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World

Brazilian favela swaps poverty for wealth

Once ruled by drugs and violence, Rio de Janeiro's slum district Vidigal is becoming a trendy place to live. This has led to rising prices, causing some of the poor residents to move out.

A narrow, dark passage leads to Glenda Melo's "house," which is what the young Brazilian woman calls the 35-square-meter (377-square-foot) dwelling she inhabits together with her parents and brother. It consists of a living room, kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms and a small foyer. The small, cramped rooms only allow a person to take two steps in any direction. The fridge obstructs half of the doorway. The whole bathroom serves as a shower cubicle. The view from the window is the neighbors' laundry hanging on the line.

Melo is proud to show others around the dwelling. She feels good here. The only thing that bothers her today is the dirty dishes. "I had no time to clean up," she says apologetically. Then she smiles and invites me to sit down on the couch.

Three months ago, a different guest sat on this couch in the small living room, which receives no daylight because its metal-grilled window looks out onto a dark inner courtyard. The guest was a man from Sao Paulo. He walked through the favela - a Brazilian term for a slum neighborhood - and knocked on doors. He offered Melo's mother 140,000 reals (45,000 euros or $63,000) for the house.

Hot property

Glenda Melo (Photo: DW/G. Hamann)

Melo has always lived in Vidigal

The man from Sao Paulo is not the only one who wants to own a piece of land in Vidigal, which occupies the foot of a coastal hill in Rio de Janeiro. At the very top of the hill, where the view of the famous Ipanema beach is the most spectacular, a hotel with luxury suites is currently being constructed. Tourists have already been flocking to the area's many hostels for years. And, according to Brazilian magazine "Extra," even British star soccer player David Beckham showed interest in buying land there, although this has not been officially confirmed.

Melo would like to stay in Vidigal; it is where she grew up. The 24-year-old has finished university and dreams of an independent life - moving out and not having to sleep on the mattress next to her brother anymore. But she cannot afford an apartment in Vidigal. "I have no choice," she says. "I have to live with my parents until the prices are affordable again."

Rising value, rising prices

This story seems unbelievable given that just a few years ago Vidigal was a no-go zone. As one of Rio de Janeiro's poorest districts, it had the image of a rough and dangerous place in the media. Before the city authorities deployed special police units in the favelas, districts like Vidigal were ruled by drug dealers. Thanks to regular police patrols since January 2012, more people feel safe enough to venture into the slums.

According to statistics published by Sao Paulo's Data Popular Institute, around 12 million Brazilians live in slum districts - around 6 percent of the country's population. A recent article in online newspaper "Brasil Post" pointed out that the number of Brazil's favela dwellers is large enough for form the fifth-biggest state in the country.

Concerns about the future

Ocean view in Vidigal

The favela's great views have made it appealing to outsiders

With 10,000 residents, Vidigal is a relatively small favela. Its size, the views that it offers and its unique charm have made it a popular place.

"We are happy about each visitor to Vidigal," said Marcelo da Silva, chairman of the local residents' association. But the district's popularity has also created a problem. "Many can't afford to live here anymore," he added. "Their rent prices go up and they are forced to move out."

Some locals receive good monetary offers in exchange for their property and decide to sell immediately. However, with Rio de Janeiro's sharply rising real estate prices, the money is often only enough for a house in an outlying, even poorer suburb.

"We're trying to make people realize that money isn't everything," said Da Silva, who has initiated a row of discussions titled "Talk Vidigal." This involves the district's residents getting together on four evenings to talk about the problems associated with rising prices and new, wealthy neighbors. Over 200 people showed up to the two meetings that have already taken place.

The type of transformation happening in Vidigal is known as gentrification: wealthier residents replacing poorer ones in an urban community. It is an old phenomenon that has also been observed in cities like Berlin, New York and London. But apart from the resulting high prices, Da Silva is also worried about his district "losing its identity."

A mansion in Vidigal (Photo: DW/G. Hamann)

Luxury real estate is appearing all over Vidigal

Luxury pushing out poverty

The gentrification process is very visible in Vidigal - particularly in the street that begins in front of Melo's house. Burnt-out cars and unrendered walls are suddenly replaced by an imposing white mansion with a glass balcony. Walking even further, a fence and high walls protecting expensive properties obscure the ocean view.

A parallel society has established itself in the middle of the favela. In Melo's opinion, the best example of this is the local nightlife. Every weekend, Vidigal transforms itself into a popular going-out district. Tourists and wealthy locals go to the top of the hill to have fun and celebrate. Melo and her friends do not take part as "the entry fee for these parties is far too expensive." Apart from that, she doesn't know anybody there as nearly all of the revelers come from somewhere else.

Rio de Janeiro is booming. The FIFA World Cup,

which Brazil is hosting in 2014

, is just around the corner and Brazil's politicians are promising an economic boost as a result. Melo says she has not seen much of that yet, but she has just read something about property speculation and feels confident about the future for a different reason. "This will all go by," she explains. "It can take several years, but I can wait."

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