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Recife (Neighborhood)

The birth of the Recife neighborhood, the oldest in the city, dates back to the 16th century.

Recife (Neighborhood)

Article available in: PT-BR ESP

Last update: 24/05/2022

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - Researcher at the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation - Master in Psychology

The birth of Recife, the oldest neighborhood in the city, dates back to the 16th century. At that time, it was called Freguesia de São Frei Pedro Gonçalves. Some records refer to the locality as a narrow spit of land that measures fifty steps wide, taking in account some extra land. The first urban centers emerged there: Freguesia de São Frei Pedro Gonçalves and the Port of Recife. All the product from agricultural and sugar activity was sent by this port. From a geographical point of view, the Recife neighborhood arose at the end of the isthmus of Olinda, tight between the sea and the Capibaribe and  Beberibe rivers.


The region had a perimeter of approximately 1,000 square meters, where people huddled at one of the highest population densities ever known: 27,000 inhabitants per square kilometer. For this reason, Count Maurício de Nassau, during the period of Dutch occupation (1630-1654), built a wooden bridge with the aim of reaching the other locations of the captaincy. This construction was named Ponte Maurício de Nassau (Maurício de Nassau Bridge) and functioned as a link between the Avenida Marquês de Olinda (Marquês de Olinda Avenue) and the Rua Primeiro de Março (March 1st Street), in the Santo Antônio neighborhood.


Along the coastal strip, in turn, an anchorage would emerge near the walls of the reefs—formed millions of years ago by the encounter of the sea with the sand. During the Portuguese colonial period, it received the name of Arrecife dos Navios (Reef of the Ships), by the navigator Pero Lopes de Sousa, who recorded it in his travel diary—Diário da Navegação (1530-1532). For a long time, the Arrecife dos Navios represented the main gate for the flow of goods—sugar, pau-brasil (redwood) trees,  wild animals, gold, precious stones, and others—and the landing European immigrants, whose objective was to exploit the natural riches of the land discovered.


The historical trajectory of the Recife neighborhood is intrinsically connected to the history of the Port of Recife and to the socioeconomic and cultural development of both the state of Pernambuco and the Northeast of Brazil, once that port, besides representing the main point of exchange of goods, also supplied the captaincies of Piauí, Ceará,  Paraíba, Alagoas and Sergipe.


In the 16th century, with the Portuguese colonization, there was a growing movement of sugar production and export, which contributed to the emergence of the first villages of European immigrants along the vicinity of the port. Thereafter, several warehouses (for sugar storage), buildings, houses, mansions, affordable houses and commercial establishments were built. The Dutch presence brought to the captaincy a whole skilled labor force—craftsmen, researchers, engineers and technicians—and provided significant improvements to the locality.


Throughout time, and with the consequential development of navigation, the Port of Recife became a center of attractions for the population, who stopped to watch the boarding and landing of people and had fun with the arrival of the first steamships, ocean liners and foreign packet boats. When those crossed the bar, the noise of the cannon shots, fired from the Forte Quebra-Portas (Door Breaker Fort), were heard throughout the city. Other events also marked the social life of the port: the landing of illustrious personalities, such as Santos Dumont, Joaquim Nabuco, Dom Pedro II and Empress Teresa Cristina, as well as the river processions carried out by fishermen who were devotees of Our Lady of Navigators and Our Lady of Good Voyage. They made processions on rafts, boats and canoes, departing from the Marco Zero-Quilômetro (Kilometer Zero) and reaching the beaches of Boa Viagem and Piedade.


From the Praça do Marco Zero-Quilômetro (Kilometer Zero Square), in the Recife neighborhood, it is possible to see a sandstone wall, consolidated by calcium carbonate and produced by the dissolution of shells and corals. This wall—more than six thousand meters long—made possible the existence of the port. In 1836, the renowned English naturalist Charles Robert Darwin, while circumnavigating the world, visited those stones and wrote an article entitled On a remarkable bar of sandstone off Pernambuco, on the coast of Brazil (O recife de grés do porto de Pernambuco, in Portuguese) explaining the genesis of the reefs, their durability, and the role of certain corals and mollusks in the formation of the wall. He also concluded that, without the afore mentioned sandstone barrier, an anchorage would never exist.


