Streets Repaved With Gold: Former Lisbon Red Light District “Largo Do Intendente” Cleans Up Act

Lisbon’s castle dominates the ancient tangle of narrow alleyways, steep staircases and unexpected cul-de-sacs, or “Becos,” of the working class neighbourhoods of Mouraria, Alfama and Intendente.

The trio are survivors of the devastating 1755 earthquake and amongst the oldest in the city. Their roots are firmly in the Moorish culture that permeated Lisbon’s history. Still multicultural, they are populated by Goan Indians, Bangladeshis and Macao Chinese, as well as native Portuguese.

Like much of Inner Lisbon, high levels of social deprivation and unemployment persist, but they are steeped in history, character and charm. However Intendente was the exception, a place no visitor would ever want to stumble across.

A short stroll downhill from the castle, it was a dark underbelly in the heart of the city. Its hub was the faded square of ‘Largo Do Intendente Pina Manique,’ surrounded by crumbing buildings in Lisbon’s signature Pombaline style.

This is where it all happens

This Is Where It All Happens

The only indication of former grandeur was a fountain probably not used since Portugal was a dictatorship. A short walk from the buzzing streets of the Baixa district, it was animated with a different kind of hustle and bustle…lowlifes, dealers, junkies, prostitutes and their clients. With problems as deep as the River Tagus, I gave Intendente the affectionate nickname of “The Badlands.”

My parents fell in love with Lisbon on their first visit and decided to buy a holiday apartment. It was while house hunting that they discovered the square.

On a visit to a potential property, the estate agent took them the long way up the hill, cunningly bypassing the seedy square entirely. My parents could hear music pumping from the streets below and made a mental note to walk back that way.

What a shock to stumble across one of Lisbon’s most notorious red light districts. The square was the turf of an endless stream of junkies, while a few metres away historic trams rattled past on the Avenida Almirante Reis, shuttling oblivious tourists past in their tourist daydream bubble.

Prostitutes, when not eyeing up potential customers, sat knitting or plaiting each other’s hair, creating a subversive domesticity. Their pimps and dealers were always on hand to make sure everyone’s business needs were attended to. Every group functioned like one big dysfunctional extended family.

traditional lisbon

The Acceptable Tourist Face of Lisbon

Change arrived when the Mayor of Lisbon unexpectedly moved his office into the area, the impetus to spur development. Like London’s Shoreditch or New York’s Lower East Side, Intendente had all the ingredients for success; central, accessible, a rich history, historic buildings with low rents and many squares and shops nearby.

Its renovation continues to redraw the map of Lisbon’s city centre, shifting its boundaries ever further north. Today, it seems the only way is up. Every street is adorned with optimistic messages such as “Rebuilding Lisbon brick by brick” or “reviving Mouraria”.

Where once ladies of the night (and day) dwelt, pavement cafes now spill out onto the newly repaved and pedestrianised square. Civility has arrived at the heart of the badlands.

High tech street lighting complements the classical architecture. Once neglected buildings have been given a new lease of life, with fresh new tiles, while more await the same treatment.

Fountain back in use

Fountain Back In Use

Above a cafe which uses vintage storage chests as outdoor tables Is artist’s residence Largo Estudio, featuring regular talks and events. Next door the wrought iron balcony railings of renovated buildings, which doubtless will house more artists, are being repainted,. A bike shop, or “BikePop,” operates beneath, a sure sign of hipsterdom. That a cyclist is a rare sight in hilly Lisbon does not deter the hipsters.

An artwork by Joana Vasconcelos, one of Portugal’s most famous contemporary artists, now stands In the middle of the square. A figure of eight love seat of painted red wrought iron with a love heart pattern now stands in a public garden which metaphorically sows the seeds of Intendente as an up and coming artists’ quarter. It is also a cheeky nod to the world’s oldest profession and previous chief employment in the area.

Most exciting are the regular pop up parties thrown by local artists, free for all to attend. Here young Portuguese women dance the Angolan kiduro dance to Afrobeat music, in what used to be someone’s dining room.

There is potential here to rival the traditional nightlife haunt of Barrio Alto. The area has always had a bohemian atmosphere, the streets once ringing out with the sounds of Fado, a traditional “Portuguese blues” style born in Mouraria.

Me enjoying the love seat

Me Enjoying The Love Seat

Another of my nicknames for Intendente was “Hamsterdam”, after a rundown Baltimore neighbourhood in US TV show ‘The Wire,’ which a police chief clandestinely declares free and legal for drug dealers to peddle their goods. Intendente seemed so lawless that the nickname appeared apt. However Intendente is no Hamsterdam.

The 2001 decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal was a major change in policy that allowed officials to crackdown on drugs and prostitution. Drug users would no longer be penalised for carrying small amounts of drugs. However, they could be aggressively targeted to enter rehab and have access to clean needles. Those who sold drugs were penalised, rather than those who consume them.

Mean streets?

Mean Streets?

Despite the war on drugs, efforts to curb drug use have not been entirely successful. The old badlands remains on the fringes of the square. A few diehards suck at their crack pipes openly, studying passerbys with suspicion.

There is a police presence both day and night, although they exist only to keep the heart of the square clean. Here, the only reminder of this once rough and tumble area is a homeless man spread out on a bench, oblivious to the scorching midday sun.

Amidst all the former chaos and degradation, a tile shop has weathered the storm since 1865. If walls could talk they would tell a thousand tales.

Shop assistant Isabel told me, “Residents were afraid to come and go in the night, once there was even a murder.” Trade has been buoyant but modest, due to the worst financial crisis since the Salazar dictatorship.

Tile shop- A show of fortitude

Tile Shop- A Show of Fortitude

Inside the tile shop

Inside The Tile Shop

The enduring poverty of the area is engrained in its Moorish past, with its history of marginalisation and stereotypes. Today, recent Immigrants have poor relations both with each other and indigenous Portuguese residents, resident here for generations.

The Portuguese government now see Lisbon’s old districts as assets and their renewal as beneficial to the city economy. But despite the parties, cafes and rejuvenation, the life and edge of the district has slightly diminished. The pedestrian traffic, albeit of the less respectable kind, has dropped from a steady flow to a trickle.

Daytime is now quiet and peaceful, bolstering the local businesses as the young, trendy and moneyed move in. Inevitably this younger population tends to be of the skinny jeaned, spectacle wearing, coffee drinking variety.

Creative cafe culture in winter

Creative Cafe Culture in Winter

My parents eventually bought an apartment 5 minutes away in Mouraria, and have seen the area evolve first hand.  Mouraria itself has seen profound changes. There are now guided tours, the draw being the Moorish history, winding streets, celebrated through murals and visits to the birthplaces of famous “fadistas.”

These tours most likely circumvent Largo Do Intendente. In fact a simple Google search of Intendente brings up more references to Mouraria than to its own “Freguesia” of Anjos. Intendente aspires to be associated with the more prosperous Mouraria.

Intendente is still an area in transition, with bricked up shells of buildings and lingering social problems that  authorities are trying to sweep under the carpet. It has come a long way from a blot on the map, a place that paradoxically time forgot in a city that still lives on past glories.

Whether the creativity and life of the area will be swept away, like so many areas in flux in the Western world. However, there will always be a place for the badlands in the hearts of all of those who knew and loved the area for what it was.

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