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The poetic graffiti murals of Jose Datrino, known as Gentileza, are threatened by the demolition of the Perimetral, a highway that runs through downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.Lianne Milton

Jose Datrino was a street preacher. He wore white robes, his hair hung in matted grey sheets along a gaunt face and he carried a cross or a palm branch when he took his message through the streets of Rio de Janeiro 30 years ago. He believed that obsession with profit and individual gains were eroding human society and that only a return to love and kindness -- gentileza -- could stave off social collapse.

The Profeta Gentileza, as he was known, also shared his message by painting it on a large canvas, on 56 concrete pylons supporting 1 1/2 kilometres of an expressway that cut through Rio. Hundreds of thousands of people read his billboards, painted in green and white and yellow in distinctive block letters, as if on the pages of a giant book.

Visitors to the city today will see his best-loved slogan, Gentileza gera gentileza (kindness brings kindness) reproduced on T-shirts, fridge magnets and postcards. But only Cariocas, the people of Rio, know the story behind the maxim: The Gentileza has become a part of the collective cultural memory of the people of Rio.

Now, though, that heritage is under threat: The city is demolishing the expressway as part of a massive urban overhaul in preparation for next year's World Cup and the Olympics of 2016.

The city government says it will preserve the murals – move them, if need be, or demolish around them. But many people here feel that the detonation underway around the Gentileza installation is an apt symbol for the change in the city – that there is ever less space for the "Old Rio," encapsulated by the Profeta's work, in the shiny new city.

The old port of Rio, for example, is in the midst of a $ 4-billion (U.S.) transformation that will see its warehouses and low-income neighbourhoods, which have a distinct African and colonial Portuguese feel, demolished for commercial real estate, most of it highrises.

Part of this plan includes knocking down the Perimetral, a giant, dictatorship-era expressway that mowed over a once-grand Rio neighbourhood, blotting out its boulevards and piazzas, ferrying residents from the wealthy beachfront safely over top of neigbourhoods gone to seed.

Mr. Datrino, who died in the late 1990s, despaired at its construction. "Money makes humanity deaf," he painted. "Money destroys love. Money blinds. Money kills. Everyday, you read the paper, listen to the radio, television, all you see is barbarity: crime, robbing, kidnapping, addiction, nudity, debauchery, hunger and war. Go and check what is the cause: capitalism."

Orlando Santos Jr., a professor of urban studies at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said the Profeta "appropriated the space" beneath the highway to spread a message about human connection that found a sympathetic audience in many Rio residents – poor migrants from the impoverished north joining generations crammed in the violent and bleak hillside favelas.

"And now you have a revitalization that is re-appropriating that space in an entirely different spirit – that of entrepreneurship, of money, of private industry, of business, of so-called modernization," he said. "It's a revitalization that's rooted in the destruction of the symbols that were there, and the building of new ones."

The new development, for example, includes a "Museum of Tomorrow," whose planned contents are unclear. Prof. Santos is part of a team tracking the displacements and forced relocations of low-income residents for the new developments; he puts the figure at around 17,000 people so far.

It's a dark irony that the quintessentially populist public space that grew up around the murals will be demolished for the private-sector port redevelopment, he said. "It's a project without gentileza – without kindness. Its logic is the market's logic … the logic of kindness is not of buying and selling, it's of giving. Unfortunately, this new construction is the exact opposite."

But Washington Fajardo, president of the Rio World Heritage Institute, the city department in charge of cultural protection, said none of Mr. Datrino's message or intention will be lost.

"Kindness is the other face of brutality – we are a kind people but a very brutal one – this is the Brazilian paradox," said Mr. Fajardo. "His message was a very beautiful thing that grew in the middle of the concrete – a poem that grew in the middle of brutality – that is very Brazilian, beauty from the brutality."

City Hall knows the value of the murals, he said; engineers were consulted from the beginning of the demolition to make sure the columns would be preserved. Most will be left in-situ, he said, and a public space built around them. At least one and perhaps a few others will need to be moved, but will be kept intact and displayed to the public.

The city didn't always cherish the murals, however, said Leonardo Guelman, a professor of art at Fluminense Federal University and an author of a book on the Profeta and his works. In fact, city workers painted over some of them in grey a few years ago, and Prof. Guelman lead a large restoration project. It took a huge push to get them declared national heritage, which they were in 2000.

Maria Alice Datrino, the eldest of the Profeta's six children and, at age 70, the most engaged with sharing his message, said she is sure the city will find a way to preserve his work. "I'm completely sure no one will mess with it," she said. "Because there are only beautiful things in the murals, good things. He will always be remembered, because he only said beautiful things, and he was very dear to every one."

Her family receives no revenue from the reproduction of his work, all of it unauthorized, she said, and while she does not mind, "because I have food to eat," she has a brother with nothing. Her father's message is still relevant today, even if it is harder for people to hear it, she said. "He will stay with Rio forever. I already told my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren: your grandpa is the history of Brazil."

Mr. Fajardo, the city official, said the concrete brutalist urban planning of the past was the greatest unkindness, and he believes the Profeta foretold a new, more inclusive Rio. You can tell, he said, because the pylons on which he painted are all ones that can be left standing in the midst of the new development.

"I like to think he had some vision of the future for his paintings," he said. "In the future – it's urban kindness – we are going completely to remove any kind of elevated structures for cars. But there is no possibility of destroying the gentileza paintings."