In the five kilometers from central Lisbon to north Marvila, austerity takes over. The area’s blocky social buildings may have sweeping views of the Tagus river, but there are no pristine green spaces, tidy cobblestone streets, or quaint colorful buildings. Compared with the rest of Lisbon’s bustling energy and trendy lojas, half of Marvila’s ground floor shops are empty, rolling metal shutters drawn shut. There aren’t enough visitors to warrant doing business. There aren’t even basic conveniences like a market, laundromat, or pharmacy.
Marvila is part of Lisbon, barely 12 minutes outside the city center, but few people venture there. Uber drivers making the trip will ask if you know what you’re doing, raising a concerned eyebrow in the rear-view mirror, and pizzerias won’t deliver. A 1998 award-winning film, Zona J (“Zone J” in Portuguese), forever immortalized Marvila as one of the city’s most dangerous areas.
It wasn’t always like this. Local historian Antonio Miranda says Marvila was once a hub of riverfront industry. But when local manufacturing collapsed in the mid-1900s, workers who moved from throughout Portugal became jobless, and Lisbon’s bustling heart became its biggest slum. Decades later, when the government relocated people to social housing, the area’s white, black, and Romani Portuguese residents segregated into a modern-day chain of isolated urban islands and lettered zones. Even with the area’s drastic improvements in recent decades, its infamy remains.
Today, Lisbon’s second-largest district feels worlds apart. Few neighborhoods have been so neglected. This has deeply shaped residents’ identities, both separating Marvilans from Lisboans, and dividing groups within their own community. But recently, Marvila’s landscape has been shifting, sparked by two unexpected catalysts: a rogue librarian and an unusual library where gaming is encouraged, rather than forbidden.
A District Divided
In satellite view, Marvila looks like a construction zone immortalized at its worst moment: Lisbon is over there, a twisting, dense labyrinth of red-roofed Pombalino buildings, and Marvila is abutting, an archipelago of sparse, blotchy islands—buildings strewn among overgrown urban voids. Its separation from Lisbon is clear. What’s less clear are Marvila’s internal strata: racial tensions, urban islands, and lettered zones.
The area’s history dates back to Roman times, but these divisions are far more recent. From the 1970s on, the city began moving former factory workers and their descendants from slums to social housing. It made the area more outwardly palatable, but didn’t improve Marvilans’ lives. “No public transportation, no sidewalks, no connection between the different neighborhoods,” says Miranda. “We didn’t make urbanism that connected people. We created urbanism that separates them.” This failed urban planning disrupted people’s communal lifestyles, facilitating social stratification and gang mentalities.
Antonio Miranda demonstrates one of Marvila’s many urban voids. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
Indie game developer Pedro Oliveira grew up in the Chelas slum and experienced the downside to its destruction. For all its challenges, he fondly recalls communal life in the “wooden barracks.” This is where he shared toys with other children when his mother couldn’t afford them. Back then, people helped each other by sharing water and clothing, and by growing food in community gardens. When the city bulldozed the slum for a golf park, life changed for the worse. His mother’s tiny social apartment was a fraction the size of her beloved former house, which Oliveira says was also on legally purchased land inside the slum.
In impersonal, multilevel social buildings, the close-knit community was gone. Growing food and sharing resources was difficult. People no longer knew their neighbors. Youth formed group identities around letter-assigned zones, like A, M, J, and L, and began fighting turf wars. “It became a social ghetto,” Miranda said. “We concentrated lots of people from this slum in several groups of buildings, in isolated islands, and each one became their own identity.” While life in the slum wasn’t perfect, social housing was far worse.
Social buildings in Marvila. According to Miranda, not all residents are happy with the murals, which stamp their buildings as social housing. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
Only Zone J remains today, but its reputation persists in Lisboans’ collective consciousness, kept alive by the namesake movie and media reports on drugs, gangs, and violence. “People think it’s a ghetto, but it’s not true,” Patricia Santos, a Marvilan who lives right next to the library said. “People live here. We are here. We don’t have problems with anybody.” They don’t have mini-markets or other basics, she says, but these are solvable problems.
