‘Dirty’, ‘Crowded’, ‘Violent’, ‘Slum ridden’,’Third World’, ‘Chaotic’, ‘Disorganised’ are just some of the frequent negative descriptions that seem to feature in most foreign media articles about South America’s largest metropolis. The effect of this no doubt causes many to remind themselves to avoid a visit. This is not the vision I first had of São Paulo, and so I find these descriptions aggravatingly dismissive. This city is no European capital, it is no planned urban masterpiece. As a hybrid of international and regional cultural influences and a emphasis on the economy, the Brazilian metropolis offers beneath the surface something else, something unique. Its social and built environment speak to its complicated past and the continual changes occurring in Brazil and at large in a rising Latin America. Along with some of the worlds largest cities, São Paulo is stepping up to redefine itself on its own terms, a region that for a long time, few in the outside world had taken notice of. Yet it’s residents have known this for sometime. The Brazil of tomorrow is at its most obvious here, yet tomorrow is no longer fitting nor a dream or illusion in this corner of the country. Modern day São Paulo is young at heart, a city in transformation, a city that embraces the arrival of immigrants and welcomes the prospects for future development. From the first to the more recent arrivals, all make an impact to form what is the cities dense social fabric. Economic growth is evident with respect to the large emerging middle class and increasingly the city is being used as powerful political platform for social change in Brazil. South America shifts its focus to keenly watching what is happening internally, rather than trying to imitate the urban visions from outside. São Paulo deserves closer investigation.
Sampa – Colloquial name for Sao Paulo by its residents
SP – Abbreviated form to refer to either the state or the capital
Paulista – Resident of Sao Paulo State, when used in the capital, generally refers to residents outside the capital
Paulistano – Sao Paulo capital, residents, an accent, an identity
Favelas – shanty towns
Current estimates place the city proper with a population of 11 million, increasing to 25 million when including the neighbouring cities that constitute the conurbation of São Paulo. The state of São Paulo, a touch above 40 million, gives it a population close to that of Spain. One can only effectively approach the subject with use of superlatives.
Founded in 1554 by Christian Jesuits, the area for most of the next 300 years became synonymous with the development of Brazilian agriculture, that of coffee beans and sugar. Even with the enslavement of the local Indigenous peoples and imported slaves from Africa, São Paulo remained small and largely under exploited. With Rio de Janeiro elevated to the status of sudden capital of the Portuguese Empire in the early 1800’s, São Paulo remained insignificant to the Brazilian and Global imagination. In 1822, the independence from Portugal caused the birth of Brazilian autonomy, which would start a series of changes. The growth in agricultural sectors coupled with the nascent national desire to push out the countries physical land borders. It became imperative to settle in order to secure these areas. Although the Portuguese had abolished slavery, the Brazilian Monarchy would continue the practice in desperate push for labour. This solution was not sufficient, so the country diversified, and turned to immigration from Europe and the old Ottoman Empire. Of these immigrants, many came to settle in São Paulo state. Decades on, the boom continued to attract immigrants. Immigrants from rural Japan the next to arrive, close to a million in total. Although most of these immigrants came as unskilled agricultural workers on coffee and sugar plantations into São Paulo state, the booming economy facilitated the capitals development and centralised the states finances. At this time, the planning of parks, construction of urban civil amenities such as libraries, theatres, churches and parliament buildings sprung up to cater to the response of an enlarged citizenry. Civil projects to note here among others, the Teatro Municipal and the Palacio de Ipiranga.
The booming agricultural sectors, already prosperous and cashed up, financed much of the early development in the capital. The State’s wealth attracted trade ties with the British Empire, a partnership that secured assistance to build the states railways lines. Luz Station, built by the British in central São Paulo, is one of the remaining examples of such co-operation. The British would also introduce the game of football to the locals at this time, something they would come to perfect and dominate. This laid the foundations for the recentralising of the countries economy that up until this point had its nucleus in the capital, Rio de Janeiro. The emergence of the cultural identity of the urban Paulistano developed an innately distinct and self determined characteristic from that of the rest of Brazil. These Brazilians had prospered without the assistance or reliance from the capital of Rio, but rather off the fortunes in their own backyard. This difference profoundly impacted the social stratification of the Paulista (a resident of São Paulo State) in the Brazilian imagination. A distinct social marker that today correlates a very unique behaviour and set of values within the broader Brazilian national identity.
