When asking Lisboetas about what they consider the most dangerous neighborhoods, Cova da Moura, Quinta da Fonte, and Quinta do Mocho come up time and time again.
It’s hard for many visitors and expats to imagine that Lisbon has a dangerous underbelly, with few venturing outside the progressively hip center. But in the 1970s, neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city started growing — and they quickly gained a reputation for being hotbeds of criminal activity.
My first encounter was back in 2015 when I ended up in a neighborhood a little north of Alcântara-Terra. Here, small allotments adorned the sloped hills leading to the motorway, and tumbledown houses were daubed with ’80s communist murals. It had been left behind by the city, devoid of shiny new recycling bins and modernist street furniture. As I walked down the impressively walled Rua Maria Pia, I was stopped by two cops waiting in a car.
I’m not exactly the most imposing guy in the world, but I was put up against a wall, had my pockets emptied, my ID checked, and was bombarded with questions. It transpired that the only reason I was stopped is that the area was known for drug and arms trafficking. How true was that? I have no idea, but it is certainly an image of the neighborhood still held by many people, the police included. I left annoyed at the police, naturally, and curious about what neighborhoods were tucked away by the city, unable to fit into the image of Lisbon as Europe’s top tourist destination. I did little more about it until I recently came across a map from Diário de Notícias published in 2008 that shows the bairros problemáticos in Lisbon and Porto.
It was shocking to see just how many districts have been plagued with poverty, violence, and governmental abandonment in a city touted as the “next big thing.” But what was more shocking is the reported change in these neighborhoods in such a short time. Not from top-down intervention, but from grassroots programs trying to change the image, and the future, of what many still consider to be Lisbon’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The social and architectural landscape of the entire city is in flux, and these neighborhoods are no exception. Over the last 10 years, many areas that were once no-go zones have become tourist attractions.
But how much has really changed for the residents of these neighborhoods?
In the coming months, we hope to explore some of these neighborhoods. We will look at the change that has come and the change that hasn’t. We will look at the projects and the people that give these neighborhoods their unique character, and how they fit into the changing topography of greater Lisbon.