Charting the public’s engagement with disaster media

This week in North Philly Notes, Timothy Recuber, author of Consuming Catastrophe, writes about our media-induced empathy for disaster victims, and the problems associated with empathetic hedonism.

From October 4th to October 10th, Hurricane Matthew trudged up the Atlantic coast from Cuba to North Carolina. It killed hundreds in Haiti and caused billions of dollars in damages in the United States. And for several days, it monopolized our attention, elbowing its way into public consciousness alongside the US presidential elections, as news networks provided live coverage in the States while citizen journalists sent shaky, handheld camera footage from locations throughout the Caribbean. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, harrowing tales of rescues mixed together with heart-wrenching stories of loss and earnest appeals to charitable giving on our televisions and computers. Then we began the process of forgetting. Presidential election coverage returned to its absurd heights. War crimes in Yemen took center stage among the foreign news reports. And life for all of us distant spectators of mass-mediated disaster returned to normal.

While this pattern of public engagement with disasters is not surprising, it deserves scrutiny. What does it mean to understand the suffering of others in these ways? How does the increasingly intense and intimate coverage of catastrophes encourage certain kinds of reactions, and discourage others? What sorts of narratives win out when we understand disasters and loss through the succession of powerful yet fleeting mass-mediated experiences, where one disaster and then then next appear and disappear before our eyes? And how are new media technologies altering or reinforcing these patterns?

consuming-catastrophe_smThese were the questions I set out to answer in Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster. I focused on a particularly tumultuous time period in recent American history: the first decade of the twenty first century. From the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, the financial crisis in 2008, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, America was rocked by some of the largest disasters in the country’s history. Yet despite very significant differences in the duration, cost, and amount of lives lost due to these disasters, each followed a fairly similar path through mass-media and public consciousness. Using close reading and discourse analysis of news transcripts, documentary films, reality television programs, and digital archives, I was able to trace out some of the larger cultural norms that emerged during this period.

Chief among these norms is the obligation to show empathy to those directly affected by disasters. In the book, I develop the concept of empathetic hedonism as a way to understand the media-induced pleasure in attempting to imagine what others are feeling, even if those feelings are painful. We are, I argue, increasingly asked to empathize with a whole host of suffering others today. And this certainly can be a good thing. But that empathy often comes at a cost. It is easily focused on individuals and their personal problems, but hard to direct towards structural issues. It is intense but short lived, such that the long aftermath of rebuilding is often ignored. And it works best with spectacular, acute disasters—like hurricanes—rather than long, slow, diffuse disasters—like global climate change, even though the latter has more damaging consequences than anything else. Thus we need to think critically about where and how our attention and emotion is being directed during and after disasters. And as I suggest in Consuming Catastrophe, we need to focus on the less spectacular work of creating a more just society all of the time, not just when disaster strikes.

Rio de Janeiro’s Summer Olympics: Searching for Legacies

This week in North Philly Notes, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, writes about the aftermath of Rio’s summer Olympics.  

The Rio de Janeiro summer Olympic and Para Olympic games ended September l8. Most Brazilians, the media, and Olympic organizers concluded the city of Rio and consequently Brazil had done well by the six week marathon of games and individual competitions. The reputation of Cariocas, the name for residents of Rio, as hospitable, upbeat, generous people with a marked talent for improvisation was reinforced. Furthermore, the second act Para Olympics more than held their own. 2.1 million tickets to Para Olympics events were sold, the second largest number in the history of the games. Enthusiasm for Para Olympics athletes was obvious, a victory lap for greater social inclusion, for anyone with a physical disability.

The run up to the games included many efforts to forsee Olympic legacies. In Rio de Janeiro’s 2009 bid, the Olympics were presented as a spur that would set in motion or speed up completion of several large scale projects. Topping the list was master plan to improve the city’s public transportation and traffic flow. By the start of the games in 2016, there were new BRT corridors, completion of a long planned 4th metro line, and a light rail tram line in downtown Rio connecting the main bus station with the domestic Santos Dumont airport. They added high quality links between international and domestic airports, and Rio’s western and northern suburbs. They finally brought rapid public transit to upscale Barra da Tijuca connecting it to prosperous southern zone neighborhoods of Botafogo, Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. The construction of lengthy tunnels replacing an overhead freeway in the downtown port area allowed its revitalization to proceed as a tranquil zone of new museums and pedestrian leisure. The revitalized port was christened Porto Maravilha suggesting a modern world wonder or marvel. For Mayor Eduardo Paes and Olympic organizers, Porto Maravilha ranked in importance with the upgrades in public transportation as the other main legacy of the Olympics.

