Keep it Blurry: Imagining Martim Moniz

Photo: Francesca Renzi @francescarenziph
More than any other place, Martim Moniz square embodies the conflicted nature of Lisbon’s urban imaginaries. Andrea Pavoni reflects on the struggles over its use and argues for the importance of a “blurry” vision of the city.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable on “Conflicting Imaginaries in East Lisbon.” Click here to view other posts in the series.]

A place where dreams of civilization began as external to its subjects, an environment that dreamt on behalf of its settlers, but which over time has become ‘nature’ (Roman Vasseur)1Roman Vasseur, “Site and materiality,” in When Site Lost the Plot, ed. Robin Mackay (Falmouth: Urbanomic Media, 2015), 5-12.

 

“To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp. One’s body is no longer clasped by the streets […] nor is it possessed, whether as player or played, by the rumble of so many differences”.2Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 92. This famous vignette of Michel de Certeau came to my mind, while gazing down at Martim Moniz square, from the rooftop bar of one of the two ageing commercial centres cumbersomely positioned at its longer sides, abruptly severing it from the picturesque hills of Sant’Ana and Mouraria, this latter, the parish to which the square never really felt as if it belonged.3‘Como uma espécie de Mouraria que “não é bem Mouraria”’. Maluci Menezes, “A Praça do Martim Moniz: Etnografando Lógicas Socioculturais de Inscrição da Praça no Mapa Social de Lisboa,” Horizontes Antropológicos 2 (2009): 301–328, 318.

While the cars circled around the square, and the tourists queued waiting for the historic tram 28 to arrive, all sorts of people were passing by, standing, walking, eating, sitting, drinking, skating, playing football, playing cricket, hanging out. The place was buzzing. Around me, a crowd of foreigners was enjoying the summer breeze, chatting over overly expensive cocktails. “How cool would it be if, instead of this mess, there were a line of bars with tables and stuff?” That was the plan, I wanted to reply to the sentence I casually overheard. In 2018, Moonbrigade Lda, a joint venture between NCS and Stone Capital, was awarded a €3 million project to refurbish the square into a fenced, container market. As a result, the “strange metal kiosks”4Time Out Lisbon (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 83. that had been installed twenty years earlier were removed. Hence the emptiness, filled with countless activities, whose under-determined quality my fellow customers found frustrating.

Photo: Francesca Renzi @francescarenziph

The place had been officially named a “square” only in 1997. By then, Time Out wrote, it was a “bustling market and multi-ethnic melting pot. Members of the city’s various migrant communities come here to work, shop, have their hair done or simply relax”.5Time Out Lisbon, 66. For a good chunk of its quasi-millenary history, Mouraria has been a juxtaposition of both forced and desired socio-cultural paths, which have gradually crystallised into a maze of narrow alleyways, for a long time perceived and stigmatised as insalubrious, degraded, and dangerous.6For example, Fialho de Almeida, “Lisboa Monumental,” Ilustração Portuguesa, 29 October and 29 November 1906; Luís da Câmara Reis, “A Miséria em Lisboa,” Serões Revista Mensal Ilustrada (1908): 324–343. On Mouraria today, see Simone Tulumello’s contribution to this roundtable. The square, at the beginning just a largo, was born in the late 1940s, out of the Haussmann-esque desire to order and civilise Mouraria, by opening a clearing into the jumble via demolitions.7See, for example, Paula Gésero, Configuração da paisagem urbana pelos grupos imigrantes: o Martim Moniz na migrantscape de Lisboa (Lisboa: Alto-Commissariado para as Migrações, 2014), 81. That the authoritarian Estado Novo chose to name it after Martim Moniz, the unfortunate hero of the successful battle the Crusaders waged in 1147 against the Moors (from which, “Mouraria”), is a statement of the visions that fed that epoch and that keep lingering, over the square, as of today. Initially the site, ignored by planning projects, spontaneously turned into a parking space for cars and a nearby market’s stalls. Then, ironically, the infidels took it back.

Photo: Francesca Renzi @francescarenziph

Especially since the 1980s, a steady flow of immigrants from South Asia  (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh), China, and Africa, has come to do business within and around the commercial centres, quickly substituting the antiquated local shops with electronic equipment, food and clothes stores, and occupying the cheap accommodation nearby. The square began to thrive as a fermenting mixture of cultures, uses and practices, localised and globalising at once. A place of leisure, commerce, drinking, loitering, football, cricket, picnics, and music. In the new millennium, it began to host significant events for the surrounding communities (e.g., Chinese New Year, Holi, Eid Al-Fitr etc.), while also becoming a strategic spot for political demonstrations. At the same time, drug dealers and users, sex workers and homeless people tinged its atmosphere with a sense of insecurity and danger, especially north of the square, into the parish of Arroios (by then still Anjos). If twenty years later Time Out would name it as the “world’s coolest neighbourhood”, at that time it described Arroios’s southernmost tip as “a round-the-clock precinct of sleaze featuring dodgy bars, ageing whores and fairly regular stabbings”.8Time Out Lisbon, 83; see also Marco Allegra’s contribution to this round table, at https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2022/11/imagining-arroios/

