Mega-Cities and Their Discontents
Janice Perlman’s field experience leads to a life’s work
by Martin de Bourmont ’14
Half of all city dwellers in the developing world live in informal housing or squatter settlements, with some of the most well-known—called favelas— in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Few Americans, however, can claim to possess firsthand knowledge of the inhabitants' daily lives and personal struggles. Janice Perlman is one of these few.
On Oct 10, Perlman presented Favela: Four Decades of Research in Rio as part of the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues' Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty series. A major figure in the field of urban planning, Perlman founded the Mega-Cities Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to transform ideas for urban problem-solving into action.
Perlman began studying the migration of rural Brazilians to big cities like Rio de Janeiro as a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1960s. She wanted to know whether or not they succeeded in improving their lives. Not one to neglect the rigors of fieldwork, Perlman visited and eventually began living with favela residents in 1968-69. She remembers this period as "one of the happiest of my life," a time when she felt safe and welcomed by people who took care of her just as they would members of their own families.
Her research would continue for the next four decades, chronicling the struggles, successes and failures of three generations of favela residents, as well as uncovering the complexities of urban politics in Brazil. Although transportation, housing, sanitation and access to education all have improved since Perlman first set foot in Rio, violent crime, linked to the drug trade, greatly increased.
In her lecture, Perlman discussed the growing political savvy of drug traffickers as a major stepping stone in their quest for power and influence. In the late 1960s, Brazil's military dictatorship began imprisoning leftist students and intellectuals in the same prisons as criminals. Together, they traded knowledge and experience: The leftists learned how to live as outlaws while teaching the traffickers Marxist doctrine and more effective methods of organization. And with the end of the Brazilian dictatorship and the liberation of its prisoners came a more powerful, organized and well-armed breed of drug gang.
Perlman also found that many favela residents choose to stay even if they have the means to live elsewhere, as evidenced in her surveys on the subject of prejudice in Brazilian society. Of all the prejudices displayed in Brazilian society, the harshest are against favela residents, regardless of race.
After a lengthy Q&A session, Perlman offered to stay longer to further discuss her work with students and faculty. The audience responded enthusiastically, forming a line around her. Many left the lecture with a newfound appreciation for the singularities of favela life, as well as a better understanding of its implications for urban life around the world.
"It was great to hear in person what she wrote and researched," said Ben West '14, a Latin American studies major. "You really see how fieldwork transformed her. She is in these communities, doing work that will have consequences for billions of people all over the planet."
The Clarke Forum event was co-sponsored by the Bruce R. Andrews Fund; the Student Senate Public Affairs Committee; the Portuguese, policy studies, sociology and Latin American studies departments; the Community Studies Center; and the Center for Sustainability Education.
Upcoming Clarke Forum events:
Oct. 23, 7 p.m.: Stern Center, Great Room
Emancipation Proclamation: Myths and Realities
James Oaks, The City University of New York
Oct. 29, 7 p.m., Stern Center, Great Room
China-India Future Relations
Mark Frazier, New School for Social Research
You can watch a video of Perlman's lecture or previous Clarke Forum events on the Clarke Forum's Web site. Podcasts of numerous college speakers as well as course podcasts also are available via Dickinson’s iTunesU channel.