Interviews » The Fight for Miradouro de Santa Catarina

November 6, 2018 by Eden Flaherty

The Fight for Miradouro de Santa Catarina

The city is changing. It is being torn apart and put back together in the image of hoteliers, property developers, and realtors. Whichever neighborhood you live in, or bars you frequent, you feel the change coming. Miradouro de Santa Catarina wasn’t saved from this rolling gentrification, but with its closure came indignation, and Adamastor emerged as the defacto battleground for how the city will be shaped and who will shape it.

What Is Miradouro de Santa Catarina?

For those who don’t know it, Miradouro de Santa Catarina — locally known as Adamastor thanks to its resident statue of one of Luís de Camões’ mythical creations — is one of many viewpoints scattered throughout Lisbon. It is located just below Bairro Alto, almost parallel to Bica. It looks out over the city and, most prominently, the 25 de Abril Bridge. Arguably, there was no better spot to watch the sunset. Not because of its prime location, however, but rather the atmosphere that the community created there.

It was a beacon to people from all walks of life, as Pedro Schacht, university lecturer and founder of the group Libertem o Adamastor, puts it: “[all] are welcome there, from the guy who is completely crazy because he took too many trips on acid to the guy in a suit and a tie… or the family with kids, or the tourists of all kinds.”

Alas, this summer, that all came to an end. One day, a local paper announced the park’s imminent closure, and the miradouro was wrapped in a fence, with no sign of when it would reopen. Shock rippled through the communities that frequented the viewpoint, and Libertem o Adamastor quickly formed, growing since then to over 7,000 members.

The thing people miss is not the space itself, but the atmosphere that was created there: one that screamed “Lisbon” in all its convivial splendor. “I can’t think of any other place in the city of Lisbon, or in many cities across the world in this particular time we’re living through, of intolerance and xenophobia, where that kind of congeniality takes place,” says Schacht.

Quickly after the closure, questions began to be asked: Why had it closed? Who was responsible? What would come in its place? And, was the process even legal?

Miradouro de Santa Catarina 2018

The Miradouro’s Problems

To say it was a perfect place would be to twist the truth. For many, it could have been considered some type of den of iniquity, with even Schacht admitting that “there are things that can and should be done with that space in terms of urban hygiene… in terms of safety, maybe.” There is no doubt that there was drug dealing happening there, but most would argue that this is a city-wide issue, rather than a problem of the specific miradouro.

Schacht believes that it wasn’t just the drug trafficking and urban hygiene that pushed the council to close Adamastor, but rather the development of the area, specifically, the opening of the five-star Hotel Verride Palácio. This hotel opened at the end of 2017, and less than a year later the miradouro had been sealed off.

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When asked about this, the Hotel denied being directly involved in the closure of Miradouro de Santa Catarina. The general manager, Paula Marques, says that while the hotel did meet with the city council to discuss a rehabilitation up to two months before it was announced to the public, they were “informed that there was [already] a working process for that rehabilitation.”

The reasons that Marques gave for the hotel’s complaints were the same ones leveled by the council and Schacht: drug trafficking, safety, and urban hygiene. More interestingly, while multiple people cited these as reasons for improvements being necessary, both Schacht and Marques say that the area wasn’t actually dangerous, despite appearances.

Schacht says he’s “never felt threatened in or around there,” and Marques says, “people that usually use the miradouro… know that it’s not dangerous,” but for “guests that are coming from Brazil, from New York, for them [drug dealing] means ‘dangerous.’”

This is where a split seems to appear. Both groups realize that there is no danger, but one values image — and wealthy tourists’ impressions.

Why People Are Angry About Its Closure

Firstly, while the closure of the viewpoint is technically temporary, with the aim of rehabilitating the space, many people are worried about an announcement Lisbon vice mayor Duarte Cordeiro made in July that a permanent fence will be erected and time restrictions imposed. This raises fears of privatization, and would almost certainly stop those who have used the space in the past as a gathering point for music and arts.

On the other hand, Marques says that the reason the last intervention at the miradouro — the one that put the stones there — failed was that there was no protection. And the council told the hotel that a permanent and regulated fence would offer the viewpoint “protection similar as in other gardens that we have in the city, [like] Estrela.”

Secondly, the closure of the park was done without any information being made public, and this lack of transparency has driven suspicion and outrage. Schacht goes as far as saying that it is, in fact, completely illegal: “According to Portuguese law, if you have a construction project going on, then you need the construction license to be displayed publicly in an outdoor location. Nothing of the sort has been done.”

Some members of the Libertem o Adamastor group became more suspicious of the sudden closure when an article published shortly after implied that Hotel Verride Palácio knew what was planned, when the general public, and even MPs, had received no such information from the city council.