Layout 1Clearly, the middle and upper classes benefit from BRTs, the new metro line, and the opening of long downtown tunnels where traffic flow is not interrupted. They reduce travel time, and demonstrate contemporary big city public transportation at its best.  But will new bus and expanded metro service be within reach of low wage workers and their families, many of whom live in favelas, and distant suburbs? They commonly earn the monthly minimum wage of approximately $300. The cost of a month’s travel to and from work taking the BRT and metro has been calculated as 1/3 of a minimum salary.  Without employer paid travel to work, as might be the case in the informal economy, the cost will be too great for someone earning the minimum wage. The job seeker will look for work close to home. Moving beyond work to leisure, the cost of public transportation to and from Porto Maravilha can also be high. This reinforces a tendency of residents of poor communities to stay at home, to turn inward and be more community bound than they might want. Often overlooked is the frugality of Rio’s low wage workers as they budget for basics such as food, clothing, rent and transportation. Perhaps for these reasons, authorities have considered the option of free rides on the new light rail tram that passes through Porto Maravilha. No doubt they felt a need to show good faith in putting its attractions within reach of as many of Rio’s communities as possible, even more so in the midst of hard fought municipal elections.

There are also distinctly negative legacies. One that dogs the reputation of Mayor Eduardo Paes was yet another cycle of removing poor residents, even whole communities, from homes largely built by them. They were moved and their homes demolished in order to make way for new road and Olympics construction. Removal was part of the first remaking the port area between 1902 and 1906 as overseen by then Mayor Pereira Passos. 20,000 individuals were uprooted as their residences were razed. Many resettled in the nearby favela of Providencia. In the early 1960’s, when the federal government moved to Brasília and the city of Rio de Janeiro became the state of Guanabara, its governor Carlos Lacerda removed 30,000 favela residents from areas he saw as belonging to the middle and upper classes. Lacerda also wanted land for building what became the state university of Rio de Janeiro. Lacerda’s uprooted residents were relocated to the then-new Cidade de Deus (City of God), and to Vila Kennedy, a distant suburban community where the cost of building the housing was partly paid for by the United States Alliance for Progress Program. However, these numbers do not approach the estimated 77,000 individuals removed by Mayor Paes.

For most evicted residents, there was new public housing, or the promise of new public housing. But it was away from the communities in which they had lived which in some cases might be entirely eradicated. A 2016 study of the evictions by Lucas Faulhaber and Lena Azevedo, explained how this was done. In the case of the squatter settler without title to the land removal could be relatively easy. The land might be declared an “area of risk,” meaning the state was acting to save lives, an argument not always easy to contest. Where residents had titles, removal was more difficult. Such was the case of Vila Autódromo whose history as a working class community dated to the late 1960’s. A main quality of Vila Autódromo was tranquility, even bucolic tranquility, in densely populated, noisy Rio de Janeiro. Furthermore, it was a stable working class community without drug traffickers, militias, violence or homicides. For good reasons, its residents did not want to leave. Furthermore, they felt secure having been granted a 99-year right to use the land by former Rio Governor Leonel Brizola in 1994. As late as 2010, Vila Autódromo had a population of 4,000. However, Vila Autódromo stood at the designated point of entry into the Olympic Park for athletes, reporters, Olympic officials and visitors.

