Skyscrapers in the center of São Paulo

Skyscrapers in the center of São Paulo

Foto:

Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL

City of Inequality The Dystopia of São Paulo Holds the Key To Brazil's Transformation

São Paulo is a symbol of inequality. The wealthy enjoy incredible luxury while the poor are left huddling beneath highway overpasses. A portrait of the dystopian New York of the south.
By Nicola Abé and Rogério Vieira (Photos) in São Paulo
Global Societies

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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The sun is blazing down from the midday sky. A man is kneeling on the sidewalk, bending forward to pound his head against the pavement. Next to him, there's a box full of white cleaning rags. "God, please help me," he begs. "I’m not selling anything. Absolutely nothing." He sobs and once again pounds his forehead onto the sidewalk.

People wind through the cars stuck in traffic here in the center of São Paulo, offering drivers chewing gum or Kleenex. Children hold up cardboard signs reading "Fome," or hunger.

"São Paulo is for South America what Rome was for the empire," says another man, as he sinks into a velvet sofa inside a palace. A Picasso is hanging on the wall and a cook is preparing a meal of shrimp and duck in the kitchen. The man’s name is Nelson Wilians, and he owns one of the largest law firms on the continent. His wife Anne leads the couple's philanthropic efforts. They can hardly go outside without bodyguards, but that doesn’t bother him. "I love the city with all of its virtues and vices," he says.

With more than 22 million inhabitants, São Paulo is the largest metropolis in the southern hemisphere and the wealthiest city in South America. It is also one of the most unequal cities in the world. There is hardly any other place on the planet where squalor and luxury exist in such monstrous proximity to each other – where the desperation of the poor and the hubris of the wealthy clash so brutally. Thousands of multimillionaires live in São Paulo. The life expectancy in the rich, white neighborhood of Pinheiros is more than 80 years, while in the poorest black quarters, it is just 58. Prosperous residents refer to the city as the New York of the southern hemisphere. For those mired in poverty, the city is a merciless beast that threatens to swallow them up at any moment.

Helicopters take off in São Paulo by the minute. The city is said to be home to the largest fleet of private choppers in the world, reserved for those important people who have to quickly get from A to B. Michelin-rated restaurants are located next to the leafy neighborhoods full of mansions, where the streets are called Alemanha, Luxemburgo and Áustria and Bentleys and Rolls-Royces are a common sight. The white people who actually live here seldom make an appearance. Only the guards are commonly seen, languishing in small shacks in front of high walls, or uniformed black personnel taking copper-colored, perfectly groomed Labradors out for walks. A delivery boy shows up from time to time riding a borrowed bicycle in flip-flops and delivering food likely worth his entire week's wages.

São Paulo is a dystopia. Society here has failed miserably in making a dignified life possible for everyone. The resulting dissonance has produced a radical form of dehumanization. Catholic Priest Júlio Lancellotti, an icon for the city’s marginalized population – a man who has personally taken a sledgehammer to the boulders the city administration installed under bridges to prevent the homeless from sleeping there – calls it "aporofobia," the hatred of the poor. Can such a perverse place be transformed into a city that is livable for all?

Paraisópolis, the Favela Next Door

As a little girl with black curls around the age of six, Ester Carro could feel the pain when she looked outside the window. That window was in a small house with a corrugated metal roof. Inside, it was dark, the walls unplastered, and there were plenty of bugs, she says. She could hear the rats outside in the mountains of trash, and she remembers being afraid during the summer rainy season, with water seeping through the roof. Heavy storms would repeatedly wash away houses in the favela.

When she opened the window and looked out, she saw a different world – high rises, safe and clean, with large windows and balconies. The people there had swimming pools, tennis courts and gardens. Sometimes, after coming home from school or before falling asleep at night, she would imagine what it must be like to live in that other world – and she would grow sad. And angry.

Architect Ester Carro teaches the people of favela how to make their homes sturdier.

Architect Ester Carro teaches the people of favela how to make their homes sturdier.

Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL

Today, Carro is 27 years old. She still lives in Jardim Colombo, a community in the illegally constructed slum of Parasópolis, right next to the wealthy quarter of Morumbi with its gated communities and glass towers.

When she was 12, Carro started reading architecture magazines that her grandmother would bring home from her cleaning job in the home of a wealthy woman. Friends and acquaintances of her father, who has spent years fighting for the rights of the community, pooled money together for her university studies. Carro became an architect and founded an organization that teaches the residents of Parasópolis how to rebuild their homes to make them safer. She shows photos on her mobile phone of blackened, moldy walls that they then tiled white together. "Everyone here wants to find a way out," she says, "which I understand." But she took a different path: She has managed to find success, but she has stayed here anyway.

The favela Paraisópolis is located right next to the wealthy quarter of Morumbi.

Morumbi is the new financial and business center of São Paulo

Morumbi is the new financial and business center of São Paulo

Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL

Down below, at the entrance to the favela, two excavators from the city are digging next to a puddle of stench, a success of her father's. "After a 15-year fight, we are getting a sewer pipe," says Carro.

She's sitting on a staircase made of colorfully painted car tires at the foot of a hillside in the middle of square shacks and narrow alleyways. She refers to the free space, around 1,000 square meters (10,500 square feet) in size, as the first park in the favela, "the small farm." It is her largest project. There is still some debris lying about in the grass, including a few plastic containers that were used for transporting cocaine, but somebody has planted watermelon vines and banana trees. The site used to be a garbage dump, with organic trash piling up several meters high along with old matrasses and plastic. Carro was able to convince the city administration to cart off the garbage – a total of 100 trucks full. "The stench is gone," she says, smiling. But she has far greater plans: She wants to install a playground for children, a climbing wall and a community vegetable garden. To make that plan happen, she needs permission from the city, which owns the property. She has been trying to get the approval for three years, but she's still waiting.

Ester Carro wants to make her neighborhood, the favela Paraisópolis, more liveable.

Ester Carro wants to make her neighborhood, the favela Paraisópolis, more liveable.

Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL

The Center as a Democratic Space

At the end of the 19th century, São Paulo was a city of 200,000 residents, full of picturesque, colonial-style homes. By the 1950s, it was already home to 2 million people, and in the 1960s and 1970s, it began growing like a tumor – rapidly, uncontrolled and exponentially. Today, large parts of it are a concrete desert of high-rises, stinking rivers and multilane, raised highways known as viaducts. They spread throughout the city like the tentacles of a giant octopus, yet there is no coherent connection between them, a situation that results in daily traffic chaos.

Fernanda Barbara, 55, is standing on a paved-over space in the city center, surrounded by the raised highways. It smells of urine, trash and exhaust fumes. Dozens of families have colonized the area beneath one of the viaducts, with laundry drying in the sun. Parents with children are cooking scraps of meat over open fires fueled by garbage – images that are reminiscent of refugee camps in war zones.

Multilane highways, called viaducts, wind their way through the center of São Paulo

Multilane highways, called viaducts, wind their way through the center of São Paulo

Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL
Priest Júlio Lancellotti hands out food to the homeless.

Priest Júlio Lancellotti hands out food to the homeless.

Foto:

Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL

"As city planners, we have to believe that there's a way," says Barbara. She has big plans for the area, hoping to make it greener again, just as it was in the 1950s. The construction of a cultural center has already begun. "The central bus station over there, this scar in the middle of the city, is to be relocated," she says. She hopes to move the viaducts underground or eliminate them altogether, and to "sensibly reroute" the traffic.

Although Barbara also designs mansions, she has established her office in the run-down heart of the city. She believes that the center is a kind of key to the city’s transformation. "The historical center is democratic and integrative. Many poor people live here," she says.

City planner Fernanda Barbara wants to make São Paulo greener.

City planner Fernanda Barbara wants to make São Paulo greener.

Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL

Barbara’s project, called Park Dom Pedro II., has been approved, but she knows that doesn’t mean much. The city has approved many projects in the past that were subsequently dropped for lack of money or will – such as the transformation of Avenida Paulista, an iconically ugly shopping street, into a pedestrian zone. The construction of a new subway line, meanwhile, was recently delayed because the company digging the tunnel ruptured a sewer line and the tunnel literally filled up with shit.

"There has never been consistent city development in São Paulo," says Barbara. "Instead, it has been a continuous state-of-emergency, where improvements are only made where things are especially bad." She walks across a bridge toward the historic market hall, beneath her is a canal filled with polluted, brownish water full of trash.

"But the greatest hurdle standing in the way of São Paulo’s transformation is the extreme inequality," Barbara says. If the problems on the periphery aren’t solved, she says, the city can never become healthy and livable – for anyone.

It is estimated that almost half of the people in the São Paulo metropolitan region live in precarious conditions. Millions aren't connected to the sewage system while others live in designated nature preserves. Every weekday, they commute from the infrastructure-poor favelas on the outskirts to central neighborhoods, where there is money to be made. São Paulo has some of the worst air pollution in the world, and the environmental degradation is so advanced that even the wealthy, who try to isolate themselves in their penthouses and helicopters, can’t escape it. It’s impossible to hide from an ecosystem.

The New York of the South

All is quiet in the Jardim Europa neighborhood. The streets are lined with trees and security guards dressed in black and carrying walkie-talkies are guarding the three-story villa. A collection of luxury cars can be seen through the half-open garage door. There's a naked man lolling about in the lobby, an oversized Rodin sculpture.

Her make-up artist has just finished, part of Anne Wilian’s preparations for her guests this evening. The table has already been set. Wilians, with perfect skin and an ageless appearance, takes a seat in the ballroom. An attendant pushes up a small trolley and serves freshly pressed cupuaçu juice.

Anne Wilians wanted to move to São Paulo even as a young girl.

Anne Wilians wanted to move to São Paulo even as a young girl.

Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL

The daughter of an entrepreneur, she always knew that she belonged here and not in Belém in Para far to the north. "I told my father when I was five that I wanted to go to São Paulo." It is, in her eyes, a city full of possibility, and of networks – "a pioneer," as she says. Things happen here, and they happen fast. She gets up early in the morning and works a lot, but she loves it, the fast-paced rhythm. "It’s crazy," she says. Then adds: "I’m not the only one who thinks so, that’s what everyone says."

Wilians is the mother of three young children and president of the Instituto Nelson Wilians, a kind of foundation that belongs to the eponymously named law firm owned by her husband, one of the largest in Latin America. She speaks frequently about human rights and sees herself as a social worker.

On this evening, someone has hacked her Instagram account and she has to call the technicians. Instagram is a big issue for the Wilians family. They use it frequently, posting family photos, pictures from their vacations on luxurious islands and celebrations of their love in the form of large diamond rings. They even employ their own photographer for the purpose. Indeed, because the couple so overtly puts their wealth on display, the São Paulo branch of the Brazilian Bar Association even sent her husband a warning, which they have since studiously ignored.

Nelson and Anne Wilians in their home: "People want to know how I live."

Nelson and Anne Wilians in their home: "People want to know how I live."

Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL

"Yes, I own the houses, the cars, the helicopter and the private airplane," says Nelson Wilians, who has just arrived home. "People want to know how I live." He compares himself with a firefly being hunted by a snake that is bothered by its luster. Then he laughs and says it's not such a big deal, that he has a lot of admirers.

From a poor, rural background, Wilians has worked his way to the top. "I didn’t like the fieldwork," he says. When he was 11, he stumbled across a Marvel comic and the character Daredevil, a lawyer who, he thought at the time, looked like him. "I used to have hair," Wilians says, again laughing out loud. In his narrative, he read a lot, went to university, worked hard and slept little. Today, the law firm Nelson Wilians Advogados has 25,000 clients, including numerous multinationals, and is currently involved, he says, in 450,000 court proceedings. "He is hyperactive," says his wife.

