If you stand in Alcântara at almost any time of day, you will notice it is quite windy — the urban grid is slightly different from the rest of the city. There are also a few things you might see or hear, most of them just passing through: a cargo or a cruise ship slowly making its way upstream or into the ocean, a few seagulls taking a break from the shore, trams zooming on a straight line back and forth between Baixa and Belém, and definitely the constant buzzing of the cars rolling on the 25th of April bridge to and from the south bank, sounding pretty much like this…
This engineering masterpiece that has become an integral part of the Lisbon skyline is the one thing you cannot miss — even if you would want that — when coming to Alcântara.
Strangely enough, the name Alcântara derives from the Arabic for “the bridge,” Al Qantara. Not that the Moors had this vision of a suspension bridge being erected here over a thousand years later, but they had their own crossing- inherited from the previous occupiers, the Romans — over a stream that used to run where the lower end of Avenida de Ceuta is now.
What you could be forgiven for not noticing, though, is the whole industrial infrastructure of days past, some buildings more obvious than others. As recently as the 1970s, Alcântara was still an area of factories and other manufacturing facilities, mainly for the metal works, textile, food, chemical, and graphic industries.
But by the end of that decade, Alcântara’s factories already began to close. The deindustrialization intensified in the 1980s as a consequence of transformations in the Portuguese economy brought on by the integration into the European Community. And that’s been reshaping the neighborhood ever since.
I first moved to Alcântara in the early ’90s, but had been going there regularly since the mid-’80s. At that time, it was a markedly working-class area, with a predominant political inclination towards the communist old guard, judging by some murals and the scattered graffiti left over from elections that took place following Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of 1974, which put a stop to over 40 years of authoritarian regime of the Estado Novo.
The Portuguese Communist Party even had an office in a building on Rua de Alcântara in the ’90s, still donning huge portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky on its façade, which I thought was amusing having just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the start of the dismantling of the Eastern Block. There were several disused factories, with broken window panes, grid fences full of holes, and overgrowth. Some of these buildings were quite impressive, occasionally exhibiting architectural traits one wouldn’t associate with the rest of Lisbon, such as red brick and tall windows. In particular alleys, with some stretch of the imagination, it could even give you the illusion of being in an industrial town in the north of England.
The riverside, however close, was inaccessible. The area right under the bridge where the Docas marina and row of restaurants are today was fenced off and enjoyed mainly by cargo containers. Apart from residents, Rotunda de Alcântara was visited daily by all the traffic squeezing its way onto the motorway leading to the bridge, and a few heroin addicts spilling down the hill from Casal Ventoso, then the main drug supermarket of Lisbon.
My description may be a bit unfair. It wasn’t that bad, I wouldn’t even call it dodgy. But the area didn’t appeal to most Lisboetas, they wouldn’t go there without a purpose — they were essentially passing through.
Except for one thing: Alcântara’s night clubs. Venues like Benzina, Rockline, and especially Alcântara-Mar — coupled with the stunningly decorated Alcântara-Café, often deemed Lisbon’s most beautiful bar at the time — hosting acid-house and techno nights in the ’90s are memorable to many who used to go there after Bairro Alto or Av. 24 de Julho to definitely kill their Sundays. Story has it that Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian three-time Formula One champion, was once almost kicked out for ignoring a bouncer, while Robert De Niro was simply turned down at the door. There are still a few lively clubs here, some even in the same locations, and they do draw crowds — but they are not quite the reference in the Lisbon night life that their predecessors were in the ’90s.
Nonetheless, slowly but gradually, most of the factories and, unfortunately, some of the patios and villas once accommodating the population working in those factories, were either razed or revamped to make way for some of what is on display in Alcântara nowadays.
The neighborhood has become home to several luxury condos housing people with a higher purchasing power attracted to the area for its relative proximity to the city center and the green haven of a now cleaned-up Monsanto and the scenery provided by the river and the bridge. A good example is the Alcântara Residence housing complex that replaced the Oficinas da Sociedade de Construções Metálicas on Rua Luis de Camões. Some of these condos have been designed as New York City-style loft apartments, making the most of the buildings’ structure as well as the views.
Many former industrial spaces have also been converted to restaurants and nightclubs, particularly along Rua da Cozinha Económica and the Docas riverside, and offices for companies in the services and creative industries. The now-famous LX Factory, which combines leisure and work space in a sprawling complex of former factories and warehouses, may well be regarded as the hipster hub of Lisbon, but it has the merit of having put Alcântara back on the map as a place to go. LX Factory stands on the site of the former printing factory EPNC — Empresa Notícias/ Capital e Mirandela. Sadly, one impressive building wasn’t spared in the whole reconversion process: the sugar refinery SIDUL, which is now a vacant lot. The more recent Village Underground in the backyard of the nearby headquarters for Carris, the agency in charge of Lisbon’s buses and trams, is more or less taking the same direction as LX Factory.
It’s not all about commerce and real estate, however. Some former industrial spaces now house cultural and educational facilities, including museums, schools, and exhibition venues. The Orquestra Metropolitana de Lisboa, for example, along with the Hot Clube de Portugal jazz school, settled into the old premises of Standard Eléctrica, training a new generation of young musicians. It’s now quite common to see aspiring classical or jazz musicians carrying their instrument cases back and forth on the streets of the neighborhood.
The continuous gentrification of Alcântara over the past couple of decades, at a varying pace, follows the same trend as the rest of the city. However, it’s quite hard to predict the direction it will take in the future. There are several possibilities. The recent boom in tourism-oriented and foreign investment into the city has been changing Alcântara just it has everywhere else in Lisbon. But — and this is assuming there would be any area that will be spared —Alcântara just doesn’t have the same typical “postcard quality” as Alfama, Mouraria, or Graça. Hence, the welcome unpredictability.