Mayor Paes was determined to remove the community. He brushed aside the document with a 99-year right to use the land. It was a “papelucho” or piece of paper of a political demagogue. Paes claimed he needed to build access roads through Vila Autódromo to the new Olympic Village. In 2013, a group of urban planners from the two local federal universities developed a plan showing that building access roads was possible without removal, and that under this plan, the cost would be much lower. The plan went on to win the Deutche Bank Urban Age Award. Paes then argued people coming to the Olympic village would feel unsafe at the sight of a Brazilian working class community so near to them. It was a case of visual pollution. Vila Autódromo did not look middle or upper class. Vila Autódromo defenders pointed to its record of safety, without shootouts or drug trafficking gangs. The Mayor’s team continued to pressure people to leave in exchange for an apartment in one of two new public housing projects. As time passed and people continued to stay, large cash indemnities began to be offered. Residents were harassed as water and electricity were turned on and off. Still a dwindling group determined to stay. Heloisa Helena Costa Berto was a poor black woman and candomblé priestess with a small home and ceremonial religious center in Vila Autódromo. She was also intent on staying. Mayor Paes told her he wanted the area “cleaned.” For critics of removal, Berto had become a victim “social cleansing.” She watched her home and center being demolished in February 2016. Then three months later on May 13, the date slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, she received an award from the state legislature “conceded to those who work for the improvement of Afro-descendant, Latin American and Caribbean women of the state of Rio.” In Brazil, many contradictions are on display, or as the local expression has it, “Brazil has these things.” For twenty residents who continued to hold out, the city of Rio was forced to build 20 houses on a small area of what had once been Vila Autódromo.

Perhaps the most unconvincing appropriation of legacy was the illegal and unjustified construction of the Olympic golf course. Golf is an elite, not popular sport in Brazil. A newly built Olympic golf course was partly sold as a contribution to growing its popularity, particularly since the course would be open for a few years to the public. But with green fees of $75, few who are not in the upper middle or upper classes were likely to try golf. Furthermore, Rio de Janeiro already had one private club suitable for international championship golf. But Paes and the local Olympic committee did not pursue this option. Instead, the Rio city council passed a decree in December, 2012 allowing a substantial piece of land to be detached from the Marapendí ecological reserve for building the Olympic golf course. The decree violated Brazilian law in two ways: there were no public hearings, nor was there a required environmental impact study. The transferred land was no longer subject to strict environmental regulations. Without the regulations, it was easier to build nearby luxury high rise condominiums that were the specialty of developer RJZ Cyrela, a large campaign contributor to Mayor Paes. An odor of corruption has overhung the construction of the Olympic golf course from the beginning. Marco Mello, local biologist and environmental activist looking at Olympic area condominium building, and the history of the unnecessary golf course provided his own legacy judgment: “Without a doubt, the Olympics are a great real estate scam.” In the October 2nd election for mayor, Eduardo Paes’ handpicked candidate to succeed him finished badly in third place with 16% of the vote.

Meet Davarian Baldwin, co-editor of the Press’s Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series

This week, in North Philly Notes, a Q&A with Davarian Baldwin, the new editor for Temple University Press’ Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series.

You have written about migration and Black Urban Life. What drew you to that field of study within American studies?
I am the child of the Great Migration. I am the first generation in my family to be born in the north during the Second Great Migration. While many of my family stopped and settled in other cities like Chicago, my segment of the family kept moving on to a smaller town called Beloit, Wisconsin because I think, even though full of factories it, in some ways, reminded them more of their Mississippi home.

10-041 - Trinity - Davarian - Web Feature

10-041 – Trinity – Davarian – Web Feature

Can you talk about the kinds of books you are looking to acquire for the Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series?
I would love to acquire books that make bold arguments while, if historical, work closely with less examined archives. I would love to see books that are both global and local in scope…books that feature the city as a crossroads for different people, ideas, and aspirations all deeply grounded within the details of their urban spaces. I want to see books that don’t look at the city as just the repository for social and historical experience, but understand the built environment as equally influential, as a central actor in the storyline…books that balance their attention on the structure of cities and the agency of human lives. For me, recent books that have some or all of these qualities include Beryl Satter’s Family Properties, Nathan D.B. Connolly’s A World More Concrete, and Andrew Needham’s Power Lines.

What book (or books) made you fall in love with reading and the power of words?
While I write and edit non-fiction academic work, I must be honest and say that fiction has always been my first love. In fact I make sure to read interesting and provocative fiction when I am writing more scholarly work. As a child the books were Beverly Cleary and alternative Star Wars fiction. As a teenager The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon changed my life. The book that has stayed with me and challenged me with its combination of searing social commentary and elegant and witty prose remains Ellison’s Invisible Man. I have built an entire course around this book and I find something new in that novel every time I teach the course. To be sure, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was the next generation version of that book but added a decidedly more urban flavor to Ellison’s racial satire. I think in the more academic realm, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and C.L. R. James Beyond a Boundary have done the same thing for me.