This angered users of the space, as they believe the hotel is being given a certain level of privilege not afforded to the general public or political parties. As Schacht puts it, “How is it that [the hotel and the council] are fine with displaying that they’re in cahoots of some sorts when the political forces are asking them questions? It’s so strange.”

Another objection to the closure is that the site was sealed off before construction was even due to begin. The majority of people, including members of Libertem o Adamastor, politicians, and local business owners, have no idea when the work will start or how long it will take. This raises the question as to why the miradouro would be closed all summer.

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This flagrant disregard for the public and the strict rules that dictate how works proceed seems to be one of the core grievances. Schacht is not advocating for no project, but rather for the miradouro to remain open until there is “a fair and transparent discussion… where everyone who has an interest in the issue has had an opportunity to chime in.” Then, “the municipality could go ahead and propose a plan that can be voted on, like any other similar project.”

The Kiosk

The popularity of the miradouro stems partly from the cheap-and-cheerful kiosk that has been operating under the same ownership for 22 years. However, this owner is set to be removed, causing further backlash.

Schacht says that the council wants to oust the current owner in order to privatize the kiosk and the miradouro. The municipality’s claims that the current owner is unable to keep the area clean and safe. Schacht believes that the council already has a replacement in mind, and that if it isn’t “the hotel, then it’s some other kind of business where they want to ‘clean’ the space by selecting the kind of businesses they have there and the prices of the products that are sold there.” He says that the public competition for the kiosk should already be underway.

Hotel manager Marques dismissed these claims, saying that while the council informed them of an impending competition, it had not yet started and would be completely open with anyone able to compete. More importantly, she says that even if the hotel were to acquire it, they “have no interest in a champagne bar or something, because [they] have the champagne bar” in the hotel.

Marques claims that the current kiosk owner is being dismissed because “she has rules to follow, and she isn’t following the rules.” The Lisbon city council allegedly said that these infractions include closing public bathrooms, the unlicensed selling of litrosas, and operating outside of hours, according to Marques.

The Kiosk’s owner, Rosa Ramos, challenges these accusations, saying that despite being able to do “everything [the council] told” them, which includes tending to the surrounding plants and improving safety, the powers that be are unwilling to work with them — going as far as saying that the kiosk is seen as part of the problem, rather than the solution.

When asked about the allegations, Joao Nuno, who works at the kiosk, says they simply aren’t true. Firstly, there are two public bathrooms that are under the control of the Santa Maria Freguesia, not the kiosk, and the one the kiosk does have is always open, according to Nuno. The number of visitors to the miradouro obviously creates long queues, but, according to the kiosk, they have never closed or limited access to the bathrooms. Secondly, according to Nuno, they did use to sell litrosas, but following a letter from the mayor in 2016, they stopped. Finally, Nuno says that operating “after hours is impossible because we have surveillance.”

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Possibly more worrying than seemingly false accusations is the fact that this business, which has been at the miradouro for more than two decades, is completely excluded from the rehabilitation process. The kiosk’s owner and staff didn’t hear about any plans until July, and while they had a meeting scheduled for July 27th to discuss the project with the council, the fence went up three days before, without any warning, according to Nuno and Ramos.

The kiosk still has no information about when the work will start or what is being done. This comes as no surprise to Ramos, who, when asked whether they were being made to leave, said, “That’s the point in the rehabilitation — they want us to leave.”

The five-star hotel in question

What the Future Holds

So what is actually happening?

The short answer is: nobody knows. Or, most people don’t know. As said before, both the kiosk and those fighting for a transparent process have been given no information. Additionally, politicians in the Portuguese Communist Party and the Left Bloc have been given just as little information and have in fact called on Lisbon City Council to make public the plans for the rehabilitation.

It appears as if the only information available is that given to the hotel. Paula Marques explained that they had been told that the council is planning to remove the large stone formations from the previous works and to “rehabilitate the garden as it was in the past — a real garden” — plus one permanent fence.

A Broader Problem

This is in no way a localized issue. Schacht describes it as “an acute case of the overall galloping gentrification that is going on [across Lisbon].” A demonstration for affordable housing that marched through the city on September 22nd also raised the issue of the privatization of public spaces, and it gathered huge crowds, with many local residents voicing their fear and anger.

This is an ongoing battle, with Libertem o Adamastor holding regular demonstrations and discussions as well as recently presenting the city with a petition of more than 4000 signatures. The other side is asking for the exact opposite — the building of a permanent fence with set restrictions. However, they seem to have only gathered around 150 signatures so far.

How the rehabilitation of Miradouro de Santa Catarina is carried out, how the neighborhood is shaped, and who it caters to — wealthy tourists or long-time Adamastor users — will no doubt prove a seminal moment in the development of Lisbon.

Will the city be carved into a model set by big business and real estate developers, or will the citizens have a say in how their home is shaped?

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