As Brazil started moving from an economy based around a rural agricultural lifestyle to a workforce increasingly industrialised, many of the states newer immigrants resettled in São Paulo urban area. A natural progression given the recentralising of the states capital base from rural to urban. During the thirties and forties São Paulo’s urban population boomed, giving many of the cities neighbourhoods an ethnic character still visible today. The larger of the immigrants would arrive and create lively diasporas. Liberdade and neighbouring Vila Mariana became settled by predominantly Japanese immigrants, the Italian influence in Mooca and Bela Vista visible in the street corner cafeterias, the Lebanese bakeries spread through Itaim Bibi and Moema. Even though these neighbourhoods recreated aspects of the immigrants cultural ethnicity, it would be purely aesthetic. Cultural identity for these immigrants amalgamated the values and ethics of do-it-yourself combined with hard work, from which they had created fortune. This value distinction saw the emergence of a distinctly Paulistano identity.
The concentration of Brazil’s largest Banks, natural resource and retailer giants along with many other companies along the Avenida Paulista gave birth to modern Brazil, akin to the way Broadway became a symbol for modern America. The city in this period is approaching a population going on 3 million. President Juscelino Kubitschek’s neo-nationalist plans to build an entirely new capital in the 1950’s impacted the next 50 years of São Paulo’s development. With the significance of Rio de Janeiro having diminished politically and economically, the pace of São Paulo’s urbanisation intensified. The peripheral urban limits would spread in out in all directions. In the neighbouring ABC region, became the location for the nations big automotive, truck and bus manufacturers. Campinas, the port city of Santos (One of the worlds busiest ports) and the Paraiba Valley were opened up also. These regions benefited from their close access to the city. Aeroplane manufacturer Embraer, currently the worlds third largest, would base itself in this new growth corridor. All of these locations became attractive for investment.
The growth of São Paulo however came at a cost to the development in the rest of the country. It was during the 60’s and 70’s that the wealth of Paulistanos was starting to be noticed in the distant poorer regions of Brazil, whose conditions starkly differed from the boom of São Paulo. Rural Urban Migrants from the impoverished North East would arrive with no place to live, but hoping for good fortune in a city that had generated wealth for many. The millions that arrived poor went to establish themselves in the favelas that today ring the outskirts of the city. This urban image is what came to constitute and define the whole of São Paulo to many outsiders. These new immigrants however, found service jobs working for the upper and middle classes. Whereas before, the divide in wealth had been sustained by geographical limitations, the approximation of the countries poor would give rise to a new social urban divide, and with it inevitable conflict and violent crime. The military dictatorship (1964-1985) did nothing more than neglect the countries poor which, lead to the worsening of social problems in those most impoverished parts of the country. As a result, the rates of immigration accelerated from poverty stricken north eastern Brazil to wealthy São Paulo. The new arrivals rapidly favelised the cities peripheral areas which accompanied a rise in crime rates. In the last twenty three years of returned democracy to Brazil have been nothing less than turbulent. With inflation out of control, corruption rife in the first post-dictatorial government, things got worse before they got better. For much of the 90’s, re-stabilising measures for the economy consolidated economic growth in the 2000s. In the past decade, the development of Brazil’s natural resources has infused the city with fresh capital, the tech-boom similarly lead to many companies in the sector setting up their head offices in the city. At the same time, after a long period of neglect, local, state and federal governments are beginning to address the serious social inequalities present in the cities periphery. All these recent developments are again changing the social landscape of the city.
Today Sampa, as the local Paulistanos call it, is synonymous to the rest of Brazilians with money. A very materialistic and superficial examination at present. However, when I imagine what characterises the essence of São Paulo, the city strikes an affinity with its history and culture of immigration. São Paulo was an immigrant construction from the outset, and continues to be in the 21st century. Globally speaking, the city is defined and placed in the third world bracket. It is headlined and distorted to a global audience as a city that defines the third world for its slums, its inequality. The developed world has for a long time, dictated to Brazil its ideas and plans for its development. Yet this idea of the ‘developing’ and what those developed nations assume it to be, is indeed, at best, a rough and very under-developed idea. The city never did quite fit that box neatly, having developed, then in many ways still developing and not limited to those two ideas either.