What was the last great book you read?
I am a big fan of science fiction and mystery/police procedurals, especially when the genres are both in the same book…so that makes Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife definitely the last great book I read. For me it sort of offers the prose response to one of my favorite non-fiction urban studies; Mike Davis’ City of Quartz.

What one book would you recommend everyone read?
Again mystery books/procedurals are fabulous because the great ones have amazing social commentary about gender, race, social position, inequality and so many feature the city as a central character in the story. I would recommend everyone read Paco Ignacio Taibo’s Some Clouds.

What book did you find overrated or just disappointing?
Certainly not disappointing, but as a scholar of the Great Migration, I didn’t find anything new or exciting in The Warmth of Other Suns. Yet I certainly appreciated how its prose style made decades of scholarship more accessible to a much wider audience. On the fiction side, I found Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections a bit overrated. 

What book do you wish more people knew about?
Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper, is an unheralded master work, not just because of its inventive prose but because the ideas in the book are expressed in the paper quality, the typeset, and materials used in the making of the very book itself. I wish the publishing market would allow more books to reflect their ideas and themes in the construction of the actual book

What author(s), living or dead, would you be most interested in having over for dinner? WOW, I hate that I don’t cook! Not just because we share the same surname but certainly James Baldwin because of his courageousness, force of nature, ethical posture, faithfulness to everyday people, impatience with pettiness, and all qualities held with flare and wit. I think I would also want to hang out with Steig Larsson…what would it be like to push out a trilogy of prose in the face of your impending death? The courage that must take as a writer when one could easily curl up in a ball

possessive_investment_rev_ed_smWhat Temple University Press title could you not put down and why?
George Lipsitz’s Possessive Investments in Whiteness was certainly from a different time, a time when the mainstream took more seriously the idea that racial identity can in fact shape life chances and access to important resources etc. But while in the 1990’s a whole shelf of books came out in the form of memoirs or celebrations of whiteness, Lipsitz’s was a thoughtful essay so rich in archival depth demonstrating clearly how state power and private wealth have been so closely tethered to white racial identity. Here the idea that race is a social construction did not justify a dismissal of the concept but called for a more rigorous understanding of its social and hence lived power.

Meet Temple University Press’ new acquisitions editor, Ryan Mulligan

This week, in North Philly Notes, a Q&A with our new acquisitions editor, Ryan Mulligan.

You are acquiring books in sociology, criminology, and sports as well as regional titles. What is your affinity for these discipline?
I worked on sociology books in my previous position and found the discipline to be so vibrant and necessary. Sociology places the human faces we see into the contexts that shape them and make them the way they are. Conversely, it also puts real, complex, human faces on the contexts we make assumptions about. So much of academia is rightly concerned with showing the ways the real world resists our assumptions and heuristics, but sociology is extra important because assumptions and heuristics about people can be so dangerous.

This is a great moment to be getting into criminology, as there is so much skepticism and room for questions and answers in law and order today. Criminology has a close relationship with sociology. It has been mostly published by larger publishers and I’m excited about the opportunity to take a more targeted topical approach to specific subfields that merit a tighter focus but have broad implications.

Everyone who knows me knows I love sports and Philadelphia sports in particular. Everyone describes Philadelphia fans as passionate but we are also demanding and informed, which makes us a voracious readers and consumers of perspectives and information. In other words, it’s a great environment in which to be publishing sports books. Beyond my own fandom I’m also excited about the sports list as a publishing opportunity. So much of sports publishing has traditionally been nostalgic and I think there’s a real opportunity, especially for a university press, to publish books that are curious, socially engaged, forward looking, and concerned about how sports arrived at where they are and where they are going. I see so many outlets online serving a broadly interested and educated sports fan and think that shows a readership underserved by many of the sports books on the bookstore shelf.

I’ll especially look to continue Temple University Press’s strengths in urban sociology, criminology, labor studies, social movements, social stratification, and sexuality and gender studies.


What book (or books) made you fall in love with reading and the power of words?
I’m going to go to my childhood with E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. It was interesting, later on, to read White’s indispensable writing guide, The Elements of Style (with William Strunk, Jr.) and see him explicitly outline what had enlivened his writing for me as a child: a charming honesty and understated directness. Ray Bradbury deserves a shout-out, too.

