Out of the Zoom

“Most people aren’t so dumb as the tourism office expects them to be…”

Gui, a member of the Left Bloc (Bloco), was kind enough to take us one of the “Worst Tours,” a four-hour walking tour of the parts of the city of Porto that are just outside the zoomed in section on the maps that they give out on the tourist office. It’s definitely great to visit the port, the monuments, the cobblestone streets, and everything else about the city which makes it a major tourist destination but there’s more. The people we are spending our time with here in Porto are of the opinion that the crisis in the country is not only covered up by the official tourist industry but is actually exacerbated by it.

Gui has us meet her in Praça do Marquês and conducts her orientation in front of an abandoned children’s library. She is absolutely overflowing with information and has the energy to utilize it all. The location of the library served to help set the tone for the whole tour. The library, designed by a disciple of famed architect Marques de Silva, was built in the 20th century to be a children’s library. It functioned as such until 2001 when the city hall closed it down. It remained closed until 2012 when the “Occupy” movement here turned it into a community center before they were violently evicted by the police. Afterward the locals organized to reopen the space as a children’s library once more, and brought in unemployed people to run it, but they too were shut down. Officially the plan is to eventually turn the space into a cafe; the sixth on the square.

In order to give us a sense of the social consequences of the economic crisis and corresponding policies here in Portugal, Gui tells us that officially, the exit migration last year was the highest since the 1960’s. This previous high point was during a period when the country was run by the fascist “Estado Novo” (New State) which tortured political prisoners and sent the young men off in droves to fight in wars to maintain control over colonial subjects in revolt. She tells us that for the first time you see elderly people rooting in the garbage. There is something psychologically devastating about this fact. According to Gui, Portuguese are very proud and that poverty is usually much more easily hidden by the people themselves. To fully grasp the enormity of the social catastrophe that is looming, we are told to ponder the phenomenon of mass youth migration on one hand and an elderly population with less and less access to scant resources on the other.

Part of our tour includes a long trek down an unused part of the railroad where we walk past abandoned homes lying in ruin. We are told they are sometimes reoccupied by squatters who are in turn forcibly evicted. We’ve seen these homes from the other side of the river. It’s all visible for anyone who really looks but it is all, as Gui repeatedly says throughout the day, “out of the zoom.” We walk past a sort of fountain which serves as a washing area for locals who can no longer afford to pay the fees that supply water and electricity to their homes. The minimum wage here is less than half that of France but the price of utilities is almost double.

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“We used to be a productive country,” she laments as she gestures to two abandoned factories sitting side by side. They both date from the 1950’s. Here you can see the rapidity of Portugal’s transition into the periphery of Europe. First the de-industrialization and transition to a more “service” economy to now a more and more tourist oriented model. “What we have is an underdeveloping economy.” That is to say, one which is being structurally adjusted to be less robust, less diverse, and less socially useful even than it had been before. It’s worth mentioning that Portugal has always held a low economic position relative to the rest of Western Europe.

In the doorwayCatarina makes sure that Gui showed us the “Islands.” Put simply, they are clusters of very small family houses that you can’t see from the streets because there are behind the facade of a single house. As we walk down the street we pass through several open metal doors. Peering down the walkway we can see that each is actually a door to a micro-neighborhood. The most fortunate of the Islands have some sort of little plaza or garden inside. Gui tells us that the islands are not to be stigmatized and points out that in most cases the doors are wide open, indicating a spirit of openness and community.

Inside the gardenWe are allowed inside of an Horta (urban farm) called Musas da Fontinha. The farm is a cooperative association that people join, pay fees, and run collectively. They produce food for consumption. There are also associations which are workplace cooperatives. Gui tells us that the associations can provide something of a model for dealing with the crisis. The object, to paraphrase her words, is not to wait until there is funding to make everything perfect but rather to empower people to make things functional right now, in order to ensure not only survival but dignity.

Gui says that when they first starting conducting the tours, they were constantly pressed by participants to propose a solution as opposed to just a criticism of the existing state of affairs, so the “Worst Tours” group has decided to present the issues and proposed solutions in three parts:

1. Public Buildings: Easy to reopen, like in the case of the children’s library. If the people want to run it, then let them run it. The argument here is that a public building in a democratic society is one that is already the property of the population and the solution is merely to allow for this to become actualized.

2. Private Housing: The abandoned houses should have the taxes linked to the conservation state of the houses. Essentially, make it too expensive to just own an abandoned house in the center of the city. It is hoped that this would at least force owners to utilize or sell off the houses.

3. Abandoned Factories and Stores: Unlike abandoned buildings which could be repurposed, as in the case of the shopping mall turned music rehearsal complex, the numerous shut down factories and workplaces require a more focused intervention on the part of the state to refit them and put people back to work. Currently the state “lacks the political will.”

It is still an open question in Portugal as to just how that political will might be established.

We end the tour back in the center of the city, near a UNESCO World Heritage site which almost lost its status. The square is called Praça das Cardosas Part of the funding for the maintenance and development of the area comes from Portuguese taxpayers and the other from the rest of Europe. Nominally the money is earmarked for the preservation of important historic sites. Gui shows us how well “restored” the facades are first and then she walks us down an alley, which has iron gate for the evenings, around to the back to show a structure which has been gutted and rebuilt into a 5 star hotel.

It is nearly impossible to do justice to the “Worst Tours” when writing down a synopsis. Gui packs in so much information over so many sites that to write it all down would be to cheaply reproduce a rich experience. There are manifestations of the crisis and the reflections of the existing political will all over Porto.

Looking out over the market

To take one last example, we visit a historic marketplace, Mercado do Bolhão, built in 1914. Although it’s in use today, it is in a state of neglect and is dying a slow death. No new vendors are allowed to open up shop so as the old vendors close down, the marketplace becomes less and less vibrant. Gui tells us she suspects this is so that when the government finally decides to sell it off to someone who intends to build a shopping mall, there will be few people left to oppose it.

Some 1,000 people have taken a version of the Worst Tours. We are told that the official tourist office actually feels compelled to publicly oppose the Worst Tours, which in turn gives the group a bigger opportunity to present their view of austerity in Porto and how it relates to everyone else. It’s a small but significant contribution to making the case that the problems of Europe’s periphery are the problems of the whole continent.

For our part, we are thankful for the opportunity to see Porto from another angle.

– Jason

PS: We put up a link to the Worst Tours website and we think if you’re headed this way you should check them out.

2 thoughts on “Out of the Zoom”

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