Coelho returned to the Pelourinho in July to open his Catarina Paraguacu restaurant in a restored colonial-era townhouse.

No risk-taking pioneer, Mr. Coelho is capitalizing on Brazil's growing movement for historic preservation.

In the 1960s, Brazil promoted itself as "The Country of the Future" and turned boldly to its interior wilderness to build Brasilia, a modernistic capital for a young nation. Today, after decades of helter-skelter industrialization, Brazilians are looking to their past, seeking to restore the colonial cores of their coastal cities.

"There has been a big change -- suddenly there is nationwide concern for historic preservation," Ciro Pirondi, president of the Institute of Architects of Brazil, said recently at Sao Paulo's Second International Architecture Biennial. Critics said Brazil's strongest entries included restoration projects for Rio de Janeiro, Sao Luis, Florianopolis and Salvador.

Salvador, a city of red roofs on a bluff overlooking a sparkling blue bay, is the site of the most ambitious project. Galvanized by growing tourism and a conviction that its cultural patrimony is crumbling, the government of Bahia state is investing $30 million to renovate 350 colonial-era buildings in the city's historic center.

Rich resource

For Americans, the Pelourinho, or Pillory Square, is perhaps best known as the setting for "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands," a movie based on the novel by Jorge Amado, a former resident of the Pelourinho, a sloping triangle of cobblestones.

Brazil's fourth-largest city, Salvador has the richest raw material for preservationists: the nation's largest collection of colonial architecture.

When the English Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Salvador was a 71-year-old city that already ranked as a colonial capital. Second only to Lisbon in Portugal's far-flung empire, 18th-century Salvador was the busiest port in the South Atlantic.

But in 1763, the colony's government shifted to Rio, and in the 19th century, Brazil's economic locus shifted to Sao Paulo. By the end of the 19th century, Salvador's moneyed families started to abandon the city's colonial heart, and by the 1920s, it was designated the city's red-light district.

Without maintenance, historic buildings fell to ruin.

"The government had two choices: restore the area, or let people continue living in subhuman conditions, where they risked dying in collapsing buildings," said Adriana Castro, restoration director for the Institute of Artistic and Cultural Heritage, the state agency that is overseeing the renewal of Pelourinho.

One year after the work began, the transformation is startling.

Overhead cobwebs of electrical wires have disappeared underground. Crumbling facades pocked by empty window frames have been replaced with stucco painted in colonial pastels. Backyard outhouses have disappeared as sewer lines have been installed.

In alleys once patrolled by prostitutes and pickpockets, young tourists and Bahians crowd the tables of piano bars and sidewalk cafes.

Some forced to move

In Brazil as elsewhere, historic preservation often means gentrification. Community leaders estimate that as many as 500 people were forced to move.

"If the building was important, they just gave the people living there $300 and said, 'Get a new house,'" said Dimitri Ganzelevitch, a French art dealer who lives there.

But others see an Afro-Brazilian renaissance in a neighborhood that has been a stronghold of black culture. Over the centuries, the Pelourinho has been closely identified with the trajectory of Salvador's black-majority population: in the 18th century as slave market and pillory, in the 19th century as the site of the city's most powerful black church, in the late 20th century as the home of thriving Afro-Brazilian restaurants and reggae-samba music groups.

Several black political and cultural groups have opened offices and boutiques in the Pelourinho.

"I don't think that tourists are 'whitening' Pelourinho," said Joao Jorge Santos Rodrigues, president of Olodum, an Afro-Brazilian drum corps that long lobbied for the neighborhood's renewal. "Restoring our Harlem doesn't mean whitening it."

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