Yet even as the area has improved, divisions live on. One long-time resident of public housing, Cila Ferreira, hardly talks to lower-income neighbors in the same building. They’re Romani, African, and black Portuguese; she’s white. She pays rent; they don’t. Through an interpreter, she explains that she and others think it’s unfair that some people don’t pay for their apartments. She says she tries not to separate people by race, but she still doesn’t trust her neighbors. So she says hello, then goes about her way.
An unwanted gift
The library sits among Marvila’s social and cooperative buildings. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
When the city council announced plans in 2012 for a new local library, Marvilans eyed it with skepticism. Lisbon city hall officials envisioned this and other “libraries of the future” as a way to directly connect with locals, address illiteracy, and tackle inequity, but the library team says many residents saw it differently: just another imposition.
It’s just that locals weren’t used to anyone taking an interest. For decades after the failed social housing project, developers renovated adjacent areas for wealthy investors and tourists. Until recently, the underground metro skipped Marvila on weekends, and still only a few buses pass through, a rarity in well-connected Lisbon. Stark fields filled with refuse and a magnificent 18th century palace crumbled—“an absolute crime,” Miranda said. In this environment, even an innocuous library starts looking suspicious, a feel-good plan hatched by misguided outsiders.
Marvila’s neglected palace. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
The enormous, 3000-square meter Biblioteca de Marvila nonetheless opened its doors six years later. It was Lisbon’s largest, the €5,700,000 crown jewel in Programa Biblioteca XXI [“Library Program XXI”], which aims to focus on community services and double the number of Lisbon libraries by 2024. It could have remained only a library, eyed askance and left empty by wary Marvilans. But an unusual head coordinator has taken an everyday building and turned it into a local fixture with gaming programs unlike anything in Portugal.
At the time, Paulo Jose Silva was surprised to receive an invitation to interview for the head librarian role. “The first thing I said is, ‘I’m not a librarian, I’m an anthropologist and I work with crime,’” he said with a laugh. But this oversimplifies his past 11 years of work. After a master’s in social movements and urban anthropology, Silva worked with Lisbon’s city hall, first on immigration, and later on human rights and anti-trafficking. His team put hundreds of undocumented immigrants on a path to legal citizenship, even winning two prizes from the EU and Portuguese Migrant Council for immigrant rights work.
When he accepted the position, Silva knew he was an outsider in Marvila and that empathy would be key. Instead of arriving with a blueprint, he viewed the space as a blank slate. Before anything, he had to understand people’s needs by seeing how they live. That’s how the gamers began arriving.
Biblioteca de Marvila’s exterior. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
Down from the derelict palace and across from an empty field, Biblioteca de Marvila’s sparse concrete expanse stands out only for its newness. But the building is a chimera; the modern facade and open atrium fuse with another old palace, the renovated Quinta das Fontes. And it’s a chimera in another way: a library, art gallery, community center, performance area, and LAN cafe, all in one. Here people are as likely to be attending a film festival or stomping their feet to a rhythmic capoeira class as they are to be reading or gaming.
It began with popular computer literacy classes for older residents, added based on focus groups and Programa Biblioteca XXI’s general guidance. But Silva went off-script when gamers began showing up at the library to play. On an afternoon or weekend, you’ll now find the library’s youngest visitors sprawled in the gaming room. Without computers at home, this is their best and only place to game. Having anyone use the library was a big first victory, so when gamers eagerly showed up, Silva welcomed them. These days, the kids spend hours playing Counter-Strike and Minecraft, or attending classes on how to become YouTubers. The head librarian, a World of Warcraft player himself, even pops in to chat. He knows everyone’s names and families, and parents ask for regular advice on dealing with their kids.
The library hosts a broad range of activities like capoeira (Afro-Brazilian martial arts). Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
Programa Biblioteca XXI reimagines libraries as local hubs where people go beyond reading books, from socializing to becoming more “digitally literate.” But there are no specific guidelines; individual libraries are free to run focus groups within their communities and create programs as they see fit. In Alvalade, another parish near Marvila, residents didn’t have a library for over three years when their old one was shut down for “security reasons”. When the new Coruchéus library opened in 2013, it drew attention for offering social spaces, tablets, and a PS3—though the latter was for virtual reality books, not gaming.
