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Wooden tenements that stood at the back of the buildings located from 12 to 44 Rua da Sé. Rio de Janeiro, Mar. 27, 1906. Photo Augusto Malta. Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro

Despite its breathtaking natural beauty, early twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro was a hard city to live in, for a variety of reasons. As a product of accelerated, unplanned growth, downtown Rio was a fascinating but chaotic place. Its narrow, twisting alleys—damp, dirty, and poorly lit—were a permanent breeding grounds for disease. Epidemics were common and traffic was a huge mess.

A good share of the poor lived in collective housing that lacked even basic hygiene. In the tiny patch of land that was downtown Rio, a tangled mass of people, horse-drawn carts, and carriages competed with trolley cars and the first automobiles—the paramount sign of Brazil’s tropical modernity. For many hygienists, enforcing sanitation meant laying avenues, broadening streets to take better advantage of the sun and wind, changing customs, and razing old, unhealthy housing.

As the successor of President Campos Sales, Rodrigues Alves (1902-1906) committed his administration to these ideas, promising sanitation and modernization. Rodrigues Alves chose engineer Francisco Pereira Passos to enforce this urban reform, appointing him mayor of the capital, with discretionary power. The federal government retained power over public health, with Cruz in charge, and also over major works like port modernization and the construction of Central and Mangue avenues. Inaugurated in 1905, Avenida Central (now Rio Branco) became the greatest symbol of the reform.

Drawing inspiration from the nineteenth-century remodeling of Paris by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the Pereira Passos Reform radically altered the face of downtown Rio. In a few short years, a new metropolis rose from the ashes of the old city.

Sumptuous buildings of varied architectural design graced the new avenues; customs considered incompatible with the precepts of public hygiene were banned; new sewer and water supply networks were built, along with new, electric trolley lines; and street lighting was gradually converted from gas to electricity. With the downtown’s new urban outline, traffic could flow smoothly and the city grew in all directions.

Despite these myriad improvements, the reform also had its dark, excluding side. Hundreds of poor homes and tenement buildings were demolished for reasons of hygiene or to make way for the explosion of new thoroughfares. As buildings were razed, those who could afford to do so moved out of downtown and into outlying neighborhoods, while the poor sought shelter on the slopes of the city’s hills, joining the contingent already populating Rio’s emerging favelas. The “frenzy of regenerating pickaxes”—in the words of Brazilian poet Olavo Bilac—was given a different label by the public: “bota-abaixo”—tear it down.