Monday, December 8, 2008

Sao Paulo. Central.

My hotel was in a small building near Praca da Republica, right in the heart of the city. I think I feel lost here because I caught a glimpse of the city flying in. Breathless. All I can say. To me, it is incomprehensible. I couldn’t see the end of it. On and on and on. My room was facing an internal courtyard, where I couldn’t hear the sounds of the city except for the buzzing helicopters and the occasional sirens. To reach the room, I went up one flight of stairs, then down a hallway, turn, and up another flight of stairs, and then turned and up another flight. My room was at the top, but I have no idea where in the building it was. I couldn’t even tell where the sun was. But, it was quiet, with wireless internet.
The good parts of this place are a laugh and smile as I struggled with the language. It was weird, hardly anyone spoke English, not even at my hotel. They taught me numbers, and I taught them numbers. I don’t know whether I am actually speaking English, or Spanish, or whatever. It just comes out a mix of everything at times. The first day I struggled to not only get a sim card, but actually figure out how to activate it. Trust me, this stuff can get complicated. The one armed man at the street kiosk helped my figure it out, playing charades, me speaking Spanish, him answering two other phones at the same time. It was a fitting intro to the city. Good nice, helpful people, but busy and focused on the task at hand: getting by and getting ahead.
And then, I went up into one of the tallest buildings in the center of the old downtown (modeled after the Empire State Building), and I had the same feeling of complete and utter disbelief at the built environment. On top of the Banespa building, it very much felt like a vertical city. The extent of the size is a whole other matter, and the fact that regular people have built the rest of it in a form of autoconstruction, and in an explosive horizontal growth realm is something quite extraordinary. It is a horizontal city.
For me getting out to the periphery has been difficult. It is just the opposite for most people. They are stuck in the periphery (or can’t afford anywhere else) and try to make it to the center where the opportunities are.
The rich who have to move around the city have cars or helicopters. In fact, Sao Paulo has the most number of helipads of any city in the world. It is a weird spatial condition, so many of the buildings have these light frame protrusions on top of them. However, the majority of the people have to use public transportation. Many days, even I dream of the helicopter to bypass this incredible urbanity. Even with such an efficient public transit system, it can take a very long time, packed close to people. These are the ones that have to fight the commute everyday to better their life, to buy some ceramic tile to improve their home, to save money for their education, and to ensure they will be able to stay where they are possibly move out. It can be an exhausting experience.
I am in the center. It is raw and real. The street kids walking around and sleeping with blankets. The gay males making out everywhere. There are empty buildings everywhere and they are marked. Like crazy. It is surreal scene. Speculation is rampant. Prices are high, but opportunities are everywhere. Mobile street vendors hit the street selling everything from pirated Hollywood movies to local brazilian porno. Their stands can be picked up and moved in two seconds if they see the
police coming.

The real estate pressures don’t allow the housing to be occupied downtown. There are physical challenges that make the market not want to work (pedestrian streets, little access, etc). but, will people eventually shift to the pedestrian lifestyle that so works in many other places? So much of depends on effective access and movement. And that is where social movements are critical. The rich drive cars and helicopters, but don’t use public transportation. Fuel is cheaper, and more environmentally sensitive. The country is self sustainable energy wise, but comes as great cost of environment (destruction of rain forest to grow sugar cane for ethanol), people (exploitation of a cheap labor force), and social justice.


Jen said...

Before I read a word of this posting, I was completely overwhelmed by the very first image...all I thought was, "that's crazy!"

Given the images you've shared, I think "overwhelming" may be an understatement.

luke w perry said...

sometimes pictures can't really convey experiences, but am glad you could get a sense. it is crazy. i'll have some more very interesting photos up soon. seeing things from above adn then below offers quite a different perspective.