Though the program suggests supporting education with “a range of interactive and portable devices,” inviting gamers into a library is different. Even with this kind of broad latitude, Silva said games are still seen as “just for weird guys and nerds,” nothing with educational merit. Other librarians and local politicians viewed his actions with skepticism. However, there’s some precedent for what he’s doing. Oliveira said Marvila library’s gaming programs remind him of Junta de Freguesia de São João de Brito (now Junta de Freguesia de Alvalade), a parish council building and community center where local kids could once study, learn instruments, build toy models, and play computer games. It was a welcoming place where he, his siblings, and friends could go after school while their mom was busy working. Those programs are long gone, but they remain one of Oliveira’s fondest childhood memories.
Despite outsiders’ doubts, Marvila library’s pro-gaming policy has changed community dynamics. Oliveira said parents no longer worry about kids’ whereabouts and safety. With the library close to the school, kids go immediately after classes to hang out with friends, get help with homework, and play games. When the library opens later on weekends, he says they line up for an hour just to get in and play. And although racial tensions persist outside the library walls, Silva and one of the library’s collaborators, Bapa Dreams studio co-founder Ana Mota, say you’ll see kids playing side by side here. It’s the kind of structured environment they lacked in the past; one where they can play unlimited games, provided they do it respectfully.
Kids from all of Marvila’s different backgrounds come here to game together. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
Kids come to the library for hours of gaming. There are no time limits, but they do have to get along. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
Getting locals to the library was the start. The next step was convincing Lisboans. One 12-day festival, Os Dias de Marvila [“Marvila Days”], featured collaborations between local and national musicians, artists, dancers, and filmmakers, and attracted hundreds of citywide attendees. By highlighting its heritage with pride, both residents and outsiders began viewing Marvila as a place worth celebrating. Seeing so many Lisboans in the district was a total paradigm shift. “[Marvilans] felt abandoned before this,” Miranda said. “No one from Lisbon wanted […] to come here, not even to see the magnificent ruins of a palace like the one right next to this library.”
Silva’s team is now combining culture and games. It began in Summer 2017, when they became the first Portuguese library hosting a gaming event. The three-day Bibliogamers event packed in presentations, indie game demos, and an esports competition. Local kids attended in droves and clamored for more.
The librarian saw it as proof that local gamers’ passion could be channeled into tech education, but he had little luck convincing politicians. When he mentioned gaming, they brushed his investment proposals aside and “treated me like a crazy person,” he said. He and Mota said it’s because Portuguese politicians see games as juvenile, not artistic, cultural, or educational. There’s no public Portuguese arts or technology funding for games, and officials are hesitant to take chances after the devastating 2011-2013 financial crisis.
As the library pushed to change perceptions of Marvila and gaming, others were fighting in their own way. Indie developer Oliveira’s master’s thesis is a game about Chelas. Distorção [“Distortion”] puts players in a visitor’s shoes as they walk through the area for the first time.
A neighborhood scene from Pedro Oliveira’s game about life in Chelas. Courtesy of Pedro Oliveira.
Oliveira says the game title references media misrepresentation of Chelas, Zone J, and Marvila. Even as the area has changed, perceptions haven’t caught up. In a 2018 report by independent Portuguese publication Fumaça, Ricardo Esteves Ribeiro writes that Chelas is still portrayed as a “peripheral neighborhood” and “den of violence.” Its reputation is so bad that job applicants can’t reveal their home addresses for fear of discrimination.
Oliveira has experienced this bias firsthand. Two hours away at his university in Coimbra, people have still heard the rumors. When they find out where he’s from, they grab their pockets and joke, “Please don’t rob me!” By portraying everyday life and Chelas residents, he hopes his game humanizes his ostracized home neighborhood.
Undeterred by the lack of political interest, Silva’s scrappy four-person team was planning their next move. A year later, in March 2019, Pac-Man’s waka-waka-waka broke the library’s usual quiet. It was Bibliogamers 2.0, a seven-day gaming extravaganza drawing over 200 attendees from throughout Lisbon. As with Marvila Days, “people were discovering where Marvila was,” Mota said, who helped Silva organize the event.
That weekend, they also hosted Portugal’s first library Game Jam. The theme: Marvila. Miranda took the 37 jammers on a historical district tour, where they snapped reference photos. Back at the library, they watched video interviews showcasing older generations’ childhood stories. Then they grouped up in teams blending Marvilans, Lisboans, professionals, amateurs, and kids of all ages, races, and genders. Marvila’s elders even dropped in to drink coffee and spend time with the developers.
