At a time when much of the world is in some form of decline, Rio de Janeiro is the view looking forward; it feels like the capital of hope. The wave of change owes something to the booming Brazilian economy, something to the discovery of offshore oil, something to the energy brought to the city when it was chosen for the 2014 World Cup finals and the 2016 Olympics, and most of all to the dramatic reduction in crime. All of these changes are elaborately intertwined, each the condition of the others. Rio has not achieved the placidity of Zurich or Reykjavík, but just as every small joy feels like rapture after a depression, the improvement in Rio has an aura of fiesta, even of miracle, that those serene towns will never know.
A great many cities sit beside the sea, but no other integrates the ocean as Rio does. You can imagine San Francisco positioned inland, or Miami when the sand washes away, but to imagine Rio without the waterfront is like imagining New York without tall buildings, Paris without bistros, L.A. without celebrities. The landscape has an almost Venetian urgency. “If you don’t go to the beach you don’t know anything that’s happening,” said the Rio- and New York–based artist Vik Muniz. “No matter if you have Twitter, or if you have a cell phone, you have to go to the beach, every day at four o’clock until sundown.” Beaches are inherently democratic institutions; when you’re in a bathing suit, there’s no way to show off anything much besides your body, your skill at volleyball, your aura of cool. It’s pointless being a snob in Rio.
Rio’s topography has dictated another social anomaly. People of privilege live in the flat seaside areas in the Zona Sul, the southern district that encompasses the famous beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. These neighborhoods are punctuated by abrupt hills, which have been settled by the poor over the past century or so. These steep favelas do not appear in detail on most maps of the city, and have historically had no utilities, no garbage collection, no closed sewers, and no police protection. The social distances in Rio outpace the geographic ones. Muniz said, “You’re sitting in St.-Tropez surrounded by Mogadishu.”
Much of Brazilian culture originated in Rio’s favelas. Samba evolved here, and the new funk music, too. Many soccer stars came out of the favelas, and some of Brazil’s famous models were born there. Carnival in Rio depends on the “samba schools” of the favelas, which compete to put on the most glittering display. French aristocrats never say that France would be nothing without the slums of Paris, and most upper-class Italians are embarrassed by the Mafia; hip-hop culture notwithstanding, most Americans opt for the suburbs. But in Rio de Janeiro, those who have privilege admire those who don’t. You may or may not choose, as a tourist, to go up to the favelas, but if you love Rio, it’s for a paradigm that is contingent on them.
Nowhere is this unusual arrangement more apparent than from the air. My husband and I went hang-gliding one morning from the Tijuca Forest, soaring above the snaking alleys of Vidigal on one side and luxury oceanfront hotels on the other. You know Rio a whole new way when you have looked at its skyscrapers from the sky they are scraping. A few days later, we took a helicopter ride over the city at sunset, observing the Olympic facilities under construction, noting how the favelas are distributed like chocolate chips in a cookie, rich and poor alike under the gaze of the towering Christ of Corcovado.
Rio is smattered with 18th-century buildings in varying states of disrepair, scores of cakelike examples of the Belle Époque, and a profusion of exuberant Midcentury Modernist office towers and apartment buildings. Oscar Niemeyer is the architect of the most curvaceous—epitomized by his flying saucer of a museum across the bay in Niterói. These sinewy structures appear to exquisite advantage beside the black-and-white-patterned beachfront sidewalks by visionary landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who also designed the city’s best parks. Most cities obfuscate the nature they have usurped, but Rio looks as though it had been painted onto the underlying topography in order to nuance its sweeping undulations. We stayed in fine hotels; when we arrived at the Fasano with our two-year-old, a pillow embroidered with his name was waiting in the crib. I ate at chic restaurants such as Gero and Satyricon, and I hit the shops for trendy Rio brands such as Osklen. I heard some excellent Brazilian jazz; I took a half-day trip to see the golden lion tamarins in the Poço das Antas Biological Reserve. But for me, Rio at this moment is not about tourist attractions; it is about renaissance. As in Moscow at the end of communism, Johannesburg at the end of apartheid, and Beijing when China opened to capitalism, the sights are secondary to the electrifying current of transformation.