Wilians has just returned from the center of the city. He likes cities, the bigger, the better. Criminality and violence, he says, are just part of the package. Poverty is sad, yes, adding that he has more empathy than others since he knows what it’s like to be poor. He repeats a modified Machiavelli quote according to which only a beggar can understand a beggar and only a prince can know how a prince thinks. He knows both, he says.

But, he adds, he can’t solve all the problems in the world.

At the end of our meeting, Nelson Wilians presents a parting gift bag containing a small statue of himself along with a comic about the history of law, in which significant roles are reserved for Ramses II., Moses, Voltaire and – Nelson Wilians. He had both printed in the largest newspapers in the country. Anne Wilians, for her part, asks not to be described as an "it girl."

Periphery and Rebellion

When Jânio heads out at night, he wears black. He pulls his hoody up over his chin and nose, and he wears a baseball cap under his hood. In that kind of garb, he's no longer concerned about the surveillance cameras. Together with his comrades, he climbs onto buildings, scales highway bridges or finds his way into apartment buildings before rapidly leaving behind his signature in the form of gigantic letters, a kind of secret language. Sometimes he bribes guards with pizza and beer, and sometimes he cuts himself on the shards of glass that homeowners spread out on the tops of walls. It's not uncommon for him to be leaning out from roofs dozens of meters above the ground, with no protection whatsoever.

Jânio, whose real name is known to DER SPIEGEL, grew up on the outskirts of São Paulo. His mother raised the family on her own, and he only saw her on Mondays, he says, since she had to work the rest of the week just to get by. Jânio started getting involved with pixo as a nine-year-old, and relatives constantly had to get him out of police custody when he was a teenager. On one occasion, he was sentenced to six months of social work.

Jânio, now 46, is sitting in a skatepark smoking a cigarette. "Once a pixador, always a pixador," he says. He used to paint over everything, but he has grown more selective, he says. Quality is important to him.

He sees pixo as a kind of rebellion, preventing the periphery from being forgotten. "We have no security here, no good healthcare or education. Your son can become addicted to drugs at any time, shot by the police or your daughter might be raped by the neighbor. You can't enjoy your life."

The "playboys" in Jardins or Pinheiros, he says, look down on people like him and think they are better in their expensive, bullet-proof cars.

Jânio started with pixo as a nine-year-old boy.

Jânio started with pixo as a nine-year-old boy.

Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL
Favela da Felicidade – Favela of Happiness - in southern São Paulo

Favela da Felicidade – Favela of Happiness - in southern São Paulo

Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL

"We want to show them that we can outwit their system," says Jânio. That all the security personnel, walls, cameras and electric fences are useless. "We warn them that we could fuck up their lives, but we don’t do it."

Pixadores strike a sensitive nerve: In São Paulo, people rarely ever honk, even in the worst traffic jams, out of fear that they might get shot. The murder rate, to be sure, has sunk dramatically in the last 20 years, with many middle-class neighborhoods considered quite safe, at least during the daylight hours – if you ignore minor muggings aimed at stealing mobile phones. There is a kind of pax mafiosa, the result of a situation whereby the city is basically dominated by a single gang, the Primeiro Comando da Capital. Despite the relative peace, however, the fear that used to dominate in the city hasn’t disappeared, and it is this fear that the pixadores take advantage of.

"We want respect, we want to be seen," says Jânio. "They should know that we are still breathing."

The Utopia of Cidade Matarazzo

The chairs are made of dark, tropical wood and camel-colored leather, while the shelves are full of natural crystals and wine bottles. All of the guests are white. Women with expensive handbags and faces are drinking coffee to the sounds of subdued piano music. Madeleines are being served beneath small glass bonnets. The terrace opens out into a verdant garden full of palm trees. The menu offers 125 grams of caviar for 4,600 rials, four times the monthly minimum wage, and the baths on the ground floor of the new Rosewood luxury hotel Cidade Matarazzo are outfitted with Brazilian marble.

