Gentrification and Control in the Old Centre of Sao Paulo

Yesterday, I met up with Brazilian surveillance researcher, Marta Kanashiro, and she showed me around the Luz area of the old centre of Sao Paulo, where she has been working. Luz was once a grand colonial district around the railway station designed by British architect, Charles Driver, in brick and iron, but it lost its importance in the mid-Twentieth Century as the station ceased to be the terminal for the coffee trade. The area acquired notoriety as home to a police headquarters where opponents of the dictatorship where tortured, and as a centre for prostitution, violence and drugs.

In more recent years there has been a real effort by the city authorities to reclaim the area which, despite being in many ways a laudable project, has been controversial both for its effects on the poor, and for its treatment of memory and the particular history of the place. On one side of Parque da Luz, the formal gardens in front of the station, is the Museum of Portuguese language, yet on other side of the station, all memory of the victims of police oppression and torture has been erased with the restoration of the police building.

In the park itself, the park authorities installed CCTV (the story of which can be read in Marta’s article in Surveillance & Society), but they haven’t tried to drive out the prostitutes, many of whom were still standing forlornly under the tall trees in the driving rain as we visited. However, according to Marta, they have tried to persuade the women to dress more respectably in keeping with the desired new image of the the neighbourhood! At one point the prostitute’s union was more involved in the management of the park, as were other community organisations, however the building in the centre of the park where these groups used to meet is now closed for refurbishment and it is unclear whether it will still be available in the same way afterwards. Another building in the corner of the part, next to the rather ramshackle security rooms, has already been restored, and where once the plans and documents about the park were on public display, now the place is prettier but empty.

The Luz regeneration has plenty in common with revanchist redevelopment in many other big cities around the world, and there are big questions about what happens to the already excluded population of the area as the regeneration spreads. There are two contrasting visions for the centre from two different but very similar-sounding organisations: Viva O Centro and Forum Centro Vivo. Both want regeneration – everyone does – but they have entirely different approaches to how it should be done. The former is an association of mainly businesses and police, similar to the Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) which are common in US and British city centres. It is behind a lot of the current redevelopment and has the ear of the city authorities. The latter is a group of academics and community activists who want a more democratic and participatory process, and who hold a lot of local events, cultural and political. They also accuse Viva O Centro of either actively or tacitly encouraging intimidation and violence (which has certainly taken place) against the poor population of the area. It is another reason why the attempt to erase of the memory of the brutality of the dictatorship is so important: it is a memory that needs to be constantly refreshed as the actions are echoed and repeated.

(A very big ‘thank-you’ to Marta Kanashiro for her time and patience! All mistakes in this account, as usual, are my own…)

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

2 thoughts on “Gentrification and Control in the Old Centre of Sao Paulo”

  1. When I saw the railway station I’d had no idea of its dictatorial history – all that I was told about was its legacy as a British building. Similarly, I hadn’t heard about the specifics of the renewal in the area. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Chris – sorry, perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I should have been – it isn’t the railway station, but the former police building just on the other side of the station from the park that has the gruesome history.

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