When Lisbon-based filmmaker and activist Claudio Carbone’s documentary Another Lisbon Story premiered in 2017, the informal community of Bairro da Torre was experiencing action and hope.
As Carbone’s film shows, the residents of the Loures favela, which is situated on the border of Lisbon’s Humberto Delgado Airport, were successfully organizing and collaborating with the Lisbon Faculdade de Arquitetura’s Socio-Territorial, Urban and Local Action Studies Group (GESTUAL) to get their voices heard and their needs met. The 60-odd families who called Bairro da Torre home had been living for years with extremely limited access to clean water, sanitation services, and electricity. Self-built homes were freezing in the winter, sweltering in the summer, and soaked whenever it rained. The people of Torre had been fending for themselves for decades. Then, it began to look like they could start building a better neighborhood for themselves and for their children.
Six years later, Bairro da Torre has been demolished and wiped from the map, its community broken and scattered throughout Loures and Lisbon. Their livelihoods now, despite being rehoused, are no more secure than they were in 2017.
Torre, like many other informal neighborhoods built around Portugal, was formed in the wake of the 1974 revolution and the effective end of the Portuguese colonial empire. Following the fall of António Salazar’s fascist regime, people from formerly colonized areas abroad were granted expedited residency in Portugal. As migrants began to arrive on the newly liberated mainland, however, they were met with few opportunities, no assistance, and often a dismal environment of hatred and distrust. Thus, neighborhoods of African migrants, poor Portuguese, and Roma were built upon forgotten lands on the periphery of Portugal’s cities. Bairro da Torre specifically was built on state-owned land surrounding Lisbon’s main airport, as well as patches of private land passed down and forgotten through convoluted lines of inheritance. Decades later, the neglect continued in Torre, and what attention they did receive often came in the form of police violence. In the words of one Torre resident of African descent who appears in the film,
“The Portuguese are well welcomed in Africa. They live comfortably, even better than Africans. So, when we come here, why are we not well received? [We are] pursued in the streets by the police. The other day I saw a policeman hitting a boy with kidney issues. . . the boy was knocked unconscious [and] had to be taken to the hospital, just because he argued with a policeman.”
As a self-built community constructed on forgotten land, Torre stood forsaken by its local government and effectively cut off from the surrounding areas. Houses built from sheet metal and discarded doors sheltered more than 300 residents, only half of whom had access to potable drinking water.
Carbone’s film closely follows the evolution of Bairro da Torre from an area ethnically segregated into Roma, African, and Portuguese communities into a neighborhood united behind common goals: to start, clean drinking water and proper sanitation.
Denied their right to the city and its basic functions of maintenance, service, and access, the families of Torre took matters into their own hands. Roundtable meetings were held, the needs of the neighborhood were articulated and organized, and a cohesive plan to do for themselves what the city had failed to do for them began to materialize.
By the end of Another Lisbon Story’s 58-minute runtime, the families of Bairro da Torre successfully organized and executed a neighborhood-wide trash clean-up, cleared space for planting crops, and built a football field for the children. The film’s story stands as inspiring evidence of the power of community organization and direct action. “Having ideas on paper is useless,” says one GESTUAL organizer half-way through the film. The community members then proceeded to show how these ideas can be realized through consensual collaboration and community action. In the words of another Torre resident, one of many powerful community matriarchs that appear in the film,
“The strength lies in collectiveness. . . no matter the size of a person’s will, there comes a point where it wears down. Work[ing] together, working in groups, I have learnt it to be better this way. If I make an effort and someone else makes an effort too, the world [will] be a better place.”
The uplifting note on which the film concludes was, however, quickly washed away by the bleak reality of organizing against a neglectful city council amid reprehensible living conditions. Other small projects were introduced to further build up the neighborhood following the documentary, but the most crucial issues of water, sanitation, electricity, and job security remained unaddressed. “There was never a change point,” says Carbone. “The people became tired [of inconsequential projects]. It was not the project we hoped for.”
In the years since the film’s release, Bairro da Torre has endured a fire that destroyed a large number of homes, and had the last of its electricity cut off by the state power company EDP, replaced only by large generators that residents were expected to fuel on their own dime. Furthermore, beginning in 2018, families were slowly ushered through an inefficient and ineffective rehousing process. Five years later, the last family was finally rehoused in February 2023.
This rehousing process, however, was rife with structural flaws and ignored the vast complexity of what it means to properly rehouse a family. Not only were these families removed from the community on which they relied so heavily, but they were given no help with job placement, transportation, or rent assistance. Over the years, many “rehoused” families and individuals returned to Torre mere months after their relocation. In some cases their return was prompted by a desire to reintegrate with their community, other times they were unable to pay the rents imposed upon them without consideration of their financial situation or their ability to find work. Now, with Bairro da Torre completely demolished, those families and individuals have nowhere to return to if their new situations fall through once again.
These instances shine a glaring light not only on the carelessness with which this rehousing program was executed, but also on the fundamental flaws in the concept of rehousing. Finding a home was not the people’s problem – their problem was with the condition of their home. The often nonconsensual relocation of Torre’s families from their community ignored both the wishes of the residents and the work that had already been done in Torre. “Rehousing is a violent process,” says Carbone. “The community was built. Why do you have to destroy it? The people want to live there. We have to listen to [their] voice.”
As Portugal’s housing crisis seems to worsen by the day, working class residents in and around Lisbon’s city center are being squeezed out of their homes by predatory real estate speculation and ludicrously inflated housing costs, and are rightfully fighting against it. Grassroots organizations like Stop Despejos are tirelessly protesting against the housing crisis in central Lisbon and successfully defend many tenants at risk of eviction, but the fight for housing and neighborhoods that serve their communities started in the peripheral of the city. Solidariedade Imigrante, an organization that has been fighting for affordable and accessible housing for decades, was built in these peripheral neighborhoods and continues to fight and organize from and for these often-forgotten areas.
These organizations and others, like Vida Justa – which recently announced a mass-protest scheduled for October 21, 2023 – highlight the need for bottom-up organization, stressing that the flaws in the government that refuses to address the housing crisis are structural and unlikely to be solved from within the existing structure.
In Carbone’s opinion, it is more important and more productive to work within our communities to build and provide the makings of a fair and fulfilling existence. In this line of thinking, direct action means more than fending for yourself; it necessarily demands a localized and cooperative point of view beyond simple solidarity.
Carbone believes that the fight begins wherever you are. “The only thing we can do is work in our territories and try to build our communities and try to destroy the individuality that the system relies on,” he says. In order to best help ourselves and the communities around us, we must “be active in [our] territories, build our community, build our space, and be active citizens.”