Alexandre Allard, the 53-year-old billionaire who built the hotel, rubs his fingers along one of the marble slabs. The Frenchman’s team visited more than 100 sites in Brazil to get just the look they wanted. "An unbelievably high quality," says Allarde. "It drives people crazy because they always thought they had to import their marble from Europe."

Allard leads the way through the hotel – via the elevators that have been painted with hallucinogenic mushrooms and aphrodesian plants by the artist Walmor Corrêa and through a second restaurant, the walls of which are covered with framed indigenous feather headdresses and weapons from various Amazon tribes. Ultimately, we end up at the turquoise-blue infinity pool on the roof, where he discloses his grand plan: showing the Brazilians how great they are. Or, in his words, "changing the energy."

Alexandre Allard wants to show Brazilians how great they are.

Alexandre Allard wants to show Brazilians how great they are.

Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL

For Allard, Brazil is a country of the future, a place with the greatest biodiversity on earth with immense quantities of fresh water and the Amazon as a CO2 sink. He believes that necessity will soon drive the country into becoming the planet’s leading green economy. He describes São Paulo as the most diverse of all cities, a place full of creativity, home to a gross domestic product almost twice as high as in Hong Kong – and yet nothing is going right. "This city is a perfect example of the derivations of our society," Allard says. "We have destroyed everything, and now we are destroying humankind by being completely stupid."

He says that for more than 500 years, Brazil has not been able to see its own immense value. It has focused on exploitation rather than preservation and has denied its own cultural roots. Allard believes that this makes people self-loathing. "São Paulo is the fourth largest city in the world, yet nobody here speaks of their own culture. That's unimaginable in places like London, Paris or New York."

Allard, who created the consumer database Consodata almost 30 years ago before then selling it for 500 million euros, has never aimed low.

At the same time, though, he subversively confronts them with, for example, a golden sword of Damocles from the artist Artur Lescher hanging from the ceiling, or the copies of "A Short Anti-Racist Handbook," by Afro-Brazilian philosopher Djamila Ribeiro, that are to be found in every room. "People are constantly stealing them," he says with a grin.

Allard points to a building interlaced with concrete vines, designed by the architect Rudy Ricciotti. He has named it after the herbal drug ayahuasca. "The indigenous people took ayahuasca to connect with Mother Nature, and that is something we all need," he says. "AYA" is to become a co-working space for green technology companies and NGOs – so that "soon, nobody in this country will be able to cut down a tree without consequences. They will never again be able to loan money from a bank." Allard is also planning to create a kind of training center on the property that will be able to host almost a million normal Brazilians each month and show them how to live a more sustainable lifestyle. He dreams of "a place of empathy, where everyone can meet." Allard would like to create the polar opposite of São Paulo right in the heart of São Paulo.

Graffiti artist Zirmalei de Jesus Ribeiro, alias Zizi, is 41. He wants to beautify the favelas with his art and teach children to paint and spray.

Graffiti artist Zirmalei de Jesus Ribeiro, alias Zizi, is 41. He wants to beautify the favelas with his art and teach children to paint and spray.

Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL

Here, Zizi is spraying a graffiti called "Happy New Year."

The homeless on nearby Avenida Paulista would likely only be able to manage a wry sneer at Allard’s claim that the most beautiful things in life, like a smile or a sunset, are free. That doesn’t help much in winter, when some even freeze to death – because the weather here in São Paulo is also extreme.

But even if the line between vision and braggadocio with Allard is fluid, he has understood that São Paulo is key to a transformation, the importance of which extends far beyond the city’s boundaries. A place worth paying attention to, investing in and fighting for. Just like the favela architect Ester Carro, Priest Julio Lancellotti and the urban planner Fernanda Barbara are doing.

São Paulo is the real heart of Brazil. The fate of the country, the Amazon – and, some would say, the climate of the planet – depends on this city. If transformation is possible here, it is possible anywhere.

With additional reporting by Letícia Bilard

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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