Downtown Blues

Downtown Blues

    Pátio do Colégio: São Paulo, the third largest city in the world,

    was born here. Still you don’t see
    tourists or middle-class citizens
    visiting the site. Is it because they are not interested in their own history

    or because they are afraid of the beggars and thieves all around?


    John Fitzpatrick

    Downtown São Paulo—Pictures of an Exhibition

    When I first arrived in São Paulo I lived in Santa Cecília, a middle-class district running rapidly into decline, and
    worked nearby in the old centre for some time. Last year, I returned to this area to work but, as nothing ever stands still in São
    Paulo, I will shortly be moving to work in a dreary tower block in a faceless district, which will extend my
    traveling time from 30
    minutes to an hour (if I am lucky). Before reluctantly leaving I would like to share some memories of this downtown district,
    which manages to combine everything that is awful with everything that is good about this sprawling city.

    Job Hunting

    Rua Barão de Itapetininga is a pedestrian-only street, which goes from the Teatro Municipal to Praça da República. It
    is always crowded with noisy street sellers. Even the shopkeepers try and attract passers-by, with good-looking girls
    trying to lure men into clothes shops, as though they were inviting them into a brothel, and tie-wearing young men offering
    loans. One general store, which measures about 15 by 12 feet and sells everything from religious statuettes to clock radios,
    employs a man who dresses as a clown and sits on top of a high ladder all day long announcing the marvels you can buy inside.

    This is a typical example of his patter: "Good morning Brazil. Good morning São Paulo. Good morning my people.
    Look at the wonderful things we have here just for you—pots and pans of the highest quality have just arrived, paper to wrap
    up your presents. Come inside. Everything in the shop is new. Every member of our staff will give you a big smile. Yes a big
    smile awaits you inside." I think I am the only person who ever stops and listens, but have still not been persuaded enough to enter.

    However, what makes Rua Barão de Itapetininga interesting is that it is where people go to try and find a job. It
    houses many job agencies and you see long queues of people patiently waiting outside them, particularly on Mondays after
    vacancies have appeared in the Sunday newspapers. In the typical fascist style of many Brazilian employers, lots of these adverts
    demand that applicants appear in person for a preliminary registration. This means that the unfortunate job hunters have to
    spend hours queuing and filling in forms knowing that probably nothing will come of it.

    Sandwich men with job vacancies scribbled on their boards abound. These men are often one step above being
    deadbeats. They sit stony-faced surrounded by dozens of people, some taking notes of the jobs on offer. Posters offer instant CVs
    for R$1 (about 35 US cents) and hawkers offer to get you registered with the various authorities. It is very lively and very
    sad at the same time. By American or European standards the jobs are ill paid. However, R$300 a month (about US$100) plus
    medical insurance, and travel and lunch vouchers would be a dream come true for most of the job seekers.

    Capela de Anchieta—Where It All started

    The city of São Paulo was founded just over 400 years ago by two Jesuit priests, José Anchieta and Manuel da
    Nóbrega, at a spot overlooking the Viaduto Boa Vista called Pátio do Colégio. Virtually nothing remains of the original building
    where the priests set up a chapel and school for the Indians, although a fairly attractive colonial-style building now serves as a
    museum. A pompous Italian-style monument stands in front of the museum.

    Why this particular spot developed to become the third largest city in the world is a mystery. It was originally
    intended as a stopping point on the way from São Vicente on the coast, about 100 miles away, to the interior. It is situated on a
    plateau which can be hot, cold, wet and dry in the same day. It does not have any great navigable river.

    It was used as a base by the
    bandeirantes—those Brazilians who opened up Brazil in their greedy search for slaves
    and gold—but slumbered until towards the end of the
    19th century when it came alive. The fertile hinterland was good for
    coffee and the economy exploded, attracting migrants from all over Brazil and immigrants from all over the world.

    However, it is rare to see parties of tourists or middle-class citizens visiting the site where their city was born. Is it
    because they are not interested in their own history or because they are afraid to venture into a part of town which has more than
    its fair share of beggars and thieves? A couple of years ago I went there on a Saturday morning but immediately turned
    back when I saw a group of tramps fast asleep outside the building alongside neat piles of their own excrement.

    Singing for Their Supper

    Two men attract great crowds in the Praça do Patriarca, a square near the Viaduto do Chá, by performing impromptu
    songs called desafio (challenge). They are carrying on a Northeastern tradition in which two singers try to outdo each other
    singing impromptu songs. One starts the song, which can be on any subject, and the other takes it over and so on. Normally one
    beats a tambourine or small drum.

    They sing about anything, from the latest political scandal to the shape of a passing girl’s behind. This is popular
    culture at its best, but it needs a really good command of Portuguese to understand the references and jokes, many of which are
    obscene. However, on one occasion when they started singing about a tight-fisted gringo who watched them and never gave
    them any money I realized, as did the crowd which started laughing, that they were singing about me.

    Death at Viaduto do Chá

    Just before Christmas I was walking across the Viaduto do Chá—the tea viaduct so called because it used to be a
    farm, which presumably cultivated tea— when I saw some people looking down towards the Vale do Anhangabaú
    underneath. Being nosy I joined them and saw the body of a middle-aged man lying on the concrete. It was not clear if he was a
    beggar or just a poor person but he was ragged and in a bad state.

    While a policeman spoke into his radio a real beggar was sitting only a few feet from the corpse gazing around as
    though nothing had happened. A young man in the white outfit doctors in Brazil use appeared and started hitting the dead man
    on the chest. He then gave him mouth-to-mouth respiration but without any success.

    I was impressed by the sheer humanity of this act which was doomed to fail. The older man was obviously dead yet
    the younger one tried to save him even though he could have been putting his own life at risk by trying to resuscitate him.
    It also showed a respect which did not exist on a previous occasion when I saw two policemen lift the body of a man they
    had just shot and tumble it into the boot of their car as though it were a sack of potatoes.

    Praça da Sé—São Paulo’s Beating Heart

    The Praça da Sé is the spiritual centre of the city and site of its cathedral, a rather ugly building which has recently
    been renovated. The square itself is currently undergoing renovation and when it is finished we must hope it is well policed to
    keep away the riffraff who litter it. If you stand at the entry to the cathedral and look down to the square, which is flanked by
    imperial palms, and try and ignore the dirt and squalor, you can see how São Paulo must have once been a magnificent
    prosperous place.

    Many of the surrounding buildings are still attractive despite being defaced by graffiti or the visual pollution of
    giant advertising posters. Unfortunately, like my current client, most companies have moved or are moving out to places like
    Faria Lima, Berrini and Santo Amaro. A project is underway to revitalize the old centre and much has already been done. For
    example, the Estação da Luz railway station, which was built by the British and would not be out of place in southern England,
    has been turned into an impressive concert hall.

    However, there have been complaints about the lack of security and once the concert is over most people rush back
    to their own districts rather than stay on. The streets are generally left to the derelicts, thieves, beggars, prostitutes who
    comprise so many of the inhabitants of this city. This is a pity because a great city like São Paulo needs a beating heart.

    John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He
    writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic
    which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at 

    © John Fitzpatrick 2003

    You can also read John Fitzpatrick’s articles in
    Infobrazil, at

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