This Sunday, my host professor and his family gave my family and I a wonderful tour of Recife Antigo. Technically, “Recife Antigo” is a manufactured name designed to market the part of the Bairro Recife located on the island of Recife, which contains the original Dutch settlement from the 17th century. Long abandoned for most of the latter half of the 20th century, it has seen a significant revival, starting in the late 1980s. In 2000, the state of Pernambuco, the Inter-American Development Bank, and various private entities helped create the Porto Digital program, which was designed to foster high technology (e.g., software) innovation in Recife Antigo (the program has since expanded to other areas). In the mid-2000s, an old customs house was rehabilitated into the Paço Alfândega, a major shopping center. More recently, a series of early 20th century warehouse buildings have been rehabilitated into shops and restaurants.
While Recife Antigo contains the original European settlement in Recife, very little exists from the 17th and 18th centuries other than archaeological resources. (A great place to visit for its archaeological interpretation is the first Jewish synagogue established in the New World, located in the middle of the district.) In the later part of the 19th century, much of the downtown was renovated in Beaux Arts, high style buildings, which is largely the appearance this area has today. A few 20th century interventions appear here and there, mostly in the form of Art Moderne buildings and later Modernist style buildings. Many of the buildings are mere shells, missing roofs, but still able to convey their past grandeur and are imminently restorable. Since the late 1980s, quite a few buildings have been rehabilitated and restored.
Since my first visit to Recife Antigo in 2007, I’ve noticed a continual trend toward revitalization, with more people using the area for public events. On Sundays, the area is full of people shopping and visiting museums, including the Museum of Frevo (a traditional dance unique to the area), Caixa Cultural Recife (art museum), and the Museu a Céu Aberto (outdoor archaeological site featuring the original city walls). When I was there today the air resounded with with marching bands practicing for Carnival amid outdoor crafts and food vendors. It was really quite wonderful seeing a public place used and loved by so many Recifenses. (Some of you who read my post from yesterday about the São José neighborhood might be wondering about safety; I can say with confidence that I was not concerned and there were lots of families here with children of all ages.)
What Recife Antigo seems to be missing are residents. For the most part, no one lives here, save for a few artists. This is a core problem of all downtown revitalization projects around the world: no one wants to live in an area that doesn’t have services for residents, such as grocery stores. And grocery stores aren’t going to appear without residents who will shop there. And without sufficient stores and services to serve local needs, people will demand lots of parking, which is often difficult to accommodate in traditional central city areas. Rather than wait for entrepreneurs to open shops, some urban homesteaders have started their own grocery co-ops, owned by the community itself. Some cities provide reduced rent as an incentive to encourage artists to establish live/work loft spaces in downtowns. In the United States, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program offers a “4-Point” approach to downtown revitalization that includes addressing mixed-use and getting people to live downtown.
All in all, it was a nice way to finish a weekend. I will definitely return. (And a last positive note: the girls handled the outing wonderfully without complaint!)