What was the last great book you read? (Can be academic or not)
Just before starting work here on the sports list, I read The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, published last May, a book by two analytics-oriented baseball writers who had the opportunity to take over baseball operations for an independent league baseball team. They describe the victories, defeats, and culture clashes resulting from their attempt to put the strategic consensus of the SABR community in to the game plans of the all-too-real coaches and players that inhabit their would-be sandbox. It underscores how hard it still is to get everyone, whatever their view of baseball, to come to grips with their uncertainty, more than a decade after Moneyball.

What one book would you recommend everyone read?
As long as I’m talking about uncertainty and data, everyone should read Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. The fun of it is reading well-told stories from several fieldsweather, politics, economics, sports, earthquakeson how the best prognosticators make the best predictions. Everyone can learn something about how the best in a field you don’t know find sense within the mountain of information available to them. But the message that I think should resonate for scholars and civilians like myself alike is how the most knowledgeable people are honest with themselves about what they don’t know

What book or author do you wish more people knew about?
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy. This is an intervention in one of those debates where there are two cogent sides but neither approaches the crux of the problem: Leovy shows that whether we institute more policing or less policing, we would benefit from better policing.

What titles might we be surprised to discover on your bookshelf?
Learn to Surf, by James Maclaren. Not really the vibe I give off – maybe because I haven’t been very successful at it.

What author(s), living or dead, would you be most interested in meeting, or having over for dinner?
Shakespeare. There’s a Titus Andronicus joke to be made here, but I can’t quite work my way around to it.

595_regWhat Temple University Press title could you not put down?
If declaring a favorite child is an unwise parenting strategy, choosing a favorite child among the many you just inherited seems doubly fraught, so I’m going to venture outside my own lists here at Temple and choose a great book on Temple’s backlist that I read as an undergrad philosophy student: The Philosophy of Alain Locke, edited by Leonard Harris. Locke’s philosophy provides background and context for the Harlem Renaissance and for so many pride movements to follow.



Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!



Public Security: The Most Important Theme in Rio de Janeiro

In his second Olympic-themed blog entry, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, addresses the theme of public security in Rio during the Games.

Two term Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, who has easily been the most interviewed and quoted public authority for the Rio Olympic games, has said more than once that public security is the most important theme in Rio de Janeiro. For Olympics organizers, a main question always has been will public security forces be able to control Rio de Janeiro’s rising street crime and newly emboldened gangs. A much less publicized question—How can anti-Olympics protesters be repressed without violating their human rights?—has already been answered: It can’t be done. The protesters demonstrate against what they view as public money misused on the Olympics because it is needed much more for health, education and various social programs. There are also protesters—some doubtlessly the same individuals—fighting against the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. They see impeachment now entering its final phase as a coup d’etat by her political party opponents against Brazilian social democracy. Not discussed at all in politically charged Brazil is the fear of sabotage by opponents of the Olympics or the government—such as setting fires in Olympic installations. All of the above are the various public security fears that must haunt an authority such as Minister of Justice Alexander de Moraes. Focused on Brazilian behavior which is what he knows best, Moraes has played down the possibility of foreign ISIL inspired terrorist attacks.

In the lead up to the Olympic games, public security preparations were usually discussed as numbers of police and of funding them. Taking the lead in providing security is the state of Rio with more than 30,000 police available for Olympic duties. However, for most of 2016, the state of Rio has been broke. On June 17, 81 year old vice-governor and economist Francisco Dornelles—acting in the place of Governor Luis Fernando Pezão then undergoing treatment for lymphoma—rattled Olympic organizers when he declared that Rio de Janeiro was in a “state of public calamity.” It was the first time in Brazilian history this designation had been used to describe anything other than a natural disaster. An immediate effect was the return of 50,000 Olympic event tickets. Dornelles also took experts in public administration by surprise. They questioned whether a “state of public calamity” could be applied to a fiscal collapse. But the wily acting governor, a veteran of 30 years of political combat in Rio de Janeiro, got what he wanted. He activated an immediate transfer of 2.9 billion reais, about 900 million dollars at the current exchange rate, from the federal government to Rio de Janeiro. The money was to help strengthen public security at a time when state police forces more and more appeared not up to the job protecting the people of Rio, the athletes, and the half million tourists expected for the Olympics. The transfer meant police and other public service professionals including teachers and health workers could expect to receive their salaries. One or more local gangs took notice and responded by hijacking a truck transporting containers just arrived from Europe. The containers carried the equipment of two German TV networks for transmitting the Olympic games. The truck was later abandoned. The containers had not been opened, and the valuable equipment was untouched and safe. But the gangsters served notice that they had interests of their own. Following this show of strength, some arrangement might be expected whereby organized crime groups will play a part in keeping Rio de Janeiro safe during the Olympics. Retail and wholesale drug trafficking no doubt continues with little interference. Brazil ranks second on the list of countries in consumption of cocaine, and Rio de Janeiro is a major port for the export of cocaine to Africa and Europe.