Historian Antonio Miranda took the Game Jammers on a tour of Marvila to inspire their games. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
The developers’ task was to capture and celebrate Marvila’s heritage in games, and all nine prototypes fulfilled the prompt beyond expectations. The winning Sim City-style title shows the complex factors impacting Marvila’s evolution. Another takes place in the library with Silva as the unmistakable main character. A third draws direct inspiration from the video interviews, turning nostalgic childhood memories into a playable prototype. The games were clever and cultural, educational and emotional.
The library team said it felt magical, like a turning point. Mota could see the defining moment as a once-skeptical councilor began presenting the Game Jam prizes. With girls on every team and an all-female jury, it was as much about the games as the people they’d brought together. As applause rang out, the councilwoman “realized that this was cultural, this was serious, this was an unusual environment and an experience to repeat,” recalled Mota.
Finally, the library’s work was also catching politicians’ attention. Government officials began eagerly requesting gaming projects, and the councilor even asked if Silva had any new initiatives with corporate investment potential. He wasn’t the outrageous gamer librarian anymore.
Yet officials only began taking an interest when investor potential emerged. Other than building a library, outsiders seemed unwilling to tackle Marvila’s challenges. And since no one else cared, the onus to improve Marvila fell on residents, Silva’s small team, and local nonprofits like Rés-Do-Chão (“Ground Floor”, a reference to Marvila’s empty shops). But these internal forces may not be enough when the area’s biggest problem is also its most visible: There are actually two Marvilas.
Two Worlds Apart
Both natural and man-made barriers divide Marvila’s north and south. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
Looking up at the sharp dividing precipice, Miranda sighed. “They’re two worlds apart,” he said. After all this time, he’s still stunned by its starkness: “It’s a physical barrier. Up there it’s a different world.” But that’s just the half of it. For over 150 years, the main Porto-Lisbon railway has also severed Marvila’s inland north from the riverside south. A bridge was once in the works—buildings were even bulldozed—but the project was later canceled. There’s still no easy connection between the two sides.
There’s no easy path to the riverfront. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
The difference between Marvila’s halves is striking. The northeast is Biblioteca de Marvila’s home, a quiet and calm area with simple buildings and abandoned shops. A place where, despite negative perceptions, people keep to themselves. But make the trek across the rails or pass through a sparse no-man’s land and down precipitous stone steps, and there it is: southern Marvila. In this bustling district, converted factories host trendy breweries and restaurants. Riverfront warehouses are now climbing walls, crossfit gyms, and coworking spaces. BMWs and Mercedes park streetside, and construction sounds ring out all day. Gentrification is in full swing and so is a stealthy rebranding: “Marvila” increasingly means the riverfront, but when crime happens these days, it’s always in Zone J and Chelas.
South Marvila’s green spaces are a stark contrast to the north’s urban voids. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
Surrounded by youthful energy and separated by a sheer cliff, it’s hard to remember the north’s barren fields and supposedly dangerous streets are a mere 10 minute walk away, in a Marvila that’s not quite Marvila anymore. This divide sums up the perpetual neglect felt in the north. New development presses in on all sides, yet skims the invisible borders. Marvila-adjacent Braço de Prata gets away with a different name on a technicality: multi-million euro riverside condos, manicured streets, and pristine new bike lanes targeted at international investors. One stop beyond Marvila at Oriente station, a luxury mall glimmers alongside a new expo hall, former residents long ago shuffled to some other social housing project. The last decade’s development hit Lisbon at a breakneck pace but missed Marvila’s other half.
Missing infrastructure, poor urban planning, empty businesses, and social segregation; fixing these disparities seems like an impossible task to place on Marvilans and educational programs alone. Outside help seems inevitable. Still, there’s the question of how to make sustainable and ethical improvements.
To do this, the library team is tapping EU Project ROCK. The initiative funds “urban regeneration” in areas like Marvila. Although this sounds like a more palatable term for gentrification, the project has already supported Bibliogamers, the Game Jam, Marvila Days, historical neighborhood walks, community workshops, and is planning a library-based interpretive center. They’ve also been working with Marvila residents to identify key concerns like urban voids and gentrification.
