Prominent academic debates around violence in the city most often seem to be concerned with how structural economic and political drivers codify violence into the urban space. To appropriate Harvey’s terminology, with how urbanisation by dispossession – in other words marginalisation – of urban groups contributes to increasing crime rates and gangs-related violence. It is only in recent decades that ‘institutional’ abuse – perpetrated by police forces under the blind eye of the Hobbesian state – as well as more structural forms of selective and – most often – race-based violence are confronted. And yet as a category of analysis of the urban, violence emerges as a causally less linear and more nuanced construct.
Measurability of course is an issue and deserves being questioned. What indicators are taken into account when defining urban violence? What types of data are considered? Who collects them? How are they read and disseminated? The action research conducted in Salvador, as part of the MSc Social Development Practice overseas field trip, has evidenced how municipal – and national – indexes reflecting increasing rates of homicides as related to organised-crime, robbery and drug trafficking overlook important aspects of the realities of violence lived everyday by vulnerable urban communities. Vulnerability on its end also warrant a discussion on methodology. Drawing from the Participatory Action Research (PAR) tradition in urban planning, vulnerability is here understood as socially (re)produced and as related to asset ownership (Moser, 1996; drawing on Sen, 1981) and the capacity to cope with shocks; whether environmental, economic, political or all of these combined.
In this blog series, I undress some reflections on how Salvador, the blackest city of Brazil, epitomises such a nuanced appreciation of how violence is urbanised, that is, how it becomes spatially codified in the city; and in turn is itself an agent of urbanisation. Graffiti is offered as an entry point for the analysis.
Aesthetics of inequality. View of Saramandaia, Salvador, Brazil.
The Bahian capital is a city of contrasts and embodies the clash between the gentrifying force of globalisation as it manifests in the built environment and locally grounded social action reclaiming identity as forgotten history. Identity as ethnicity. Identity as part of the rich African heritage of Brazil and its institutional neglecting. As Kwame Dixon (2016) aptly elucidates in his book Afro-Politics and Civil Society in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, the country abolished legal slavery in 1888, but provided no institutional mechanism to free former slaves from racial discrimination. Almost a hundred years later, when Brazil returned to democracy in the 1980s, burgeoning blocos afros, black social and political movements revendicating Afro-Diasporic consciousness emerged to seek racial justice and equality, to claim their ‘right to the city’ as a right to live and exist in the city.
Despite having one of the oldest and largest black populations of the Americas, Salvador has never elected a black mayor nor has the Bahian State chosen a black governor to date (Dixon, 2016). And, if urban violence seems to follow the racial and spatially confined pattern of poverty in the city, with residents of majority black, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods being more likely to be killed than their better-off, white neighbours (Chaves Viana et al, 2011; Huggings, 2004); institutional memory as well as public opinion as shaped by the media exert more intangible, narrative forms of violence on these vulnerable groups. These narrative forms of dispossessions become activating agents of citizenship and identity revindication from within the city.
“Minha Vida” – My Life. Graffiti in Barra District, Salvador, Brazil.
I wanted to talk about cultural syncretism, I ended up taking about violence…
It would be amiss to document and account for the richness and multitude of cultural manifestations in Salvador without engaging with how these are shaped by violence in the city, and how, in turn, they impinge on it.
A graffiti tour of Ladeira da Preguiça, literally “Slope of Laziness” helped vividly retrace the institutionalisation of racialised violence in Salvador. In the 17th century, the road, which historically connected the port area (cidade baixa) to the upper city (cidade alta), was used by African slaves to carry goods on their shoulders while being shouted at “to move faster” (Moreira, 2018). With the development of more easily accessible routes in modern Salvador, the Ladeira and its people were abandoned by public power. The area, as a result of its narrow streets and vacant warehouses, slowly lent itself to organised crime and, most recently, to drug-trafficking.
In recent years, the stigma of violence and insecurity –which is almost as damaging as violence itself– eventually provided the perfect justification for the municipality to push forward a privatisation project that was meant to regenerate –and gentrify– the area. Local moradores (“residents”), however, joined forces and, in 2013, collectively mobilised to rehabilitate the Ladeira, reconstructing collapsed mansions and painting decaying façades with colourful graffiti referencing the African Diaspora; exposing Brazil’s institutionalised culture of exclusion as a means to call for the city to remember and for reclaiming their housing rights. A vibrant cultural centre was founded by residents themselves, Centro Cultural “Que Ladeira é Essa?”, to breath a culture of resistance through art. By calling attention to Brazil’s rich African heritage, the centre offers classes of capoeira, afro-samba dance and percussions as well as painting and graffiti workshops. Cultural offerings then become an element of aggregation, an instrument for articulating a powerful counter-narrative to deconstruct stereotypes.
