This modern, turbulent and portentous capital, victim of the consequences of an random growth and the serious social and economic distortions common to all large cities of Brazil. About 100 years ago it was just a dusty village, quiet, silent, and lifeless. Previously chosen to accommodate its first constructions and habitants, this almost uninhabited place, fully surrounded by a plenty of splendid blued mountains, with its dry and mostly cold weather, soon started welcoming the first group of public workers who, mistrustfully and fearfully, envisioned that moving from Ouro Preto to a secluded place lost in the map would be nothing more than a crazy adventure.
Assim, dispensando as sangrentas epopéias que deram início à saga de tantas outras capitais brasileiras, a antiga fazendinha de Curral D’El Rey foi transformada em vila por força de decreto e, no lugar de generais e suas tropas belicosas, foram convocadas as primeiras equipes de pacíficos arquitetos, engenheiros e urbanistas. E os canhões, bacamartes e outras armas, que antes erguiam cidades, deram vez às pranchetas, réguas e compassos que traçaram os formatos iniciais do povoado pacato, tranqüilo e acanhado.
So, skipping the bloody contends that took place in the beginning of so many Brazilian capitals, the old little farm named Curral Del Rey was converted into a Village by the force of a decree and, instead of generals and their bellicose troops, the first team of peaceful architects, engineers and urbanists were summoned. Thus, the cannons, blunderbusses and other weapons that used to erect the cities were replaced by drawing boards, rulers and compasses that drew the initial shapes of this peaceful, tranquil and reticent place. Freed from the heavy-duty of heroism of the conquerings, the painful martyrdom of the slavery, or from the extermination of the indigenes, what prevailed around here were the discomfort and the uncertainty of those who frightened amanuensis pulled out from their solid roots in Ouro Preto in order to join other habitants from the farthest dwellings of Minas Gerais who conveyed their provincial habits to the dullness of a unknown place featuring its lucent sky and red soil, and furthermore, infested by scorpions.
Designed for domiciliating about 200 thousand habitants in still quite remote future, the city remained comfortably within the limits of the avenue named Contorno. In the first neighborhoods settled as planned by the so called Directive Plan of the new capital, the plainness of the modest houses with their porches, and plastered with a mix of stone powder and chips of mica that shone in the moonlight, contrasted with the sophistication and the refinement of the neoclassic style of the public buildings. The “Praça da Liberdade” (Square of Liberty) was proudly shown to the visitors as the city’s most precious treasure, besides the striking Municipal Park situated in the noblest area of the city, which used to be at least twice larger and more gorgeous than the current one.
The few riches of the city used to live in sumptuous country-like houses beyond the boundary of the limits of Contorno Avenue. Within its fully forested urban perimeter there were long creeks crossing the city, sustained by uncountable small effluents that used to disembogue immaculate into clear and pure waters of the Arrudas River, by that time, filled with fish.
The few habitants of the emerging city were mostly religious, respectful to the constituted authorities, and austere Government Departments Chiefs living with the thunderstorms of December, ghosts from the cemeteries named Bonfim and Acaba Mundo, no to mention the jeopardizes supposedly embodied by the wind on the back, and “deadly” mix between mill and mango, a plentiful fruit in the orchards of Belo Horizonte. There were uncountable gardens exhaling the sweet and pleasant perfume from the Ladies of the Night, and the streetcars that used to go along the quiet and poorly illuminated streets punctually clanking through the village. In those frightening deep nights, no one of those timid, circumspect, and conservative citizens would be able to envision that, a century later, only a drop in the ocean of the history of the community, a lively and troublous megalopolis with a quite jammed traffic would bury forever that small town in the past surrounded by a sorrowful silence of the millenary mountains, irretrievable dilapidated by a endless maelstrom of growth and progress.
The architectonic design of the new capital had already made its social class stratification clear at the time. The public workers were settled around the administrative area (The sturdiness of “Palácio da Liberdade” feels still quite impressive to everyone), the hard workers and small business owners in neighborhoods such as Barro Preto, Carlos Prates, Santa Efigênia and Floresta, while the rich small farmers were settled in the outskirts. Belo Horizonte was founded in the center area of the state in an area as large as Germany. The transference of the capital from Ouro Preto to the a plain in the Valley of the river named Rio das Velhas was impregnated of the symbology of the end of the century, the monarchy with its stertors, the coffea business surpassing the gold industry activity in the economic field. The reformist blow of the Republic (1889) began shaking the monarchist spirit and the retrogressive rancidity that reigned around the old Vila Rica.
Therefore, Belo Horizonte was founded under the presentiment of a new age. A beginning of a rupture with the past, forging a scenery of modernity that confronted the conservativeness of its first inhabitants. Over the first five years it was called “Cidade de Minas”, and had been inaugurated on December 12th of 1897 cheered by 21 dynamite explosions. The new capital gave a boost to its humble habitants to embrace the cosmopolitanism and, in less than a century its demographic density grew unexpectedly: today, this megalopolis has a population of 2 million people, almost doubled in its surrounding metropolitan area, which encompasses other 40 municipalities.
