A woman is moving the neighborhood to a new rhythm
Written by Ivan Carvalho
Photography by Stefan Jermann
Set in the middle of the Largo do Intendente square at no. 19, a stately tile-covered building has bared witness to the comings and goings of the Intendente area since it was erected in the 19th century. In the 1800s, when Lisbon’s urban sprawl was still in its gestation, the square marked the city’s outskirts and merchants would park their horse-drawn carts here before carrying deliveries of olive oil, vegetables and other foodstuffs to residents’ doorsteps. Meanwhile, there was another form of commerce getting started as the owners of the Viúva Lamego tile company opened their offices upstairs at no. 19 to be next to their brand new factory. In the 1960s, when the square was still open to traffic, delivery trucks were a common sight and soon there appeared that very urban form of trafficking: prostitution and drug dealing. By then the area was on the decline and housed on the ground floor of no. 19 was the neighborhood’s most upscale brothel – streetwalkers who couldn’t afford a proper room to entertain their johns resorted to stairwells and even delivery vans to service their clients.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the activities inside no. 19 seem a world away from its colorful past. Instead of junkies shooting up heroin and hookers turning tricks, downstairs visitors now get a caffeine fix at a café that makes up part of one of the city’s most ambitious urban initiatives: Largo Residências. What’s more they can get a shot of culture on the side as the café doubles as a mini-gallery space where photography is exhibited, musical groups play and films and documentaries are screened. Upstairs, a clean, well-lit part hostel, part hotel has been inaugurated and there are rooms that welcome artists in residence, who come for stays that vary from a few days to a year.
Curiously, the creative force behind this urban revitalization doesn’t hail from the neighborhood or from Lisbon. Marta Silva, a professional dancer who grew up in Porto, has gotten the neighborhood moving to a new rhythm and her status as an outsider has helped, in her view, to see the inherent advantages in setting up her new venture in Intendente.
“When I moved to Lisbon I was looking to open a cultural association. Then I came across this fantastic square. Yet locals shunned it. In any other European city today you wouldn’t be able to find such a central location still free. It’s close to downtown but the square feels private.”
On a tour of Largo Residências, which opened in 2011, Silva is keen to point out that hers is more than a business. “Our mission was to help a disadvantaged area of the city but we wanted to avoid gentrification,” she says, while showing off a room complete with hardwood floors, vintage dressers – many pieces of antique furniture have come from nearby buildings long abandoned – and beds built from pallets by a local craftsman whose daughter took dancing lessons from Marta. “Wewant to reach out to locals and get them involved. We even hired a few former prostitutes to work at the hostel to give them some newfound dignity. The artist-in-residence program tries to find projects that tie in with the local population.”
Activities have included a noted Portuguese jazz artist who worked with neighborhood musicians to create a band and who put together a percussion orchestra made up of local kids. Classes dedicated to preparing ethnic food are organized along with language lessons – recently, there was Indian food and Hindi courses to attend. At the café, painters in residence put on shows and DJs are invited to perform their playlists in the evenings. Income from the café and hotel help fund projects, and next door there’s a bike shop that teaches people how to repair bicycles and gives lessons to local youth and adults who want to learn how to ride on two wheels in a city that still lacks a proper cycling culture.
“Our idea was that we could do something more than just teach art,” adds Silva, who gestures to one of the windows that overlook the square. “We’ve created this creative micro climate that has its own vibe.” Yet another activity in her portfolio is a shop where visitors will discover pottery, music and writings created by locals. “There area was once home to traditional Portuguese tile art so our idea is to bring art back home. Besides a workspace for artists we look to create a stage in and around the square in places, some of which have been vacant for some time, so that we can create a meeting spot of people who hail from different disciplines and backgrounds: strangers, tourists, locals from the neighborhood, city residents.”
With the artists’ residency project, which is a sort of micro version of New York’s Chelsea Hotel, and the thriving café, where locals are as numerous as travelers, the neighborhood has been given a new lease on life. More importantly, Silva’s efforts withLargo Residências appear to have benefitted Intendente while avoiding the pitfalls of many urban renewal plans where cheaper neighborhoods are soon made hip by artists moving in and then followed by trendy coffee shops, rising rents and new well-off residents who displace long-time ones. Adds Silva: “Ours is a social business where the people from the community come together. It’s important to keep the social fabric of the neighborhood intact otherwise it loses its character. It’s no longer Intendente.”