As a way to counter this imaginary, metal kiosks and CCTV were installed in 1998, although for some time they remained empty, susceptible for all sorts of shady uses.9Maluci Menezes, “A Praça do Martim Moniz: Etnografando Lógicas Socioculturais de Inscrição da Praça no Mapa Social de Lisboa,” Horizontes Antropológicos 2 (2009): 301­–328, 310. In 2013, they were turned into Mercado da Fusão, a “multicultural” food market devised by NCS and intended to give back the square to the immigrant communities, according to how the director José Felipe Rebelo Pinto described his personal “humanitarian project”. Moonbrigade’s new project, Martim Moniz Market, was meant to capitalise on NCS’s concession on the square (2012–2022) with a view to prolong it further. Martim Moniz Market was imagined as a fenced square with container-shops, including a vinyl store, a bakery, a mural representing “the union of people” drawn by the Brazilian street-artist Kobra – a scene eerily similar to the one that saw him protagonist in Rio de Janeiro’s Porto Maravilha.10See Andrea Pavoni, “Speculating on (the) Urban (of) Art:(Un)Siting Street Art in the Age of Neoliberal Urbanisation,”  Horizontes Antropológicos 25 (2019): 51–88. During the construction period, the hoardings closing the site would be used as communication surfaces to “give a soft and welcoming image of the project for the multi-cultural neighborhood that it’s located in”, we read in the website of the creative agency Stone Capital hired for this task: “The aim here was to make sure that the locals would not alienate themselves from the new project”. Alienation, nonetheless, ensued. The fence and the container came to symbolise the exclusionary and standardising quality of urban branding to a dystopian extent that went beyond the actual intentions of the planners. If through the years the incoherent development of the site had been experienced by the local community with a weary resignation, now the atmosphere was tinged with a proactive frustration. The planners sought to backtrack and compromise with local requests, to no avail. Protests, petitions, and then the formation of the “movement for a garden in Martim Moniz”, led the project to be scrapped. A new project competition is about to be announced, this time said to be structured around the inputs of the local community.

Photo: Francesca Renzi @francescarenziph

I came back to that vantage point — in fact, the same one NCS had opened a few years before — on a gloomy November afternoon. Under the autumn rain the square was barely populated, the former kiosks having been removed, the new containers having been rejected. Empty, and yet invisibly full, its atmosphere fermenting with the dense interweaving of people, things, images, and practices that have sedimented over it through time. In no other place, perhaps, can the deeply conflicted nature of Lisbon’s imagination be seen as expressed and condensed in a single site, immersed as it is within a multi-layered, multi-scalar, sedimented imaginary, where localisation and globalisation, heterogeneity and homogeneity, are not opposed but simultaneously juxtaposed.11Paula Gésero, Configuração da paisagem urbana pelos grupos imigrantes: o Martim Moniz na migrantscape de Lisboa (Lisboa: Alto-Commissariado para as Migrações, 2014), 142. There are no conflicting imaginaries coexisting here, perhaps, but more precisely a conflicted imaginary, a term that retains the conflict, but adds the confusion and inconsistency that the adjective suggests. An urban imaginary is always as such: fuzzy, inconsistent, blurry. Like a hologram, it will show itself differently, depending on the position from which it is looked at. City branding aims to capitalise to its potential while removing the inconsistency, to focus it as “cosmopolitan”, “multicultural”, “cool” – freeze-frames that make it comfortably observable as if from a rooftop bar, cocktail in hand, safely gazing down, not as a viewer, but a voyeur.

Photo: Francesca Renzi @francescarenziph

What is hegemonic and what is alternative here? What is the form taken by the dreams of those who plan, deal, clash, walk, and play through this place? Isn’t it the case that naming an urban imaginary always entails lifting oneself out of that “rumble of so many differences” that constitutes it? Strategically, it may make sense to refer to alternative, insurgent, resistant, or counter-imaginaries. Yet, these are equal ways to lose, by naming, what is peculiar to a given imaginary. What speculative, methodological, and stylistic inventions can be devised, then, to attend to the singular fuzziness of the imaginary as it takes place? How to un-master the academic temptation to put everything into focus?12cf. Michael Taussig, The Mastery of Non-Mastery in the Age of Meltdown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020). That is, how to keep it blurry?

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 All pictures are by Francesca Renzi @francescarenziph.

Andrea Pavoni’s research is funded by FCT/MCTES [CEECINST/00066/2018/CP1496/CT0001] and [PTDC/GES-URB/1053/2021]

Notes[+]

Pavoni, Andea. "Keep it Blurry: Imagining Martim Moniz." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022)
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