Leaving Sao Paulo

It’s my last morning here in Sao Paulo. I have to say that, with the greatest respect to my friend and Sao Paulo native, Rodrigo, I am not going to be sorry to leave. A lot of what I thought when I arrived here hasn’t changed. This is big, dirty, noisy, exhilarating city with an unapologetic commercial drive, and all the divisions and human debris that this creates. In many ways, it reminds me of Osaka in Japan, but the extremes are greater. The problem is that the huge divisions can’t be ignored if you are in any way sensitive to human suffering, and the suffering here cries out from every raw-smelling homeless man sleeping on the street, from the ragged kids sorting through rubbish at night, from the women selling themselves in the parks, stations – well, everywhere. Certainly, these things are part of city life in many places in the world, and there are many far, far poorer places, but there is something profoundly saddening, depressing, about the gulf between the helicopter-chauffeured elite and the people on the street in O Centro, and especially in the ignorance and indifference – which I have not only been told about but have seen. By the end of just one week, during which I have tried to be as much a part of the place as I could, when I have spent time talking to everyone from human rights groups to people in ordinary bars, I feel like retreating, curling into a ball in the corner of my room.

So thank-you, Sampa, but I am not sorry to be leaving. Here are some pictures of the hundreds I took, of aspects booth good and bad…

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…)

Sao Paulo Metro Surveillance and Security

I spent some time on the Sao Paulo metro system yesterday so I tried to get some pictures of security and surveillance underground… Some things I would have loved to have got pictures of: the military policemen stalking a groups of favela kids through the crowds; the very tired and twitchy officer who looked to be absolutely itching for a fight, who got on the Metro after me; the perfect shot of two policemen standing under a camera. But I didn’t get those ones, so my words will have to do. The main reason is that I have a healthy instinct for self-preservation and taking pictures of men with guns – particularly when they are caressing the handgrip and trigger like it was an intimate part of their anatomy as the twitchy officer was – is a sure way to end up attracting unwelcome and possibly fatal attention. The officers in the stations did notice me taking pictures pretty quickly too – which perhaps suggests both the pervasiveness and the effectiveness of trained human surveillance. Anyway, I only have two shots, one of which was an experiment in a longer take, which didn’t quite come off so I might have to try this again…

I am sure I will have more to say today tomorrow on this after I have met up with Marta Kanashiro, the scholar of surveillance studies from the State University of Campinas.

Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazilian Modernism (1)

As a fan of utopian urbanism, I couldn’t very well come to Brazil without checking out some of the great Oscar Niemeyer’s work. Next week I will be in Brasilia, but this week in Sao Paulo, I took a few hours out to visit the Memorial da America Latina, a cultural complex built on an old factory site. The overall plan is not that impressive and the whole complex looks a little worn out, but the it was the detail of Niemeyer’s individual buildings that fascinated me, and the external detail at that. The interiors are cool and compelling, but in some you are not allowed to take pictures, and most of the others are filled with ‘stuff’ that reduces the impact of the space.

Bar talk

Brazil can’t really be called a surveillance society… talk of surveillance is just science fiction. It doesn’t mean anything to the people at the bar.

Back at the bar last night I got talking with the regulars – in the limited way I can manage to in Portuguese – about all sorts of things particularly the upcoming carnival – I’m invited – and the football: Brazil beat Italy yesterday in a friendly match. But it was how these ordinary guys – one is a factory worker, one works in an office, and another runs his own one-man business that seems to do anything and everything to do with IT – talked about fear and danger, security and safety, in the city that really interested me. We got talking about where they lived, and the centre of Sao Paulo and how they felt in each place. I told them what I had been advised about not going out at night here, and despite the fact that we were all out at night, Milton, the IT guy, a chunky black man in his 40s, agreed that this wasn’t bad advice for the centre. The area, he said, was full of thieves and drug-addicts, and whilst anyone would be safe amongst friends (and here he gestured expansively to include me and practically everyone else at the bar), even he wouldn’t want to spend much time alone. Milton is from out east – he’s a Corinthians fan; the centre-west is Palmeiras territory, and the red Metro line goes from one to the other – and in his own neighbourhood he says he doesn’t have much to worry about, although of course he has security. Everyone has security. You have to. Joao, the fat, slightly lugubrious office worker, nods in silent agreement.

I tell them I’d quite like to talk to some women. This prompts laughter and a lot of nudging and punching of arms: of course you do, don’t we all? No, no, I mean I’m interested in what women think about all this – what about her? I ask, gesturing to a handsome black women probably about the same age as Milton. Carla? No, you don’t want to talk to her. Not without paying. Open your eyes! (he makes an eye-opening signal with his right hand). Of course I could see that Carla wasn’t just here for fun. And that’s exactly why I wanted to talk to her. She agreed with the guys about the danger, but added that it was much worse for her, not because she was working nights, but because she was black. Being a black woman in Brazil is not good. Everyone, she said, pinching the skin of her forearm, just sees the colour of your skin. especially if you are on your own. With her white friend, people don’t care. I told her that some people think that Brazil isn’t racist or dangerous for black people. She laughed and not in a happy way. Those people didn’t know her life. I asked her if Lula had changed things – it is something I try to ask everyone at some point – in particular with the Programa Bolsa Familia since Carla had told me she has three kids, one grown up and two still at home. She shook her head. No. Nothing. Nothing has changed. It may be pessimistic or cynical but it’s what everyone seems to be thinking apart from the government and the World Bank.

All this bar talk might be casual and fueled by beer (and it is often difficult to understand exactly what people are saying) but it is a useful corrective to the formal interviews and other research I am doing here. It also tends to add to my growing certainty that Brazil can’t really be called a surveillance society at all in terms of how people experience their lives and relationships with the state. Talk of surveillance is just science fiction. It doesn’t mean anything to the people at the bar. The reality is all about danger (not risk in the bland sociological terminology, but actual danger) and security.

(All the names in this piece have been changed…)