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Rio de Janeiro's favelas find a place on city maps

Tuesday - 1/22/2013, 3:58pm  ET

In this Dec. 28, 2012 photo, a child flies a kite in the Mare shantytown in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The city’s densest neighborhoods, its favelas, or shantytowns blanket entire hillsides, providing most of the city’s affordable housing. Now, those communities are being charted after decades of informality, each route and alley outlined and their names researched. A nonprofit organization run by current and former favela residents called Redes da Mare kick-started the first mapping program in the grouping of favelas known as Mare with a simple but powerful goal: putting their homes on the map, with named streets, zip codes and official addresses. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

JULIANA BARBASSA
Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- Look at most maps of Rio de Janeiro. The beaches are easy to spot, as are the iconic ocean-front neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema. In the middle is a vast forest. What's less identifiable are the blank swaths with no streets, landmarks or other signs of human habitation.

Those spots are in fact some of the city's densest neighborhoods, its favelas, or shantytowns, that blanket entire hillsides. Though they've long provided most of the city's affordable housing, government officials have traditionally considered them eyesores and literally left them off the map, condemning millions to legal invisibility.

Now, those communities are being charted after decades of informality, each route and alley outlined and their names researched. A nonprofit organization run by current and former favela residents called Redes da Mare kick-started the first mapping program in the grouping of communities known as Mare with a simple but powerful goal: putting their homes on the map, with named streets, zip codes and official addresses.

Being left off had meant whole neighborhoods were unable to receive mail at home. It had also blocked people from giving required information on job applications, getting a bank account or telling the police or fire department where to go in an emergency call. Favela residents had to pick up their mail from their neighborhood associations, and entire slums housing a small town's worth of residents had to use the zip code of the closest officially recognized street.

Getting an official address represents a fundamental step toward real citizenship and helps break the stigma and abandonment that has marked communities, said Redes director Eliana Silva. At heart, she said, the effort erases the barriers between the formal city and favela neighborhoods, which house one in five cariocas, as Rio residents are called.

"The right to the city starts with making visible these areas that historically were not on the map," Silva said. "Putting the community on the map says, 'These people exist, they're here, with the same rights as everyone else.'"

Maps aren't simply data culled and presented objectively, said Jason Farman, a University of Maryland professor who researches mapping and digital media. They also represent the perspective of a cartographer, corporation, organization or government.

"For a community to be left off of the map is the equivalent of saying that the community doesn't matter," he said. "It removes a vital part of their identity."

Theoretical debates aside, those who live in Mare are celebrating the practical benefits of the blue-and-white ceramic street signs going up on corners.

The nonprofit used the same methodology as the government's Institute of Geography and Statistics to survey the complex of 16 favelas housing about 130,000 residents. It then produced a slick guide, distributed free to residents, that includes not only street names but the history of the original smaller favelas that make up the community. The guide offers information about the people some streets are named after, while leaving some blank, to be filled in later by residents.

Daniel Remilik, a Mare native, recently watched workers mount a sign on Jose Caetano street, noting that its namesake was a barber who helped newcomers get settled. Remilik had helped the nonprofit group interview locals to figure out street names throughout the sprawling slum, which stretches between two of Rio's main highways and is routinely crisscrossed by young men on motorcycles armed with assault weapons who openly sell drugs.

Remilik said the work taught him a lot about a community he already thought he knew well.

"I love this place, I grew up here," he said. "Seeing it recognized like this, on a map, with street signs, makes me proud. I can look up and think, I helped do this."

Doralice de Freitas, who has lived in Nova Holanda, one of the favelas that make up Mare, said her neighborhood will be like anywhere else in town with the maps and street signs, which are produced in Redes da Mare art classes.

"Before, if we went somewhere we didn't know, we'd have to go asking everyone, 'Do you know where this person lives?'" she said. "Now, we can do it like anyone else, have a street name and a number, look it up on a map, and go."

The favelas' new visibility hasn't come without controversy.

Some cariocas have complained that Google Maps exaggerated the size of favelas, giving them undue prominence while ignoring established residential districts and making the city look like an "agglomeration of shantytowns," reported Rio's biggest newspaper O Globo last year. The city's tourism secretary called the online maps "absurd" and demanded Google modify them.

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