Before the 19th century, the boats that arrived in the city anchored outside the bar, and the landing of passengers was quite painful. With the construction of the Cais da Lingueta (Lingueta Pier)—also called Lamarão, Poço, Mosqueiro, or Laminhas—large ships became able to dock at the port. Finally, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Brazilian government undertook a series of important works in the port, which were left up to the company Societé de Construction du Port de Pernambuco. At that time, large warehouses and mooring docks were built and the interior of the port was dredged. The first steamship to dock at the pier was São Paulo, a packet boat belonging to Lloyd Brasileiro, a Brazilian shipping company. During World War II, the port also had a significant historical participation, serving as a military base for the Brazilian and North American Expeditionary Forces.


In the Port of Recife, bohemians wandered at the early hours of the day, seeking prostitutes, bars, alcoholic drinks, and/or friends.  Besides that, several representatives of Brazilian culture crossed the port region, such as Gilberto Freyre, Mauro Motta, Antônio Maria, Carlos Pena Filho, Mário Melo, Ascenso Ferreira, Gilberto Osório de Andrade, Hugo Ferreira (Hugo da Peixa), Renato Carneiro Campos, among others. The women of the neighborhood were called “ladies of the night” by Ascenso Ferreira. In honor of the great poet, there is today a square with his name, in the Cais do Apolo (Apolo Pier), built on the edge of the Capibaribe river, and a huge concrete bust, where two engraved plates are found. In one of them, there is an excerpt of his verses:                                                                                              
Alone, at night
in the empty streets
of the old Recife
that, behind the village,
became modern...
a child again
I feel I am.


The poet who loved to wander around the neighborhood and talk about the mills, the Great Houses, sugarcane, the cowboys of the Northeast Brazil, cangaço,  bumba-meu-boi,  the carnival, the blind guitar players.


In the Port of Recife, there was a square called Voluntários da Pátria (Patriotic Volunteers) that later acquired the name of Arsenal da Marinha (Navy Arsenal), and today is called Praça Artur Oscar (Artur Oscar Square), in honor of one of the generals who led the Canudos campaign. In this square, the visitors can admire the Torre Malakoff (Malakoff Tower), a monument that is part of the historical and tourist heritage of the city.


In the neighborhood, a famous fun house operated in the decades from 1930 to 1950: Cassino Imperial (Imperial Casino), located on Avenida Marquês de Olinda, one of the most elegant avenues in Recife. Beyond the Casino, there was also the Casa de Banhos,(Bath House) the Forte do Brum (Brum Fort), the Estação Ferroviária do Brum (Brum Railway Station)—from where the trains of the Great Western of Brazil Railway Co. Ltd. departed—the Ponte Giratória (Swing Bridge), the Cruz do Patrão (Master’s Cross)—a Doric column six meters high and two in diameter, from the 16th century—the Forte do Picão (Picão Fort), the Monument to Infante Dom Henrique, the Igreja da Madre de Deus (Church of the Mother of God)—one of the most important temples in baroque style, built in 1709—among others. The Bar OK (OK Bar), located on Avenida Marquês de Olinda, and the Bar do Chileno (Chilean’s Bar), which clientele was composed of seafarers, were also famous. The last one was located at the beginning of the current Rua do Bom Jesus (Good Jesus Street). Nowadays, on the site of Bar do Chileno, there is a bookstore.


At the current Rua do Apolo, 121 (121 Apolo Street), former Rua Visconde de Itaparica (Visconde de Itaparica Street), there is a building which construction was suspended for a while, and where the Sociedade Harmônico-Teatral (Harmonic-Theatrical Society) used to operate. This building is the Teatro Apolo (Apolo Theater), built from 1835 to 1840, and opened in 1946, with the play O Mouro de Ormuz (The Moor from Ormuz).


The Sinagoga Kahal Zur Israel—or Congregação Rochedo de Israel (“Rock of Israel”)—was the first synagogue of the Americas and represents one of the most important landmarks of the Jewish presence in the Colonial Brazil. The temple is located on Rua do Bom Jesus, formerly called Bockestraet and Rua dos Judeus (Jews Street), and represented, during the Dutch occupation period, the first official synagogue of the Jews living in the Americas. Next to this synagogue, two religious schools also operated: Talmud Torah and Etz Hayim. After the defeat of the Dutch, that street became known as Rua da Cruz (Cross Street), and the buildings of the synagogue and religious schools received the number 26. The street received its current name—Rua do Bom Jesus— only in 1879. This name would mark the return of the Portuguese colonial dominance, as well as the persecutions against all those who followed Jewish traditions.