The capital of Minas Gerais grew with the vocation for the service sector, which’s its main feature, indelibly. After the first world war its economy had a great development in all sectors. The establishment of consumer goods and siderurgy industry (metallurgy of iron and steel) brought about immediate and positive outcomes in terms of its growth as a business center. Its inhabitants began to enjoy a sparkling cultural life with theater plays, concerts, conferences, movie theaters and plastic art exhibitions, and the city opened its arms for newcomers such as Italians, Syrians, Jews and Lebaneses along with their fecund artificers to enrich the developing burst.
Belo Horizonte started its urban architectonic vertical growth in the 30’s. In the lyricism of the nights the concrete and the poesy were joined together. Yet nowadays it prevails the concept of the development that is synonym of skyscrapers and asphalt, embodied by the random building construction as the consequence of the environment-unfriendly real estate industry expansion. The asphaltic mass covered the stone paving called “pé-de-moleque” in Portuguese, which, besides being removable and less polluting, used to typify this city that witnessed the insanity of its administrators mutilating the grandiosity and splendor of the Municipal Park. By that time, Belo Horizonte started living with a more harassing form and its social and economic contradictions. The unbridled growth of the city brought about the uprising of the first slums around its outskirts along with all the grave problems that resulted from the enlargement that has been aggravating over the time. It was the son of a humble teacher from the city of Diamantina, Juscelino Kubitschek who bestowed an international dimension to the city by implementing a daring and impressive architectonic project that had never been carried out in the country before such as the complex of Pampulha.
The mayor nicknamed JK invited his friend, the unknown Oscar Niemeyer to design an aristocratic neighborhood in the city featuring a artificial lake, a casino (currently, The Modern Art Museum), a club named “Iate Tênis Clube”, a restaurant named “Casa do Baile”, the church named “São Francisco de Assis” (featuring painting by Portinari, Gardens of Burle Marx, and sculptures of Ceschiatti), which was promptly considered sacrilegious by the metropolitan archbishop and was excommunicated under a pitiful scandal. By bringing together art and architecture within its masterwork, Niemeyer became a referential of the modern architecture in the end of last millennium, while the people of Belo Horizonte were gifted with the city’s most beautiful landmark.
The uprise of such modernizing mentality started gradually taking the frock coats off from the archaic conservativism still prevailing in the new capital of Minas Gerais: an irrefutable revolution in those moldy customs, freeing the society step by step from uncountable taboos and behavioral boundaries. The peaceful and discreet people of Belo Horizonte were face-to-face with the new choices of the modernity and cosmopolitism offered to them, were learning to live more informally, more relaxed, more sportive and healthier, a vigorous shake that opened space for the manifestation of the youths.
Unveiling a surprising aptitude for the bohemia, the reserved local society gradually began to cultivate new habits, and the cafés, pubs, restaurants and other less respectable enterprises, however not less openly visited. That was life used to be like: go up Bahia Street, and go down the neighborhood named Floresta. Outstanding names such as Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Cyro dos Anjos, Pedro Nava , Abgar Renault, Milton Campos, Gustavo Capanema and, a little later, Fernando Sabino, Hélio Pelegrino, Paulo Mendes Campos, Otto Lara Resende, João Etienne Filho, Murilo Rubião and Henriqueta Lisboa plus many others who built up a fabulous cutural heritage that projected Belo Horizonte as a sparking artistic, literary, political, and juridical center. In the democratic spaces of pubs (true local institution, a kind of extension of domestic environs, in spite of the customary concerning of the people of Minas Gerais regarding family life), the creative excitement of these successive generations of great talents from Belo Horizonte opened the world frontiers for these people ballasted by what had remained from the “Serra do Curral”. These people watched their capital losing the title of Garden City on the day the chainsaws of a insane mayor pitifully ordered the cutting down of splendid, leafy, unforgettable tree-bordered avenues and streets featuring Ficuses that used to render beauty, shadow, and bird singing to the Afonso Pena avenue, the main city’s boulevard.
Today, in the beginning of the new millennium, this monumental metropolis built up by the speedy machines, and by the industrial daring of the cybernetic times barely reminds the remainders of that little village blessed by Our Holy Lady called Boa Viagem. Nevertheless, the ground that 100 years ago sheltered those apprehensive people facing that daring utopia remain alive under the dusty remote memories as in the verses of Paulo Mendes Campos, an extraordinary poet born in the old and bucolic neighborhood name Funcionários: “So I go walking around Belo Horizonte, lamely. One leg steps hard on the actual ground; while the other seeks being supported by the old bedrocks.”
by ÂNGELO PRAZERES and MÁRCIO FAGUNDES