The police began to receive back salaries dating to May. Still, on July 4, the civil police staged an event at Rio’s international airport when they received passengers with  “Welcome to Hell” English language banners, and with stuffed figures of dead, bloodied police spread on a terminal floor. The message: Police would not die for Rio if they were not being paid. An exasperated Eduardo Paes viewed the spectacle as yet one more public relations disaster. He went on CNN and in an English-language interview pronounced Rio’s public security “Horrible.” He blamed the police, and the Rio state government. He insisted the city government of Rio had nothing to do with public security which is a state responsibility. But he also knew help was on the way. The next day Mayor Paes welcomed the arrival of federal armed forces, federal police, and soldiers of the National Security Force. Together with state police, they are now conspicuously present in order to discourage crime, and reassure visitors that Rio de Janeiro is a safe haven. Accordingly, 51,000 members of security forces have been deployed in metropolitan Rio. 22,000 members of the armed forces and federal police are assigned to protect the Olympic installations, the routes and public transportation taking people to and from the games, and the Tom Jobim international airport. With security apparently well in hand, a much subdued Paes declared on July 5th that the Olympics would surely be a tremendous success and leave a positive legacy for the city of Rio.

Layout 1This optimism lasted a little over two weeks. The evening of July 21 brought news that police were arresting 13 homegrown ISIS inspired would-be terrorists. All were self-indoctrinated converts to Islam. They communicated with each other via social media. Calling themselves “Defenders of Sharia,” they pledged allegiance to ISIS as virtual acts on the internet. One suspect was said to have tried to buy weapons in Paraguay.   Minister of Justice Moraes said the individuals were clearly amateurs, and in the early stage of planning something.

The arrests and revelations clearly added to public uneasiness in Rio de Janeiro, and mobilized authorities. Would Brazilian security forces be up to the job of thwarting one or more terrorist attacks? There was skepticism as can well be imagined. But people soon learned that the project of thwarting had become internationalized. Other countries, including the United States, France, Israel and Russia with their more experienced intelligence services were present for the Olympics and working with Brazilians which brought reassurance. Intelligence and other security agents—no doubt feeling their backs to the wall after all the recent terrorist attacks in different countries—seem absolutely determined to stop terrorists at the Olympics, be they a Brazilian home grown variety, or foreigners infiltrated into Olympic crowds and groups of tourists. It’s them against us. In this spirit of providing safety, wherever crowds of people gather in Rio, there are substantial numbers of well-armed police or other security forces reinforced by plainclothes agents.

Many people in Brazil and elsewhere no doubt believe that terrorist acts cannot be stopped entirely. The Rio Olympics offer a chance to show otherwise at least for a moment when several billion people around the world are watching the games on TV.  Minister of Justice Moraes has lately declared “minimal” and “approaching zero” the probability of a terrorist attack.

Ready or Not: Rio on the Eve of the Olympics

On the ground in Rio, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, reflects on what life is like as the games begin.

For the months leading up to the 2016 summer Olympics games, media reporting has been largely critical of Rio de Janeiro’s, and by extension Brazil’s ability to complete preparations for the mega sports event. This critical viewpoint was shared even by the Brazilian patrician press with perhaps A Folha de São Paulo taking the lead. A stream of reports from inside and outside Brazil focused on delays and mishaps. As late as July 1st,  The New York Times published an article Brazilian journalist Vanessa Barbara about “Brazil’s Olympic Catastrophe.” The article took us into a world of chaos and uncertainties that seemed an inherent part of preparations for the Rio Olympics. Thomas Bach, the German president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said that Brazil was an example of a country that liked to wait until the final hour to complete a big task such as preparations for the Olympics. However, he remained optimistic and sure that the Brazilian hosts would get the job done in time for the opening ceremony August 5.