At Rua São Jorge, 419 (419 St. George Street), a continuation of Rua do Bom Jesus, Frei Caneca (Friar Joaquim do Amor Divino Caneca), the Carmelite and patriot who became a martyr of the Confederation of the Equator, is believed to have been born. He is one of the most important personalities in the history of Pernambuco, and, on January 13, 1825, was sentenced and executed at the Forte das Cinco Pontas (Five Angles Fort).


Throughout time, beautiful buildings deteriorated and the neighborhood acquired a gloomy and ugly aspect. In this sense, since 1994, the process of deterioration that the region was suffering was reversed. The neighborhood acquired a new look, and then one of the most relevant tourist centers emerged: Recife Antigo (Old Recife). The mansions and buildings were restored and painted, and new bars, restaurants, and other commercial establishments arose. Today, some warehouses that were part of the port complex are being used as cultural centers for dance and theater groups, virtual libraries, exhibitions, craft fairs, stores and shopping malls. Also, the buildings in colonial style were listed by the Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico Artístico Nacional (IPHAN—National Artistic and Historical Heritage).


To arrive to Recife Antigo, just go down the Ponte 12 de Setembro (September 12 Bridge)—former Ponte Giratória—and go straight ahead on Avenida Alfredo Lisboa (Alfredo Lisboa Avenue). Praça do Marco Zero-Quilômetro is there, just behind the Monument to Paranhos Júnior. In this square, which was restored in recent years, an inscription can be seen: 0 km/Automóvel Clube de Pernambuco/31-1-1938. There is also a marble monument, measuring one and a half meters high, that represents the bust of Nelcy da Silva Campos, the marine pilot who became a hero of Pernambuco.


In this regard, on June 28, 2004, via municipal law no. 16.983/2004, the Maritime Passenger Terminal of Recife, located at the Marco Zero, became Terminal Marítimo de Passageiros Prático Nelcy da Silva Campos (Maritime Passenger Terminal Pilot Nelcy da Silva Campos). Besides the monument of this hero, in the same square there are two other gems to be admired: a stylized lighthouse, carved by Francisco Brennand, and a panel, on the floor, designed by Cícero Dias.


In 1630, the Forte de São Jorge (St. George Fort) heroically resisted the landing of the Dutch, bombing their ships for more than twenty days. With only thirty-seven men, the quality of the defense and the courage of the combatants made the Flemish (in greater number and better armed) surrender after losing a considerable number of soldiers.  The fort was built in the 16th century by the owners of the captaincy of Pernambuco, in order to provide security and protection to the port bar. Nowadays, the fortification is called Forte do Brum, and represents one of the relics of the Recife neighborhood. Because of its relevant historical value, the building was listed by IPHAN. In turn, on December 19, 1985, via the Ministerial Order no. 1240, the Federal Government authorized the creation of the Museu Militar do Forte do Brum (MMFB—Brum Fort Military Museum), in honor of the Northeastern soldier. The place was inaugurated on January 5, 1987, as a space for tourist visitation, study and reflection.  


With the revitalization plan for the Recife neighborhood, many old buildings and sites were restored, gaining new colors. Among them are the Cais da Alfândega (Customs Pier), the praças Rio Branco and Tiradentes (Rio Branco and Tiradentes squares), the Largo da Igreja do Pilar (Church of Pillar Square), the boardwalk and the Praça do Arsenal da Marinha (Navy Arsenal Square), the ruas Bom Jesus, Domingos José Martins, Dona Maria César, and Moeda, as well as the bridges that leave or arrive to the Recife neighborhood: the Ponte de Limoeiro (Limoeiro Bridge), a Ponte Buarque de Macedo (Buarque de Macedo Bridge), a Ponte Maurício de Nassau e a Ponte 12 de Setembro. As a result of the revitalization process of the neighborhood, the capital of Pernambuco gained an important leisure center for the population, besides a new national and international tourist center.

Recife, March 23, 2020.


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how to quote this text

VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Recife (Neighborhood). In: PESQUISA Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2020. Available from: Access on: dia mês ano. (Ex: 6 ago. 2020.)