Off the Map

July 12, 2017

“From now on, we’re off the map.”

Our guide — Gui — stands with arm extended, ushering us over what seems to be a precipice. One by one, eight travelers descend a stone staircase. Down, down, down. Behind us: a stone wall dripping with morning glories and thorny blackberry canes in bloom; ahead of us: well, we’ll find out.

Down, down, down again, past a few young people playing instruments and some others just hanging out. Pardon. Enschuldigung. Excuse me. Sorry mate. Down some more, to a path overlooking the Douro river and the city of Porto, built up along its banks.

Gui stops to point out the potential of this path as a bicycle and walking trail, states her hope that city planners will have enough vision to install one, then takes off at the blistering pace we’ve come to recognize, her floppy hat-brim and mop of dark curls billowing behind her. We follow in single file, getting a chance to admire a series of increasingly lovely views when she stops to redirect the vines which are creeping over the path. We admire the Dom Luis I bridge, designed by a colleague of Gustav Eiffel, and Gui points out the elegant way each post bears the weight of the structure above.

It’s been over two hours since we met Gui in a park outside the tourist area of Porto. She’s one of a group of three architects who started the Worst Tours of Porto a not-for-profit association which gives travelers a view outside (or beneath), what she calls the Zoom box: the harbor, and the warren of steep streets lined with fish restaurants, wine cellars and souvenir shops that normally fill a two-day visit before most travelers move on.

She’s an expert, sharing her voluminous knowledge as a gift. And she brooks no mansplaining. “Whoever thinks that, knows nothing,” she interrupts one non-question, before setting off up a hill that leaves her would-be instructor gasping for breath and me chuckling with glee. 

I love, not only her fierce intelligence but also her energy, her commitment to her project. And her rigor. She takes us through streets we might have bypassed, past buildings we might have overlooked. My cartographer husband whispers in admiration, “I have no idea where I am.”

I found the Worst Tours when I googled “why are there so many derelict buildings in Porto?” On every street, including the most touristy ones, the 18th century buildings are stained and crumbling, terracotta roofs playing host to their own, bushy ecosystems — that is, when they haven’t caved in entirely. The exquisitely colored tiles are falling off; windows are cemented over or simply gone, leaving only iron grill-work in elaborate mandala patterns. 

Is this austerity?

The economic crisis at work?

Or is it the numberless short-term rentals that we ourselves are taking advantage of, in order to stay here?

Short-term rentals are booming in Porto. Displays in real estate company windows make no secret that buildings are derelict, seemingly inviting investors to gut, subdivide, renovate — and quite possibly, flip. They’re exquisite three- and four-story houses with delicate balconies, arched windows and formidable front doors. Their foundations are stone, their ceilings so lofty they could accommodate a whole other floor. Our building has a yard long enough to keep a family for a year if they farmed it. A neighbor keeps chickens and has planted fruit trees, but ours is overgrown with weeds, and the one on the other side is being dug up, excavating decades worth of tree roots and weeds.

Surrounded by this wealth of real estate, local residents are suffering. The cost of housing is drawing perilously close to the average income. Though many line up for meals in the Plaza de la Republica near where we’re staying, and many sleep in the shelter of a nearby social housing building, there is seemingly no effort to squat in these abandoned buildings. They’re left ominously empty.

Speaking at a pace no slower than her walk, Gui makes clear there’s no easy answer to my questions. Referring to a well-thumbed binder full of plans and maps, she recounts a story reaching back to the construction of this city’s original houses, factoring in the availability of construction materials, the laws and precedents that afford some owners title to the long lots behind their houses, to the culture which values property ownership and which makes squatting tantamount to murder, to the effect of the Unesco World Heritage Site designation which forbids any changes to the facades.

Yet Gui fleshes out the story not of a city which is victim to market forces, poverty or corruption, but a city full of potential.

What could all these spaces become?

The houses are being refurbished, Gui says, and as an architect, how can she complain? There are buildings literally caving in right now. Something has to be done to preserve them. Gentrification of houses is a done deal as far as she’s concerned– for better or for worse. She’s elected to speak today about what’s not so certain: the fate of the unused factory and farm spaces the city has in abundance. 

We see a former factory turned over to artists’ studios and an exhibition spaces, including a collection of street art and a community show of young people’s casettas, the colorful dioramas created in honor of the forthcoming festival of Sao Joao.

Because of this festival, we get to visit the inside of an island, a form of local housing which has been constructed in the city’s long back lots. A narrow path along the edge of a lot gives way to a series of small units, scrupulously maintained, with plants decorating the front stoops. City services are available in the islands, and some have added floors on top of the houses. Children play safely in these corridors, which can be gated out front, and elders are never far from help. Normally, they’re not open to passers-by, but we get in to see that Island’s casetta, giving a donation and making a wish.

This series of diminutive houses might be attractive as tourist accommodation. If sold, the tenants could be turfed out, with the exception of people over 75, who enjoy a bit of protection.

And we go on walking, and walking, and walking. Altogether, we walk for no fewer than six hours, seeing the best and the worst of what can happen in underused urban space.

What happens when a hotel, supported by EU funding, takes over a city block in a market already glutted with hotels? 

What happens when a former shopping mall is turned over to garage bands, becoming a spotlessly maintained rehearsal and recording space, complete with two cafes. Now, an otherwise derelict building is being maintained in good condition, generating income for its owner and the cafe owners, feeding the local music scene and the area as a whole.

Travelling with a cartographer, I’m ever-aware of how little aptitude and skill I have for orienting myself. So I think a lot about what it means to live “off the map.” And I think about the relationship of mapping to story.

Operating without a map means living without clear connections, not simply spatially but in time. Rolf remembers much more than I do — “remember, that’s where we saw the colony of cats” — “cats?” “Yes cats. We saw them right here, three years ago.” It’s not just that he has a better memory than me. He knows where to place his memories so they don’t get lost. Without a map, buildings rear up — seemingly out of nowhere — yet I find myself covering the same ground again and again.  

What is there when there’s no map?  There’s always something. There are always connections in place, always some story being told.

Gui and her colleagues Pedro and Isabel have dedicated themselves to making sure that their city is mapped in detailed, critical and historically informed ways.  In the kiosk which they have lovingly renovated, they distribute zines, pamphlets about local building projects, and maps created by Use-It-Travel, an organization which distributes non-commercial maps generated by locals. The advantage of the kiosk, says Gui, is that people from Porto are attending the tours, wanting to look beyond their habitual paths through their own city. Wanting to see what is unmapped, wanting a say in who gets to map it and how.




2 thoughts on “Off the Map”

  1. wendy joan campbell says:

    Thanks for reminding me of how I loved Porto…best memory of many, losing track of David at the Contemporary Art Museum, walking down to the sea and eating by myself perched on a cliff, taking off in what I thought was the right direction, coming to a small square where people were dancing as if they were in a ballroom, then wending my way back to the centre of town…where David was frantic, thinking I’d been abducted into the seraglio.

  2. Fascinating, makes me want to go Porto–and on the Worst Tour! I’m curious to see what happens with urban farming in this city. Thanks for the useful links.

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