This was his view just the day after delegations of athletes from several countries, including Brazil itself, refused to occupy their assigned residences saying they were unfit for habitation. They entered apartments where pipes leaked, toilets might not flush, and electric wires were exposed. In fact, only 15 of 31 new high rise apartment buildings in the Olympic Village were ready to receive delegations as of Sunday, July 24 when they opened for occupancy. 630 workers were quickly hired to work around the clock to complete the work by Thursday. This was one more public relations disaster and not to be overcome so quickly. Ministry of Labor inspectors made an unexpected visit. They found that Brazilian labor law was being flouted. Workers had not been hired according to rules of formal sector employment. They were working longer hours than permitted, in one case 23 hours straight, and not enough time was allowed for meals. The Ministry fined the Rio Olympic committee nearly $100,000. Still the work was completed and delegation complaints then turned to praise.

Now in the early 21st century, the port area in downtown Rio is once again a main target of urban renewal. Demolition of an old, dirty elevated freeway, remodeling older buildings and putting up new ones has dramatically changed the area, making it an inviting zone of high interest. For the residents of Rio and visitors, the important lures will be new museums and cultural centers. The Museum of Tomorrow is architecturally the most striking and important structure. Hailed by The Guardian on its inauguration in 2015 as one of the world’s most extraordinary contemporary buildings, it is dedicated to the idea of human and planetary sustainability.

My wife Regina and I decided to see changes in the port area and downtown Rio. We took a ride on the new light rail tramline that circulates between the bus station and the domestic Santos Dumont airport. We could see how in much of the area traversed, the planned renewal has largely been completed and ready to receive tens of thousands tourists who will come to the Olympics. There are Olympics connected projects in the area that are not strictly about sporting events. We got off at the stop on the newly christened Olympic Boulevard where Brazilian graffiti artist Eduardo Kobra is finishing an enormous multicolored mural “We are all one.” The mural celebrates the unity of the human race in five continents, and the search for peace. We wanted to see it, and to see him at work partly because we live in Philadelphia which is a leader in the outdoor mural movement and have become interested in this form of public art. Kobra’s mural is spread over a block long cinderblock wall and occupies about twice as many square feet as the world’s next largest mural. We watched him spray paint areas while standing on a hydraulic lift platform, but there were strong gusts of wind that must have made the work more difficult than usual. He was working from what seemed a color chart. We plan to return to watch again this remarkable work in progress. Kobra is hurrying to complete it by the official opening day of August 5.

We are now in the countdown phase to the opening ceremony—counted in days (now only 3 as this is being written), hours, minutes and seconds. An Olympic media slogan aims for social inclusion “Somos Todos Olímpicos,” or “We are all Olympians,” but a poll published on July 19 showed that 50% of the population was against the 2016 Rio Olympics, 40% in favor, and 10% did not know where they stood. 63% think Brazil will be worse for the Olympics. A certain lack of enthusiasm, even opposition to the games was obviously taken to heart by Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes whose emotional fever chart is always on display. In an interview on August 1st with A Folha de São Paulo. the mayor lamented the fact that Brazilians were in a bad mood due to the hard times (three years of recession),  also the political crisis of impeaching a president, and the endless Operation Carwash investigations of corrupt practices in the highest places of politics and corporate business. He said to the contrary that Brazilians should feel good about the Olympics. Largely by themselves, Brazilians had been able to overcome all the problems and emergencies associated with the games and that similar problems occurred in other summer Olympic games. The IOC was grateful for the way we responded to contingencies, and surprised that Brazilians had such a low opinion of themselves. Paes called it “our complex of being a mongrel people.”As for critical local press reporting, including in A Folha de São Paulo, it had contaminated public opinion when times were so difficult, in effect, turned people against the Olympics. However, looking at Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing urban transformation as spurred by the Olympics, the mayor brightened. He was sure it would be “more profound” than what even had occurred in the famous Barcelona Olympics of 1992 when Barcelona consolidated its reputation as a great cosmopolitan city.


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