Rio de Janeiro: Rotting, crumbling, covered in graffiti, overrun by weeds, the hulking wreck of a building known as the Aldeia Maracana would make an unsightly addition to any neighborhood.
But it happens to stand next to Rio's Maracana Stadium, the soccer cathedral that will host some of the World Cup's most important matches, including the final. To get to the stadium, tens of thousands of fans will have to pass the Aldeia Maracana's ruined walls, now unattractively shielded by a 10-foot mesh fence. If the Maracana is the celebrated face of Brazilian soccer, the Aldeia Maracana is the scab on its nose.
Why, those fans might wonder, has the building, whose name means "Maracana Village" and which has been, among other things, a grand residence, a government office building, a museum dedicated to indigenous people, and a home to vagrants and squatters, not been demolished by now?
Every global sporting event carries with it a tide of destruction along with redevelopment, as blighted old structures are torn down to make way for shiny new facilities, and this World Cup is no exception. Brazil spent tens of millions of dollars rebuilding the Maracana itself, a proud focal point in Brazil and the anchor of a neighborhood that is also home to Rio's state university and to the famous Mangueira samba school.
"Maracana is a great national symbol, not just for the people of Rio," said Jose; Bessa, an anthropologist and professor in the graduate school of social memory at Rio State University. "It's like a sacred temple for Brazilians, more important than the cathedral."
It is for this reason that the Aldeia Maracana needs to be restored and preserved at its original site, Bessa said. Apparently much of the country agrees. As a result of an unlikely alliance between political activists, representatives of Brazil's indigenous population who had been living on its grounds and the greater public, the planned demolition of Aldeia Maracana was abruptly halted last year after public protests related to the World Cup led the government to drop redevelopment plans for the area around the Maracana.
Saved at the last minute, the building became that most happy of structures, a protected landmark. There are now plans to renovate it and reopen it as a cultural center next fall.
"The reason it's still standing is because of the movement," Bessa said. "If it wasn't for that, the building would have been demolished."
The Aldeia Maracana had the grandest of beginnings, constructed in the 1860s as a home for a son-in-law of Pedro II, an emperor of Brazil, whose nearby palace is now the national museum. In 1910, the building was donated to the Ministry of Agriculture to serve as the headquarters of a newly created society for the protection of indigenous people. But as the city sprawled, construction covered the fields that once surrounded it, including a dusty horse track next door that was plowed under to build the Maracana for the 1950 World Cup.
The Aldeia Maracana was dwarfed and outshone by its new, splashy neighbor, which became the focal point for a soccer-mad country's hopes and dreams. But a new use was found for it in 1953, when anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro created Brazil's first Museu do Indio, or indigenous museum, in the building.
For two decades, the building appeared to have found its calling. But in 1977, the museum moved out, relocating to the distant Botafogo neighborhood. Plans were drawn up to build a subway station on the site.
The station was never built. The Aldeia Maracana - ignored, forgotten, allowed to fall into disrepair, given over to the elements - became home to a succession of vagrants, migrants and criminals. Then, in 2006, it took a turn, becoming the headquarters for a group of activists who moved in and reclaimed it on behalf of Brazil's indigenous population. They said they wanted to clean it up and make something of it.
"We went in to protect it," said Arassari, a member of the Pataxo tribe who lived there. "It was a hiding place for criminals, a place of prostitution. It was an area right in front of Maracana, this postcard of our country, and it was completely in ruins."
Activists like Arassari turned it into a way station that would welcome indigenous visitors to Rio.
After Brazil won the right to host this year's World Cup, however, organizers drew up ambitious redevelopment plans for the area that included, among other things, restaurants and a shopping mall. The Aldeia Maracana was to be bulldozed.
The plans were part of the much-reviled Lei Geral da Copa, the so-called FIFA law that granted soccer's governing body broad and seemingly inviolate powers of control over Brazil's 12 World Cup venues.
The building's residents refused to leave, even when, in March 2013, they were given 72 hours to get out or face the consequences. Those came in the form of 200 riot police who arrived in the middle of the night and removed them. At least one group returned, but the final squatters were removed in December.
In the interim, fury at the FIFA law and complaints about out-of-control government spending in a country where many live in poverty sent millions of Brazilians to the streets in protest. The Little Building That Couldn't suddenly became a cause.
Quickly backtracking in the face of so much opposition, FIFA denied it had ever proposed demolishing the structure. Local government officials, including the Rio state governor, Sérgio Cabral, and the city's mayor, Eduardo Paes, soon approved protections that barred its demolition. Plans are also afoot to repair the building and reopen it yet again, as a cultural center, this fall.
Salvation has not yet produced renovation. Marcos Albuquerque, a professor of anthropology at Rio's state university, said the FIFA law had, perversely, delayed the planned improvements. Since FIFA essentially controls the Maracana site and its immediate surroundings, Albuquerque said, "until the World Cup is over, there is nothing that can be done to the building."
So for now, Brazil's government and World Cup organizers are taking an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach, perhaps hoping that the tens of thousands of visitors who pass by on their way to the stadium will somehow fail to notice the ruined behemoth.
On Tuesday, visitors who walked by could easily look through - or over - the mesh fence to see colorful indigenous drawings of figures and animals, and angrier murals depicting clenched fists and decrying "513 years of massacre." Security officers kept watch nearby, including two who parked their car on a section of pavement spray-painted with the Portuguese words for "indigenous property."
Bessa noted that compared with the tens of millions of dollars in spending on World Cup stadiums, it would cost "a pittance" to restore the former museum. In defending its importance to Brazil, he quoted Ribeiro, the man who created the indigenous museum there.
Ribeiro, Bessa noted, "used to say the bird of culture has two wings: popular culture on one side, education on the other."If you don't have the two wings acting together, the bird won't fly."
© 2014, The New York Times News Service