To say that civic action is a reaction to violence would be simplistic and necessarily reductionist. Nevertheless, the tradition of survivalism through art and symbolism has permeated the urbanisation of Salvador as emerging from the oppression and structural exclusion of black populations within the city (for a comprehensive analysis of the evolution of Brazilian popular culture read: Assunção, 2003).
Reflecting on causality
On the one hand, local practices of resistance rooted in the syncretism of Salvador’s condemned neighbourhoods are an unapologetic expression of resistance to the stereotyping narrative of the city. A violent narrative of violence; one that lexically and imaginatively reduces majority black-afro-descendant communities to urban realities of degradation, crime, and carencias (“deprivations”) . A narrative that is reminiscent of colonial oppression and a revivified vehicle of neoliberal domination.
Capoeira dancer. Graffiti in Pelourinho.
On the other, it is precisely because of this concatenated cycle of oppression-marginalisation that non-white urban communities find themselves more exposed to violence stemming from their surrounding, built as well as non-built, environments.
In this direction, there is room for critical urban theory to expand its scope to explore how violence – and even more so the fear of it – shapes city making. In fact, if market forces and political discourses are key determining factors in the urbanisation of violence, in its physical as well as narrative manifestations, violence too influences how people (re-)claim the city, how they move inside the city, use collective spaces, build or adapt their houses.
Our co-investigation with local urban collectives and social movements in Salvador has revealed how urban violence and fear thereof shape the social production of urban habitats and community practices around culture, housing, use and production of collective space and mobility. Further considerations and findings from our field trip will be collated in a report produced with our partner, the research group Lugar Comum, and published in the coming autumn.
Assunção, M.R. (2003). “From Slave to Popular Culture: The Formation of Afro-Brazilian Art Forms in Nineteenth-Century Bahia and Rio de Janeiro”. Iberoamericana, Vol.3, No.12, pp.159-176.
Dixon, K. (2016). Afro-Politics and Civil Society in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. University Press of Florida.
Huggings, M.K. (2000). “Urban Violence and Police Privatization in Brazil: Blended Invisibility”, Social Justice, Vol.27, No.2, Issue 80, Criminal Justice and Globalization at the New Millennium (Summer 2000), pp. 113-134.
Manco, T., Lost Art, and Neelon, C. (2005). Graffiti Brasil .Thames & Hudson: London.
Moreira, W (2018). Graffiti Tour, Ladeira da Preguiça. 09/05/2018.
Moser, C.O.N. (1996). “The asset vulnerability framework: Reassessing urban poverty reduction strategies”. World Development, Vol.26, No.1, January 1998, pp.1-19.
Moser, C.O.N. (2004). “Urban Violence and Insecurity: an Introductory Roadmap”. Environment and Urbanization, Vol.16, No.2, October 2004.
Resident. (2018). Interview. Graffiti Tour, Ladeira da Preguiça. 09/05/2018.
Sen, A. (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Federica Risi is the Graduate Teaching Assistant of the MSc Social Development Practice. Herself a DPU graduate from the MSc Environment and Sustainable Development, Federica has experience in participatory action research focused on urban risks. She is also a Research Associate at the Pastoral Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa (PENHA), where she is conducting an investigation on South-South Cooperation between Peru, Brazil and the Horn region.
 Residents reported that identifying as black and “saying you are from the Ladeira, it’s like admitting you are a criminal”, which “[…] stops you to get a job and continue education” (Resident, 09/05/2018).
 Capoeira and Candomblé rituals for example, emerged as practice for African slaves to compensate for the loss of identity (Assunção, 2003, p.160).
 Carnival Blocks.
 In the sense of being publicly perceived as unsafe and rife with violence.
 Where Portuguese ships would arrive to deliver materials and goods, historically, the part of the city dedicated to commercial activities.
 Here, were established the main government offices and churches; also where the aristocracy resided.
 Referring to the end of Portuguese colonial domination and Brazil’s independence in 1822.
 In the October 2004 No.2 Issue Vol.16 of Environment and Urbanization, with the article ‘Urban Violence and Insecurity: an Introductory Roadmap’, Caroline O.N. Moser draws on Galtung to extend the notion of violence as going “beyond situations of overt brutality to include more implicit forms such as exploitation, exclusion, inequality and injustice” (p.6). In this sense “…violence [can be] built into the structure [of society,] …show[ing] up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances” (Galtung, 1969 cited in Moser, 2004, p.6).
 Drawings and writings scribbled or painted through a variety of techniques on public walls; “a vehicle for [the excluded] of the city to assert their existence and self-worth, and to do it loudly” (Manco et al., 2005).