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SAO PAULO: A LITTLE DELICACY, PLEASE

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This article appeared in O Estado de S.Paulo. The original, in Portuguese, can be read here. It has been translated for LAB by Tom Gatehouse.

 If I were God – assuming I existed – I would bring divine intervention to São Paulo in a particular way. I would preserve the entire city for the next ten years. As it is now, it shall remain. Nothing more shall be knocked down, nothing more shall be built. We shall try and improve the city that already exists: monstrous, unequal, badly planned and poorly looked after. If money has to circulate, then invest it in public spaces: streets, squares, gardens, pavements, leisure centres, flood prevention – all those things that transform a scattering of separate residences into something resembling that magnificent human invention we call the city. And moreover, to invest in urban space will bring financial rewards.

"Seen from up here, from the celestial point of view, São Paulo looks like a bomb hit it" Immense craters in every neighbourhood, whole blocks of demolished houses, the poor thrown here and there in search of space upon which to create new refugee camps, from which no doubt they will soon be expelled. Floods, gridlock, desperate people imprisoned within their cars, people going mad just in the day to day. People who feel in their body and soul the effects of living beneath a roof of pollution which can only be seen from above. It looks like a war, but it is just capitalism: booming, enriching some and impoverishing the rest. The city has become hellish, but those who can pay are offered solace in the form of living in a tower, high above the ground, where they can pretend to escape the urban reality. The nouveau-riche use of the word ‘tower’ has come to substitute the obsolete ‘building’, as well as ‘skyscraper.’ In fairytales, the tower was always the place where the princess was imprisoned. In São Paulo, privilege is living imprisoned in a tower.

But how could we stop all the property developers in the city? And what about the economy? And a whole generation of jobs? Well, to an omnipotent being none of that should present a problem. Besides, if a city administration rich like ours, instead of becoming the client of a powerful construction sector, invested the taxes it receives in other activities, in no time at all the city would recover its joie de vivre. Why not say, for instance, that it is possible to plan a municipal economy? Because it is only thus that we can stop being held hostage by those who already have ample spending power. Ten years are less than a fraction of a second to one who sees from the position of eternity. But, who knows? Perhaps time enough for the city to elect a new mayor and a city council free of commitments to the powerful Sécovi, the largest property developer in Latin America.

But in the name of what God would it go and do a thing like that? In the name of one that would prevent the city from, uh, ‘growing?’ No, God doesn’t have to be socialist. Nor a city planner. It would suffice to act in the name of a value present in all sacred doctrines, whether religious or simply humanist: in the name of delicacy. It would suffice to consider that perhaps cities don’t exist to awe and oppress people, but to broaden the sphere of liberty, our possibilities and that usually known as urbanity.

At this point I invite the reader to switch the celestial view of São Paulo for the point of view of the pedestrian. To get out of the car and stroll at random through the streets. If you don’t like the idea, imagine that you are Baudelaire en flânant in nineteenth-century Paris, trying to capture what was left of the old city after the monumental reform carried out by Haussmann, acting under the orders of Napoleon III. Or pretend that you are João of Rio de Janeiro, the diarist of the Brazilian capital reformed by Pereira Passos. Of course, the difference is that these two enormous urban destructions/reconstructions were planned with the aim of modernising public space, whilst today the construction business buys public power and does literally whatever it wants in the name of ‘the people’ – that is to say, the market. We should be happy with the results, we are told, because the market is nothing more than our own collective will. But this is not true. The market is a device formed by a few large interests, which is imposed upon us and determines our choices.

Stroll a little through the streets of your neighbourhood in search of those nooks and crannies which have still yet to be ruined by the latest grandiose, tacky construction. Look for the places where the encounter – between public and private, intimate and unfamiliar, challenging and reassuring – is still possible. Then ask yourself what would become of a city that destroyed all that remains of its delicacy, grace, modesty? What would become of a city without porches, verandas? Without windows looking out onto the street – and without the cat looking out through the glass? What would become of our daily lives in a city without the small local businesses where people meet, greet, converse? A city without familiar places? What would become of a city without those old neighbourhoods, where passers-by can enter without having to pass a security guard, and find an oasis of shade and silence? A city without the little square left on a street corner, where they forgot to build something new? What would become of a city that is pure arrogance, exhibitionism and efficiency? And what will become of us, residents of a city that scorns urban life?