For Silva, all these roads lead back to video games. He wants to turn Marvila library into an incubator, converting kids’ gaming passions into careers and training the next generation of developers. It’s a big bet when Portuguese politicians don’t give games any cultural merit, and when young people are skipping university for tourism-focused jobs. It’s an even more ambitious plan in Portugal’s game industry climate. Even inside the four-day, 60,000-attendee Lisbon Games Week, giant international brands reign supreme while a few local developers scrabble for recognition. Without local jobs, young Portuguese game talents are bleeding out to other EU countries. Mota says she believes they’ll return to support the local industry someday, but it’s unclear when this might happen.
Ana Mota and husband João Cardoso (right) left their office jobs to found indie studio Bapa Dreams, where they create educational games and mentor aspiring developers. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
Silva and his team are still confident about charting a path from playing games to making them. And maybe they’re onto something; Marvila has changed a lot in the two short years since Biblioteca de Marvila opened. Local gaming events and tech talks have attracted hundreds of attendees; Bapa Dreams is offering student internships; Santos has offered to train a library Counter-Strike team; and the city council is even discussing funding the Game Jam games for further development. The library is central to all these changes, and Silva is central to the library. “If Paulo goes away, I think the library will become another library with just […] books,” said Oliveira. “If Paulo goes away, I think that our library will [lose] a lot.”
An optimistic perspective is that investment can give residents the Marvila they’ve always wanted—that someone will step in and see the value of improving Marvila for Marvilans. But if these programs invite the same rapid gentrification that’s happening nearby, a very real risk is that locals may lose Marvila altogether.
As Marvilans improve their own lives and community, the area could become attractive to outside interests, especially with pressures like tourism. The €300 to €450 monthly rents near the library are a steal compared to the city center, where apartments rent for €1000 or more, far exceeding Lisbon’s €600 minimum wage. Mota believes the city could cave to investors and push social housing residents elsewhere. Miranda is less sure this would happen in cooperatives where residents share building ownership. Though there’s a risk that owners could be bought out, he says he doesn’t think the northeastern zone will gentrify in the next ten or even 15 years.
But Marvila could also lose its identity. “Portugal is a country that lives [off] of tourism,” Mota said. “We rebrand everything.” It happened in Chelas; the vast district from Oliveira’s childhood is now mostly gone, swallowed by neighboring parishes. It happened to the lettered zones; only Zone J remains. And it’s already happening in Marvila. One property management company compares the area to Brooklyn, while another travel blog calls Marvila and neighboring Beato “Lisbon’s hip new [neighborhoods].” Once-stigmatized areas could simply disappear, reorganized out of existence, or renamed and reborn as hidden gems.
Despite these uncertainties, optimistic Silva is forging ahead. His next big gaming project is in a dark, abandoned building near the library. This could become Marvila’s Gamer Lab, a coworking and incubation space—a permanent place for Marvilan developers to learn and grow. Bapa Dreams would manage it, providing inexpensive work areas, internships, and industry mentors.
Silva says this space could soon become a Gamer Lab. Photo by Kimberly Koenig.
It’s difficult to see their vision in this darkness, where scant light filters through blocked windows, where the flashlight uncovers decaying furniture, and where no light is necessary to discover the all-encompassing raw sewage stench. Despite its current condition, Silva says this space can be completely renovated in time for the next Bibliogamers, if the city approves the project.
And Silva wouldn’t be Silva if he didn’t have something even bigger in mind. Across the train tracks, almost exactly halfway between the north and south, is Marquês de Abrantes palace. This is where Silva hopes Project ROCK will fund an interactive gaming museum. The grand vision includes digital interactive experiences connecting visitors with Marvila’s history, plus educational spaces and more incubation areas.
It’s uncertain whether people would venture to a gaming museum in the heart of Marvila, halfway between social housing and hipster hotspots. No one knows if this will address the district’s greater needs or be a stepping stone on the path to gentrification. And if it does pan out, there’s still lots of red tape between Silva and success. To someone else it might be a moonshot, but the librarian’s boundless energy and unshakable faith are what brought them here. “I think this is the way our library could help gamers, the gaming industry,” he says, reflecting on their work so far. “I think this is the way.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.