This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a series of observations on city and place curated by Ellis Avery.
A short walk from Lisbon’s central Baixa district—where tourists flock to ride the famous Tram 28, eat delicious pastéis de nata, and take photographs of the Pombaline architecture—lies Rua do Benformoso.
This narrow, winding street connects the multiethnic inner-city neighborhoods of Martim Moniz and Intendente, running parallel to one of the city’s major thoroughfares, Rua da Palma. Tourists rarely venture down Rua do Benformoso, if at all.
Navigating its cobbled surfaces, exploring its intense smells and vibrant colors, one is continuously and relentlessly transported into different cultures, different ways of being and thinking. Chinese shops sell textiles, clothes, and cosmetics. Africans run small convenience stores and bars. Bangladeshi families operate halal butchers and greengrocers. Myriad restaurants sell homemade samosas and sweets, as Bollywood films play over television screens in the background. Travel agents advertise deals on flights to former colonies, while phone shops provide the means to contact them. And, up a narrow staircase in a decrepit apartment building, an illegal Chinese restaurant serves cheap food and bottles of Tsingtao beer.
Historically, this has long been a working-class street. Originally used as an important corridor for the passage of raw materials in and out of the city, the street soon developed an extensive patchwork of workshops and commercial activity. During the early 20th century, both Rua do Benformoso and the nearby neighborhood of Martim Moniz were populated by migrants, primarily from the interior of Portugal. But in the late 1970s, migrants of foreign origin began to assume increasing visibility. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, large numbers of Bangladeshis had arrived in the area and began working in construction and commerce: the street became a space of entry and transition for these migrants, as they arrived in the city to start their new lives.
But Rua do Benformoso also occupies a marginalized space within a city in a rapid process of change, as gentrification threatens to transform the area entirely. Trendy cafes and bars have begun to pop up in the nearby Largo do Intendente, as tourists and wealthy foreign investors descend on the neighborhood. Large, ominous billboards—“promoção imobiliária,” says one—advertise the development of luxury apartments in formerly abandoned buildings. As a result, housing prices on Rua do Benformoso have risen significantly in recent years, making it difficult for some to afford rent. Traversing the street, there is now a renewed sense of uncertainty, of precarity, of impending transformation. And yet, the people of Rua do Benformoso continue their daily activities: a fresh delivery of meat arrives at the butcher, a group of friends chat in the street, a barber cuts hair at 1 AM.