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Crime, Pollution Crisis : In Rio, It's Beauty Vs. Urban Beast

February 26, 1987|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — Post card from Rio: "Copacabana Beach, with its glistening sunbathers and glittering high-rise apartments, is as breathtaking a sight as ever. Wish you were here."

Maybe not. Over the years, while post card-pretty Rio has basked in its sparkling image, a more somber city has taken shape in the shadows. The other Rio is a welter of urban crowding, spreading poverty, crime, pollution and confusion.

Greater Rio's population has burgeoned to an estimated 10.5 million today from 4.5 million in 1960, making it one of the most populous metropolitan centers in Latin America.

Typical of Megacities

Rio's urban problems have become typical of those faced by other struggling megacities in developing countries. What is especially sad here is that the urban beast threatens to overshadow the uncommon beauty.

"The city is being brutally destroyed," said Carlos Nelson Ferreira dos Santos, an urbanologist who has lived here most of his life. "It makes me very sad to see it being consumed as it is."

Migration from rural areas, lack of public resources and bad management are all to blame, said Dos Santos, who is research director for the private Brazilian Institute of Municipal Administration.

"It is an enormous city with few resources, and like everything in Brazil, very badly managed," he told an interviewer.

'Calcutta Syndrome'

Dos Santos and others warn that if Rio's deterioration is not checked, the city could fall into a hopeless "Calcutta syndrome" of urban pandemonium.

For most of the 19th Century, while Brazil was the New World's only monarchy, Rio de Janeiro was the imperial capital. Then it was the capital of the republic, from the end of Dom Pedro II's reign in 1889 until the national government moved inland to Brasilia in 1960.

Some analysts date Rio's decline from that year. They say the city lost the benefits accorded the capital by the national government but never learned to look out for itself.

Nevertheless, "the Marvelous City," as the people of Rio call it, still has many marvels.

The natural setting is as spectacular as ever. The city faces Guanabara Bay, an island-studded natural harbor, and spreads south along a graceful string of sandy beaches--Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, Gavea, Sao Conrado, Barra de Tijuca.

Huge granite outcroppings like Sugarloaf and Corcovado give scenic majesty to green hills and mountains that rise steeply within and behind the city. Even the hillside favelas, or shantytowns, seem picturesque from a distance.

The people of Rio--Cariocas--speak Portuguese with a soft lilt that seems to rustle like palms in a gentle breeze. They are famous for their easygoing, fun-loving and urbane ways.

Rio cultivates its reputation as a tourist mecca and jet-set hangout. It works hard to stay on the leading edge of Brazilian culture, setting trends in music, fashion, art and theater.

In a country where the pre-Lenten carnival is a popular cult, Rio stages incomparable extravaganzas of dancing, delirium and debauchery.

Poverty Is Rampant

Mauricio Azedo, secretary of social development for Rio de Janeiro, said he is not worried about the "soul of the city," its warm and vibrant personality.

"Rio preserves the essence of what characterizes the city--cordiality, good humor, optimism," Azedo said. But he is concerned about the degradation of the urban environment.

"Sometimes I ask myself if this city is governable anymore," he said.

Azedo and other officials estimate that 2 million or more of greater Rio's residents live in favelas and other makeshift shantytowns that have few conveniences such as sewers and running water. They say at least 10,000 others live on the street, without even a shack for shelter.

"One of the things that you see in Rio de Janeiro is an increase in poverty, in the number of poor people," Azedo said. "And they are isolated from the rich."

Feeling Besieged

Members of Rio's moneyed minority are finding refuge from the city's rough edges in heavily guarded apartment buildings and high-walled houses.

"The rich are building their forts with their security systems," Azedo said. "They run the risk of being besieged by the misery and poverty that is created and increased by social injustice."

Many Rio residents, rich and poor, already feel as though they were under siege. Muggings, burglaries and holdups have reached epidemic proportions in many parts of the city.

In beachside Copacabana and Ipanema, muggings are so common that hotel doormen warn tourists not to venture into the streets or beaches with handbags or jewelry. The U.S. Consulate receives several calls a week from American tourists who have been mugged, often at knifepoint.

Growing Crime

A foreign diplomat said crime has grown noticeably worse in the four years he has lived here.

"When we first got here, street crime was purse snatchings," he said. "Nobody got hurt. There is much more crime now where people are armed."

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