Amy Chazkel, “The Nocturnal Lives of a Nineteenth Century Brazilian City”. Commentary by ARC Student Fellow Emily B. Campbell

On November 5th, ARC Distinguished Fellow, and Professor of History at The Graduate Center, CUNY and Queens College, Amy Chazkel presented her current research, “The Nocturnal Lives of a Nineteenth Century Brazilian City”. Chazkel offered a detailed portrait of nighttime in Rio de Janeiro, and the socio-legal construction of night during the city’s 53-year long curfew, part of her forthcoming book, tentatively titled, Urban Chiaroscuro: Rio de Janeiro and the History of Nightfall. Chazkel opened the talk by challenging the notion of the night as a time of innate danger, and asked the audience to instead see night as a sociolegal construct of control, policing, curfew and states of siege or exception.

Chazkel emphasized Brazil and Rio de Janeiro as a particularly interesting site, where slavery was not abolished until 1888 and urban modernity and slavery overlapped in profound ways. Drawing on an impressively vast archive of information, Chazkel used travel letters, period paintings, maps, newspapers, public records on the theatre, arrest records, police edicts, among other sources to sketch a portrait of night in Rio at this time, in order to further discussions on modernity and social control. The control of public space through curfews, Chazkel argues, gave way to the novel articulation of the ‘right to the city’ and freedom of movement in public space post-emancipation. Chazkel’s project, has literally been that of pulling out from the shadows, as no explicit archives or materials on nightfall or curfews exist. Fascinatingly, a footnote explaining, “after dark a stick became a weapon” piqued her curiosity and led to this research.

Chazkel explained that Francisco Teixera de Aragão instituted the 53-year curfew in 1825 after the Constitution of 1824 upheld slavery. The curfew was imposed at 10 PM and 9PM in winter months, and was signaled by the unceasing ringing of church bells for thirty minutes. After the curfew began, slaves found on the street were subject to arrest, corporal punishment (often public whipping) and detention. The curfew was instituted through polices edicts, practices and city ordinances. Curfew violations were classified under “troublesome activity” and a threat to “public tranquility”. The curfew did not apply to “well known persons of integrity” and free white-persons, though Chazkel was careful to point out the regular, though arbitrary enforcement of the curfew, as police decided a person’s social standing and race in the darkness of night. Slaves that carried written permissions from their owners were not punished. At some points during the 53-years, curfew violation accounted for up to one fourth of all arrests.

Restrictions on movement, through the curfew, did not impair the economy, and served as a means of labor discipline, and class differentiation in the use of public spaces and in the post-colonial distinction of citizen/non-citizen. Most people did not have clocks of their own, though life was structured by time, with a balloon visible throughout the city released at noon, and church bells marking the start of curfew.

Chazkel also profiled the burgeoning demand for public illumination and the growth of theatres, marking a shift towards a culture of night leisure and urban entertainment. Of special importance was the theatre Alcazar Lyrique, which was celebrated as having changed notions of taste, the culture of leisure, and contributed to the growing acceptance of public drinking alongside the growth in theater attendance. By the 1870’s the curfew became more difficult to enforce and it was dropped in 1888 with the end of slavery. The curfew can be seen as the beginning of modern policing, with its eventual end and subsequent growth of vagrancy law thereafter.

Reflecting on Chazkel’s work, one is both enticed by the rendering of the past she evokes, and equally compelled to reflect on her broader questions of the right to the use public space, projects of social control and times and states of exception. Who has a right to the city is as pertinent a question as ever in our contemporary American moment, looking to the neoliberal dilemma of private-public space exemplified during the occupation of lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park by Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and public debates around racialized policing practices, most recently decried by the Black Lives Matter movement. The day/night distinction in the use, conception and control of public space persists, and historical work such as Chazkel’s offers a burgeoning, necessary illumination.