Many despise the urban layout of São Paulo, flying in from the air the city spreads out seemingly at all angles towards the horizon. The amassed apartment towers don’t distinguish nor do they conform, the concrete grey colours match a generally clouded sky. The layout is patchy, and appears complicated. But then again, we are talking about a huge city. Sao Paulo like many other cities has introduced car curfews on peak periods, given the extremely high volume of vehicules circulating at those times to combat this. Metro Lines were commenced in the seventies, now there are five operating with another 6 planned. Architecturally, many claim that the offerings are few, and they are certainly right. Modernist Brazilian Architecture is perhaps the unique architectural element, visible in many other parts of the country. Starting on the Avenida Paulista, many of the modernist offerings can be found here, the MASP one of the most noticeable. Residential buildings across the city feature modernist architecture,finding them may require some research. Unlike Brazil’s coastal capitals, colonial architectural aspects are limited as the city developed more or less wholly in the post-colonial period. Some of the more well known buildings include the Copan building, shaped in a wave, and at 140m tall, is one of the taller buildings in the city. It is rather difficult to notice, given that many buildings obscure it. Brazilian modernist architecture, which uses natural inspiration from the Brazilian landscape, the curvaceous layout of these buildings has been attributed to this stream. At the minute, there is little mainstream appreciation for modernist architecture, in the future though, who knows. These buildings still remain unique architectural symbols for the city. São Paulo, after Brasilia, retains the trove of modernist architectural relics.
The modern day social life of these neighbourhoods of São Paulo flash back to the turbulent past of immigration from country to the capital. Starting with Liberdade, visitors are shocked with the brick by brick transplant of Japan into São Paulo. The shops, the restaurants along with street lanterns to match all create the illusion. This however, is how Liberdade has been for most part of the 100 years of Japanese immigration, and remains the country’s shrine to the Japanese contribution to Brazil. All over the city however, legacy of Italy’s massive contribution to the shaping of São Paulo is evident in the last names on the street posts, the best pizza in the country, the names of some of its tallest buildings and responsible for many phonetic elements imported from Italian into the Paulistano accent. Right now, like many times before, its immigration that is changing the city. And its reaping changes in its social fabric in these same neighbourhoods, this time those that come want to see and realise changes both for themselves and their country. The newest and youngest newcomers to São Paulo are Brazil’s youth. Their effect on the next phase of São Paulos dynamic social transformation is visible. Students from all corners of the country, attracted by the high quality of education, liberal attitudes, urban anonymity are offering the new blood into the cities arteries.
Sampa is also the countries increasingly vibrant political platform. The city was responsible for the emergence of the trade unionists out of an indirect result of rapid industrialisation in the city in the 70’s. The simultaneous beginnings of the modern union movement producing Brazil’s popular ex-president Lula, who governed the last Brazilian decade. Lula obtained his political platform as an outspoken unionist for the workers in the motor manufacturing sector located on the cities southern fringes in the 1970’s, himself a product of north eastern economic rural-urban migration.
Economic communiqués from São Paulo are picked up quickly in Brasilia, aware of the importance of the industry to the country’s large and growing economy. The urban social issues plaguing Brazil received most of the attention in São Paulo. The occupation of large buildings recently testament to the social political capital this urban stage has in highlighting both urban and larger national struggles. The national exposure to the social issues in São Paulo turn them into bigger national political issues, where elsewhere becoming reduced or dismissed due to ‘regional’ irrelevance and insignificance to the national interest. The ability to create reactions on such issues and grasp media attention creates opportunities for social progress.
