Sao Paulo and the Invisible City

ocentroMy friend Carmelo Iaria has just produced a book of documentary photography on Sao Paulo’s O Centro neighborhood, a gritty, once-rundown section of the city that’s on the rise. The photos are stunning, black and white images of the neighborhood’s street life and architecture. I wrote the introductory essay, which I’m reprinting below. Check it out, then buy the book.

There’s nothing static about cities. They are organic things made of concrete and brick and rebar, shaped by the ceaseless movement of human beings, the ebb and flow of migrants from near and far in search of better lives. Neighborhoods rise and fall, are born and die and are reborn again.

Sao Paulo, Brazil, is a case study in this form of civic entropy. With roughly 20 million people, it is the sixth largest city in the world–a “megacity,” as the planners say. Its borders push out in all directions, toward the western hinterland and the coastal mountains guarding the Atlantic. The city had no zoning codes until 1972, and it has grown unchecked for the last couple of decades, adding neighborhood after neighborhood with a viral speed, the rich barricading themselves behind high walls topped by barbed wire and the poor erecting shantytowns powered by stolen electricity.

Inevitably, the corollary of this breakneck growth is a sort of collective forgetting. Overshadowed by the new, the old places are forgotten. They are still on the maps, but the city’s imagination moves on, drawn ever outward by the lure of the fresh and unsullied.

Such was the case with O Centro, Sao Paulo’s historic downtown. Once the hub of the city’s cultural life and its financial center, the neighborhood began its descent in the 1970s, when the banks began moving to outlying districts. The rest of the money followed, leaving behind a husk of Belle Epoque buildings, modernist plazas, and rundown, once-tony apartment blocks. The First World certainties of the meticulous European-style grid soon faded. The streets filled with hawkers. A riot of plant life began reinserting itself into the sidewalks and walls and vacant lots, a reminder that when cities decline the wild fights its way back. An open-air drug market sprouted within sight of the opera house.

When Carmelo Iaria decided to photograph O Centro, his friends warned him about the crime and the urban decay. Mostly, they wondered why he’d want to go there. They, too, had forgotten. When he first visited, in 2003, he was shocked by what he found. To be sure, he saw blight and crime. But he also found a vibrant and astonishingly diverse place, a neighborhood that had soldiered on after the city at large had turned its attention elsewhere. “Nothing around me matched the description I had gotten,” the San Francisco photographer remembers. “What I saw was the remains of a very sophisticated and rich city.”

Compared to cities like Cairo or Rome, Sao Paulo, which came into its own as a colonial boomtown in the 1700s, is relatively young. It has a deep sense of its history, however, and in O Centro all of those layers are on display, past lives laid one on top of the next. Iaria was drawn to the opportunity to map these layers through his photography.

Some of Iaria’s images possess a distinctly Old World feel. The city, like Brazil itself, was built on waves of foreign immigration. Some of these new arrivals came unwillingly, as slaves from West Africa brought to work on the coffee and sugar plantations. Others, though, from Italy and Germany and Portugal, came seeking opportunities that Europe couldn’t provide. Over the years, then, Sao Paulo grew, and grew rich. O Centro’s faded buildings, many built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stand testament to this heritage: a graceful European city carved out of the New World countryside. A photo of the Theatro Municipal, a century-old monolith modeled after a similarly grand building in Milan, mixes past glories with a more prosaic present. At the edge of the frame, a man pedals a bicycle laden with water jugs, a workaday errand far from the symphony orchestra housed within.

In another, a man appears to be tipping his hat to the viewer. Save the ubiquitous iPod earbuds, he would look at home in a fin de siècle daguerrotype. Behind him is the Luz train station, shipped over, piece by piece, from Scotland and built in 1901. Once the transit point for newly arrived European immigrants from the coast, Luz now hosts weekday workers heading to jobs at the stock exchange, or those manning the gold-trading storefronts that dot the nearby streets.

Iaria chronicles the area’s more recent history as well. There is the Copan building, O Centro’s defining landmark. The creation of Rio architect Oscar Niemeyer, the wave-like apartment block was designed with the idea that all classes would live together behind its walls. It towers 38 stories above Ipiranga Avenue, so dominating that it has its own zip code. Iaria’s photo, shot from below, carries a whiff of the sublime. The structure’s sinuous curves speak to the promise of modernism: that a bright future for all was on the way.

Utopia never came. Other monuments to progress were erected in mid-century and left to rot. In one desolate photo, the buildings actually appear to slump, like drunks trying to hold up the sky. Down on the street, lone figures thread their way along a wall, reminders that it’s easy for individuals to get lost in the metropolis.

Indeed, Sao Paulo’s size is inescapable. There is a Sunday morning photograph of a city worker sweeping the Largo de Memoria. The foreground shows mid-century office buildings, erected on a human scale. In the distance, skyscrapers march toward the horizon, totems of the city’s growth.

Iaria, though, is most interested in people, and in “the resiliency of the human spirit,” as he puts it. He focuses not on the elites who take private helicopters to work, nor on the millions of Paulistanos who fill the favelas. Mostly, he trains his gaze on those who are just getting by. And O Centro is very much a place of people just getting by.

He spends long moments with a man selling pineapple slices on the sidewalk, whose earnings just barely support his family. He meets a parking attendant who looks after mopeds and motorcycles, the keys hanging from his neck on a wire. Iaria also happens upon a shoeshine parlor that once served wealthy businessmen. The seats are torn now. The clientele doesn’t have much extra cash.

One photograph shows a man’s hands, rutted from years of cutting limes, apples, and bananas. There are day laborers hauling heavy loads on wagons, and scarecrow-like old men standing on street corners with advertising boards hung from their necks. “Compro Ouro,” the signs read. “Buy Gold.” Iaria makes a portrait of one of these men. There is stoicism in his expression, and also dignity.

In an image shot through the legs of the man in front of him, Iaria captures a street preacher in mid-sermon. A crowd of onlookers surrounds him, an itinerant flock of working men who hang on his brimstone-tinged words. He preaches in the shadow of a grand Catholic church, gesticulating, scolding, encouraging, and with far more energy than the priests behind the church’s cool stone walls can muster. He talks not just of the afterlife but of the here and now, a subject of keen interest to the strivers gathered around him.

Year after year, Iaria kept coming back to O Centro. He began to notice changes. The neighborhood was beginning to regenerate itself, as neighborhoods sometimes do, with an influx of new people, new energy, and new money.

Gentrification of a sort was coming to O Centro. The drug market was still there, but there were hip nightclubs and new boutiques. As in Williamsburg and Silver Lake, young professionals adopted the neighborhood, drawn by the cheap rent and the chance to be pioneers. One of Iaria’s friends, a magazine editor, bought a place in the Copan, on the 23rd floor. The view is amazing.

Sao Paulo is still growing, still pushing outward. But what was forgotten has been rediscovered.