Desbarato – Gentrification in Lisbon

Desbarato [meaning selling out for almost a zero price] was an urban intervention started by the collective who later became the core group of THE OBSERVATORY OF XXXX TRANSFORMATIONS OF THE CITY OF LISBON.

Conceived as research-action, Desbarato aims at investigating and calling attention to the processes of gentrification, and mega gentrification Lisbon has been going through in the last couple of years – especially since Troika´s (the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission), intervention in 2011[1]. Troika Memorandum had just seven points and one of them (point nº 6 “Housing market”) imposed major alterations in real estate ownership and rentals. As it is well known, real estate speculation was at the very core of the crisis on a global level and, at least in the Portuguese case (the so called “troika good student”), one of austerity’s outputs was to enable the massive transference of real estate and infrastructures to foreign global capital (such as banks and investment funds).

Outstanding austerity’s student, Portugal is selling out public services almost for anything through privatizations and privates who have lost their jobs, cannot afford taxes or need urgent money are selling out private goods (often real estate) for very low prices. Actually, major alterations to real estate legislation were part of Troika’s first memorandum.

As even the most distracted tourist can notice, Portugal seems to be for sale. There is no single street where you won’t see a sign saying “Vende-se” [For sale], “Aluga-se” [To Rent], “Trespassa-se” [for lease] ou “Liquidação Total” [stock clearance], as if the crisis was the perfect reason for selling out everything ao desbarato [almost for free], closing doors and windows, and packing away through one of those routes Brison so well depicts on her series Frontiers.[2]

REMAX, ERA, Century 21, and even luxury Sothebys (not so widespread in the country, before) show up at every window waving tempting proposals of becoming if not a happy owner at least a desperate seller. In the specific case of Lisbon everything is happening at a strikingly fast pace, in an almost opaque way, and most of the time it is very hard to understand what’s going on before it actually happens.

Several phenomena coincide: from cleaning the face of entire districts (as it is the case of Intendente), to ascribing the management of an entire square, to a partially private cultural management firm (as in the case of Martim Moniz, a square whose management was ascribed to a semi-private company), to the brutal sell out of entire downtown blocks to global corporations or the intensification of the activity of the Lisbon cruise terminal in the very center of the downtown area, and the construction of a new  and its daily flooding with massive rivers of tourists, what seems to be at stake is simultaneously a traditional gentrification process and a highly experimental process of Mega-Gentrification.

On Brian Holmes essay written for the 2009 Sydney exhibition There Goes the Neighbourhood, on the complex life of cities and how the phenomenon of gentrification is altering the relationship between democracy and demography around the world, Holmes advances the term Mega Gentrification to point out the interweaving relations between global rating agencies (Fitch, Moodys and Standard & Poors) and their ratings to entire countries, cities or even city “districts” renamed city districts (fashion district, design district, museum mile) and the fate of the cities.

Downtown Lisbon, the so-called Baixa Pombalina, is going through a massive transformation that has obviously to do with the increasing success of the city in global touristic terms. It is in this context, with a sky-rocket increase after Troika measures started to be applied, that more than 30 hotels are being built and the district is being refashioned for tourists, not for inhabitants. Entire buildings are being transformed into accurate two-dimensional facades where, one can really enter and feel the fragrance of thousands of little clean freshly made Portuguese beds or even taste tiny Portuguese pastry made by Portuguese polyglot highly skilled workers.

The image I am showing you here is the scale model for the action with the title Desbarato.

People in this project tried to cover an entire block with posters on gentrification, speculation, evictions and mass-tourism. It is a massive graphic design project done in response to the recent eviction of all the inhabitants of the area, as well as the forced closure of shops nearly a hundred years old.

There is almost no official information on what will happen to downtown area: how many hotels will be built, where, and by whom; how many shops will be forced to close and in which conditions; which other shops will make it to stay (maybe only big corporations such as Starbucks and H&M?); Because of that Desbarato consisted first and foremost on a research, trying to grasp what was going on. Starting with the goal of sketching a Lisbon gentrification map, it soon generated a series of both discursive, artistic and political events.

The action lasted one night as in the next morning the real-estate fund who currently owns the building completely removed all the posters. A photo reportage of the occurrence published on Stress.FM has become highly popular on social media. Within two months a group of people created OBSERVATÓRIO DAS TRANSFORMAÇÕES XXXX DA CIDADE DE LISBOA whose first action “Counting the Stars” will be published in a separate page. OBSERVATÓRIO is currently preparing their second action – Madame Palmeira readings of DESBARATAROT, or the “Tarot of Lisbon.”

plans for the distribution of posters


desberato 1

desberato 2

desberato 3

desberato 4

desberato 5

desberato 6

For further images of the project have a look through the following site

*excerpt of a talk given by Ana Bigotte Vieira and commented by Sandra Lang at Spielart Wake Up festival, Munchen November 2013. The entire presentation can be found here.


All artworks of this project were created by Isabel Lucena & Marco Balesteros

All photos were taken by Transições Urbanas/Stress.FM

This work was submitted by the Observatory Team on 21 February 2014.

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