The Creative Arts is another movement moulding the cities social redefinition. Above all, in the burgeoning artist and alternative music scenes. Vila Madalena a central point for many of the cities newest bars and restaurants, located close to the cities largest state funded University of Sao Paulo. The neighbourhood is growing a reputation for being the most liberal and tolerant of the new and up and coming. Indeed Vila Madalena is a city within a city, with Buddhist centres, niche market bookshops, art workspaces and galleries, record vendors, boutique style restaurants and second hand shops. The urban underground is present in the graffiti, politically and culturally themed, that spreads itself through the streets, alleys and corners. The neighbourhood is home to many of the cities journalists, artists, students and free thinkers from all over Brazil. Edgy São Paulo is there, albeit most evident in this pocket of this city.
São Paulo’s residents represent some of Brazil’s most globalised, latest global trends are observed and imported quicker than anywhere else. Rio de Janeiro is the vision the tourist seeks out when coming to Brazil, but Paulistanos, are Brazil’s most travelled, and they do wish to correct the gringo vision of their country. The airport from São Paulo has connections to cities in Africa, the middle east, the Americas, Europe and Japan. Clubs pick up the trends in Europe, then mix with what works for the Brazilian audience, styles such as Sam-bass, a blend of drum and bass and samba created locally has successfully been exported back to Europe. The globalisation of Acai is yet another example. Ideas are being received, from all over, recreated and exported. Both the mix of imported ideas, fused with local culture and customs then exported is something the city has been doing for quite sometime.
When talking about São Paulos night-life, one can only speak in superlatives. The fast paced speed in which the city ticks over changes little when the sun goes down. The range of clubs and venues catering to everything from Indy rock to electronic raves and encompassing more traditional sounds of Forro, Sertaneja and Brega all offer the sounds of many Brazils, to the global sounds heard through the clubs globally. Such selection requires planning, therefore Paulistanos choose their venues and their night out carefully. And then there is the cities friskier, naughtier, quirkier side. Prostitution, like anywhere in Brazil, does not do much to keep itself out of the way. Unlike in other countries, where prostitution is highly taboo restrained to the nightime, dark dingy alleys that are adorned with neon lighting, here its prominence and tolerance in Brazilian night-life means it is very much out of the closet. This despite the fact that Christian conservatism is still quite strong in the country. Transsexual, Trans-gender, North-Eastern, Gay, Black, Pardo, Moreno, Expensive, Cheap, Young, Middle Age create a cut throat, yet diverse market. The impressive selection of the cities bodily material is on display across many of the city blocks, yet all very organised, all tastes covered. As a very developed aspect of the cities night-life, one can cruise the Avenida Indianopolis for a 24 hour offering of transsexuals. But São Paulo is not just home of horny men, women are catered to equally. The blocks of Jardim Paulista, the base for the cities buff male escorts, who pose kerbside just metres from multi-million dollar apartment blocks. Cross town from Jardins and the grungier parts of the centre offer up some of the cities cheaper options, and this is only touching the surface, literally. As I’m given this tour by a friend, he explains how this city has a bit of everything for everyone.
São Paulo now fronts the next decade eye to eye with the international community. The city is set to host several matches when the country receives the world cup in 2014. Social capital is growing in the city and as such occupies crucial ground in shaping the future of Brazil. Indeed the best maybe yet to come, but that doesnt necessarily speak badly to its past. Recent controversial projects to develop the Amazon, and in many other sensitive regions for their biodiversity are next in line to get voiced and nationalised through the cities political platform. Student, teacher and education unions like the auto-trade unions before them, perhaps are the movements that have more to gain than lose in placing direct pressure on governments for urgent improvements across the board. As I sip free cocktails at an open event at the MIS on a Friday evening, looking around at the many different faces and colours that represent the diversity of Brazilian society, I consider what makes this group look so similarly sophisticated. I conclude with the Paulistano, more than a name, a place, it is for many a chosen identity, a certain rhythym and pace of life. Just as the Mineiro conjures up an idea of the regional and relaxed, the Carioca as lazy, fun and a perpetual partier and then the Gaucho something else again. These Brazilian regionalisms dissipate in this city, and its newer residents adopt its urban sophistication as the identity that one assumes. And as the city heads forward, foreign ideas of the city can no longer go backward. Regardless to whether the characterisations from outside persist or not, the city triumphed off its own back, and thrived with its own identity and as such obtained its own formula for success. If ever, that is what definitely will not change.