RIO DE JANEIRO — As Rio landmarks go, the bright yellow trams of Santa Teresa were one of the most visible in the Olympic city. For more than a century, they ferried tourists and residents up and down the steep hills from central Rio to the narrow, cobbled streets of this famous colonial neighborhood and the favelas above and around it. They were even featured in the glossy video Hollywood director Fernando Meirelles made for Rio’s 2009 winning Olympic bid.
But the trams have now become famous for all the wrong reasons. In 2011, operations were cancelled after an overcrowded tram crashed, killing five people. Investigators blamed brake failure and a lack of maintenance.
Work laying track for new trams began in November 2013 with a first stretch promised to be functioning by the following May, just in time for the World Cup. More than a year later, work has been stalled for weeks, and the neighborhood has become a chaotic mess of mud, disconnected rails and gaping holes that residents describe as "an embarrassment."
And as the trams have become symbolic of repeated failure of the Brazilian authorities to deliver legacy works promised for major sporting events, a video satirizing both the games and the tram work chaos has gone viral.
In two days, 287,000 people have watched "The Santa Teresa Olympic Park," in which a comic athlete parodies Olympic sports like the hurdles, shot put and sprints as he darts, runs and jumps around the derelict work areas to a shrill, 1980s-style theme.
The video advertises a "public action" that the Santa Teresa residents association has planned for Saturday, called "Chaos," to protest the situation. The action will take place at the same tram stop that was filled with cheering fans in the Olympic video made by Meirelles, who also directed "Blindness" and "City of God." There's also a Facebook page for the event.
Perched on a hillside overlooking central Rio, Santa Teresa is a quaint jumble of old colonial buildings which encapsulates the extremes of the Olympic city. At less than 20 cents a ride, the trams were seen as democratic, affordable transport in a traditionally bohemian, left-wing area known as much for its artists, foreigners and yoga teachers as its restaurants and five-star hotel, where singers Amy Winehouse and Alicia Keys both stayed.
Anne Hathaway browsed the tourist shops that sell model trams amongst other knick-knacks. The notorious British train robber Ronald Biggs lived there for decades. Tens of thousands flock to samba street parties during Carnival. Armed robberies are an ever-present threat on the area's steep steps and curving hillsides. The absent tram has long been a political cause locally: "Tram Now!" graffiti is painted on local streets; "Tram" T-shirts are frequently seen.
The Monteiro de Cavalho family has a palace on the hill stuffed with original artworks, where hundreds, including some of the most famous actors in Brazil, sipped champagne at a ritzy party to celebrate the wedding of singer Preta Gil, daughter of Brazilian music legend and former culture minister Gilberto Gil.
Just a few hundred yards away, at least a dozen people have been killed in recent weeks as drug gangs battled for control of favelas in the area – favelas that have armed police bases operating as part of a "pacification program."
Work on the new tracks did not begin at once – more in a series of fits and starts. Long stretches were left alone. At one point, the operator of a small digging machine could be seen stretched out asleep on the pavement at lunchtime. More recently, a gleaming new tram was put on show, guarded round-the-clock by a police car. In tests, it inched along the sections of track that have been laid.
The tests were not successful. In April, the G1 news portal reported that the new trams’ brakes had a problem with the cobblestones along the only completed section of track. The cobblestones, which had all been carefully removed, then replaced, will have to be sawn in half. This daunting task has yet to begin. In recent days, a handful of workers have been seen. Two appear in the video, reluctantly hugged by the athlete in the "Olympic Park" video, which bears the logo of the Ninja collective that broadcast live from so many of Brazil's 2013 street protests.
Olympic-related works are causing chaos across Rio de Janeiro. City center traffic is constantly rerouted, to the confusion of cabdrivers and other motorists. As pre-Olympic tension mounts, so too has fear of violent crime: On May 19, a doctor was fatally stabbed while riding his bicycle around the postcard Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where Olympic rowing events will be held. Last month, police inadvertently shot and killed a 10-year-old boy in the sprawling Complexo do Alemão favela.
At a breakfast event Friday morning, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said that the Olympics would transform Rio for the better, citing new BRT lines, the pacification policy, an extension to one of the city’s two metro lines, improved sanitation and a revamped port area. Seventeen legacy projects were promised, he said, and 27 will be delivered. “We are delivering more than we promised,” he said. The games are costing $12 billion, Paes said: 57 percent of that is private money. Rio, he said, should be compared with Rio, not other Olympic host cities like London. And it had improved in so many aspects since 2009, he added.
He did not make any reference to the trams of Santa Teresa – which his administration has been discussing taking over from state government since 2012, local media reported. He said: "We want to be a reference for tourism in the Southern Hemisphere." He instead cited a new VLT which will whisk passengers around the revamped port area, connecting new office blocks and hotels to the city center and the domestic airport. A gleaming prototype of the VLT is on display in central Rio, with promises that it will be working by 2016. That is likely to be long before the classic yellow trams again start rumbling up and down the hills above it.