Rua Poço dos Negros, just to the south of the Lisbon’s centre, is typical of the city’s streetscape. Four storey buildings are covered in pretty tiles, with retailers, restaurants and cafes on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors. The iconic 28 tram trundles up the narrow hilly road and its footpaths are still cobbled. For many decades the street was home to a buzzing retail scene but as the crisis hit in 2008, stores closed and the area lost its appeal. By 2013, petty crime and drug dealing had become prevalent.
Into this mix stepped Rés do Chão a not for profit initiative set up by four young architects. Rés do Chão means ground floor in Portuguese and the organisation was established to revitalise neighbourhoods through the rehabilitation of empty ground floor retail spaces.
‘It became obvious to us that every year there were more and more vacant ground floor spaces and streets that were empty of people,’ says co-founder Mariana Paisana. ‘We chose Poço dos Negros as a starting point because there were already some arts organisations here and because it has a long history of commerce. We felt it was a place where we could jump start a regeneration.’
The group, with the help of funding from the Calouste Gulbenkian Gulbenkian Foundation and Lisbon’s city council, set about surveying empty spaces and putting landlords and potential new tenants in touch with each other. It led the way by founding its own shop, which sells the work of five young Portuguese designers who also work in a mezzanine space above the store.
Since the launch of the Rés do Chão shop in June 2014, the transformation of Poço dos Negros has been noticeable. The organisation has been responsible for the opening of three further stores on the street, including A Avó Veio Trabalhar – which translates as Grandma Came to Work. Founded by designers Susana Antonio and Angelo Campota, it sells contemporary fashion pieces and homewares – cushions and rugs – hand made by 46 local pensioners. Each product has a label that features a picture of the person who made it.
‘Usually the designer gets all the credit but we feature the makers because we want to empower the community through responsible design,’ says Antonio.
Unlike some gentrification projects, the existing community is at the heart of the Poço dos Negros retail regeneration. ‘We started by focusing on empty spaces but we quickly realised that it’s also important to keep the existing businesses going too,’ says Paisana.
Rés do Chão met with shop owners and drew out their stories to fashion a history of retail on the street – such as second hand book store Livraria Avelar Machado, which was founded in 1876 and was the first second hand book shop in Portugal. A monthly market has also been established to attract new customers to the street.
A longer version of this article appears in Monocle Magazine, issue 87