Sandwiched between Graça and Santa Engrácia, in the northern corner of São Vicente de Fora, is the neighborhood of Quinta do Ferro. Entering the neighborhood from its lower part, through Rua Leite Vasconcelos, you’re met with an uncommon sight, considering that we’re still in Lisbon city center: a mixture of vacant lots and small-scale, densely built homes, you get the impression of arriving in a small village in the countryside.
This unexpected rural manifestation within an urban context is a reminder that the dichotomy between the two is often blurred. And this aspect of the neighborhood is more pronounced when you spend an afternoon here and observe as its residents cross paths on the street, all seeming to know each other, or as one woman shouts outside a neighbor’s window asking for help with her cats.
On the surface, it’s a romanticized depiction of a village community resistant to the urban wave of gentrification and real estate speculation a large part of Lisbon has succumbed to.
But the rose-colored lenses begin to fade when confronted with the greater issues and hardships some of its residents face.
We spoke to the president of Amigos da Quinta do Ferro (AQF), José Manuel Rosa, who explained that Quinta do Ferro is quite large and encompasses many streets, but Ruas A, B, and C are home to the most problematic housing conditions.
“There are lots of families there in ultra-degraded situations, dangerous situations…,” Rosa told Atlas, adding that the neighborhood has cases of households living without running water or sewage systems.
On a visit to Quinta do Ferro, during which we were shown around by an active member of AQF, Rosa Gomes, we were able to see firsthand the multifaceted characteristics, conditions, and people that form the neighborhood. It became clear that making any generalizations about the experiences of its residents would be greatly unjust.
We were, nevertheless, able to confirm the appalling conditions some of the residents face. Gomes has been one of the leading forces in establishing contact with the local residents, and was a part of a team that carried out a census of those in the most run-down dwellings in the area.
Gomes guided us into a small alleyway where we were privy to some of the most extreme cases of squalor in the neighborhood. A family residing in a dilapidated building with no front door and its windows sealed with bricks. Outside their front door we could see the pit where human waste is expelled.
The city council has known about the perilous living conditions of Quinta do Ferro for decades. In the Câmara Municipal de Lisboa’s (CML) archives, we found a neighborhood plan dating back to September of 1930, citing the need for the construction of paved streets in the neighborhood to better connect it to the surrounding streets.
That 90-year-old plan also makes mention of the existence of barracas (shacks), a common housing solution built by migrants from the countryside arriving in the city.
There is a long history in Lisbon of “clandestine neighborhoods” where housing was built without building permits, and often built on occupied, publicly and privately owned lots of land. The plan for Quinta do Ferro called for a restructuring of the neighborhood in order to deter the continued construction of barracas, and foresaw the expropriation of privately owned property.
Almost a century later, many of the conditions discussed in the archive document pervade to this day. While the presence of barracas is no longer visible, many of the existing housing structures are poorly built and are not meant to accommodate the large number of people forced to squeeze into them.
The AQF, an unlikely landlords and tenants association, has made a concerted effort to organize the residents and property owners — but this has been difficult for multiple reasons.
Gomes explained how it was hard to come to an exact number of residents because people move around a lot. She also mentioned that many of the families who moved to the neighborhood in recent years lacked legal rental contracts. Both Rosa and Gomes shared accounts of what they termed as “false landlords,” explaining that due to the unstructured nature of the neighborhood, there have been cases of people appropriating empty apartments and then leasing them out illegally. These shaky housing arrangements and a deep-rooted sense of distrust have made having widespread participation difficult.
In spite of this, the association was successful in creating a partnership with Ateliermob and Trabalhar com os 99%, a design platform and architecture cooperative aimed at developing socially conscious projects. In 2016 the association successfully ensured BIP/ZIP funding, a CML local partnership program which aims to support projects in marginalized neighborhoods. With said funds, a mapping of the key problem areas of the neighborhood was carried out, and an urban rehabilitation project was developed which foresees the creation of public housing on city council land, the modernization of existing amenities, community green space, and a large staircase that would grant the neighborhood direct access to Rua da Verónica.
The project was submitted to the CML in 2018 — so far with no response. The members of AQF have taken multiple measures to inquire after the status of their proposal, but the CML has thus far not provided any concrete answers. Rosa said that they have received complete support of councilwoman Paula Marques (housing), and to their understanding, their process is being held up by the Urbanism department.
We reached out to the councilman responsible for Urbanism, Ricardo Veludo, but have yet to receive a reply.
While Quinta do Ferro continues to wait for a stamp of approval from the city council, this is not the only hurdle the neighborhood will face. The proposed project is of a behemoth scale and will require the participation of private capital investors. Ensuring this financing will be the first challenge, and then protecting the integrity and social action element of the project from private capital interests will be the second.
Lastly, when asked about the relocation of existing residents, there was no clear answer of how this would be assured. In the process of speaking to just two of AQF’s members, it became apparent that there are differing opinions within the same organization.