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Rio Destroys Oldest Red Light District

January 5, 1996

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil _ Near dawn, the last of countless clients had gone, and the bulldozers came to evict the working women of Vila Mimosa.

``They said we could leave the easy way or the hard way,″ said a prostitute named Claudia. ``We didn’t want a fight, so we left.″

Within hours Thursday, the oldest red-light district in South America was extinct.

As wrecking crews moved in to raze the compound of 67 brick-and-board shacks where some 1,500 prostitutes made their living, a part of Brazil’s history passed with it.

Vila Mimosa was all that remained of a sprawling Bohemian district that dated back to the 1700s, when Brazil was a Portuguese colony, and Rio was its capital.

Far from the city’s center, the district then was in an undesirable and unhealthful region known as the ``zona do mangue,″ Portuguese for mangrove zone.

But as Rio grew, the zone no longer was undesirable. The swampy land was drained, and the city built an office complex in the area that was renamed Cidade Nova _ New City. The red-light district retreated.

Now, a modern telecommunications center called Teleport is going up next door. Vila Mimosa was in the way.

``It was essential for them to leave,″ said Jorge Rodrigues, Rio’s deputy secretary of housing. ``They were in the path of excavations. We have a timetable, and a timetable represents costs.″

Many of the women of Vila Mimosa lost all they owned when the bulldozers came.

``I don’t where I’ll go now, or what I’ll do,″ said Edith Alves, a regular of Vila Mimosa. ``This was all I had.″

The city government says it gave about $325,000 to the Rio Prostitutes Association for compensation.

The association’s president, Euridice Coelho Reis, said the money went to build another Vila Mimosa in the industrial suburb of Duque de Caxias. But the city’s mayor, Moacyr do Carmo, said he wouldn’t allow Rio to ``dump its moral trash″ there.

On Wednesday, some of the prostitutes moved to an abandoned warehouse down the road. Residents blocked the street in protest and said they would go to court to keep the prostitutes from setting up shop.

Some of the women simply watched silently as trash collectors loaded trucks with what was left of Vila Mimosa. They filed in and out, carrying sinks, fans, bar stools, bottles of cane liquor, a jukebox that played the favorite slow-dance records.

``Ah, you could make good money here,″ said Claudia, who couldn’t remember how many clients she entertained on a busy night. ``Friday and Saturday alone were enough to make your week.″

On those nights, thousands of construction workers would cram the dead-end street, lined with one-story houses in faded orange, yellow, red, green and blue. Each house had a narrow ladder leading up to a rickety loft with a bed, where a 10-minute ``programa″ cost $15 to $20.

``Those who had money went to Copacabana. Those who didn’t came to Vila Mimosa to find happiness,″ said Gilberto dos Santos, who sold sandwiches to clients of Vila Mimosa.

Cristina de Oliveira sat glumly on a stoop, staring at the litter of a life: A pair of abandoned shoes, keys to vanished doors, a broken bed frame.

``It’s not fair to put us in the street,″ she said. ``For better or worse, people need this.″

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