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Three tales of the new São Paulo

(1) Alphaville – the millionaire’s ghost town

There are now more than 30 gated community areas inside the miniature city known as Alphaville. The wealthy have basically built their own city, which is the richest municipality in the country. It’s all built on public land, but each area has its own private security that controls access. So while you theoretically have every right to enter, non-residents would need a highly efficient lawyer or a complacent police officer just to take a stroll.

Alphaville is a sort of ghost city. Nearly 30,000 homes have been built. Behind the gates lie some 150,000 gardeners, chauffeurs, maids, nannies, pet groomers and landscapists who come in on a daily basis and provide the largest signs of life. They have gone by nightfall, leaving the streets quiet and lonely, because people built beautiful dream homes here for privacy, not to live among neighbours. I lived here among the residents and was initially treated with suspicion. Why was I there? Had I infiltrated the community to get information for a potential kidnapping? But unlike in Prestes (see part 2) I rarely broke through: on the whole, interacting with the residents of Alphaville was not very pleasant. There was always this sense of distance.

Michael Klein’s commute

This is Michael Klein – one of the richest men in Brazil. He owns the Casas Bahia retail chain, his father was a Polish holocaust survivor who moved to Brazil and started a business empire. His family owns three helicopters which they use to commute around the city. São Paulo has the largest fleet of helicopters of any city in the world. The traffic can be pretty bad, so for those that can afford it it’s the only way to travel.

 The three-in-one

In São Paulo they have a thing called a three-in-one. The idea is that you live, work and entertain yourself within the same gated complex. The latest one has six residential towers on top of a shopping mall and three business towers. It has three helipads. The elevators go straight from the condominiums into the mall or offices and up to the helipad. Your feet never have to touch the ground.

Stir crazy

I noticed some surprising similarities in Alphaville with the people living in Prestes Maia (see over page) – most noticeably the alcohol abuse, but also the feeling of isolation. These kids are young, they don’t have driving licences, they are 40 km from the centre and their parents often won’t let them leave the compound. So there’s this feeling of cabin fever. Some of them said to me that they know Paris, London, Rome – the European cities where they go on holiday in the summer – better than they know their own city. All they see of São Paulo is out of a car window.

 The bullet-ridden salesroom

Bullet-proofing cars is big business in Brazil – it costs about a third of the original value of the vehicle. This shot was taken in the salesroom of one of the conversion garages and shows how a car door stands up to different calibres. Brazil is one of the biggest manufacturers of guns in the world, so this level of protection could be seen as a legitimate response to a threat, but I think there is an element of egotism too. There’s an idea that “I’m so important I need to be protected” all borne out of this insecurity about who you are and what you represent.

(2) Prestes Maia 911 – the vertical slum

In 2005 the sociopolitical movement MSTC (Movimento Sem Teto do Centro) moved 468 families in need of a home to occupy a 22-storey former textile factory, the Prestes Maia 911 building. There was no electricity or running water. The families cleaned up the infested building, cleared out some crack addicts and a prostitution circle and removed 20 truckloads of sewage and garbage before declaring it home.

I chanced upon Prestes Maia in 2006 and started documenting it. Both here and in Alphaville, I felt like an alien, but it was easier to have a human experience in the slums than among the rich. In Prestes Maia they weren’t used to people spending so much time with them. But Brazilians are very open, and if you take the time to talk with them they will tell you their stories.

The window

Prestes Maia was described as ‘the vertical slum’ and it really was a microcosm of certain aspects of Brazilian life. There were different stages to my relationship with it. When I first arrived it was dark, damp and depressing.  Then romanticism kicked in: you saw some of the people who were involved, how they made a library, how they were really fighting for something. For a while it was almost beautiful.

Then the corruption set in. Politics set in. People started to be charged rent and the amount depended on which floor you were living on. Several people who couldn’t pay were kicked out. There was alcohol abuse and domestic violence. This shot was taken from the 18th floor, I don’t know why this space has been chipped out – I’m presuming for ventilation. It was at least a metre and a half wide and it became my window on to the city.

Waiting for the shower

This really sums up daily life in Prestes Maia. Each floor was occupied by up to ten families who shared a common bathroom. So when you needed a shower you had to go and wait. So here’s a girl of around 13 in the stairway of a 22-storey building with people coming and going all day and she’s in her towel. There’s no privacy.

Artists, activists and the people

This is the top floor of Prestes Maia 911, the only floor that was empty. During the four years of the occupation there was extensive cooperation between activists and artists, people trying to support the movement. A well-known street artist, Tiago Judas, did this carving on the wall. I felt that it captured the spirit of the place.

Samara and Sara 

For me the story of Prestes Maia is the story of a mother, Samara. She was one of those odd occupants who were full of life even after all the tragedies she had lived through. She had a family of three when I met her, four when the occupation ended. Samara had a terrible story: when she was young she was kidnapped and repeatedly raped over a period of months. She escaped and found out she was pregnant with Sara. They lived on the streets for a while before moving to Prestes Maia.

Sara turns out to be something of a prodigy. She won a place at a school for gifted children. For a while there was hope, but then the person who was taking her to school every day got tired of doing it and refused to help out any more. The mother was working; Sara was too young to walk alone so they pulled her out. That can be the difference between one life and another, finding somebody who can walk you to school.

When Samara moved into the Prestes Maia, she fell in with Mauricio and eventually had another child inside the occupation. She explained to me that social services don’t really help until you have more than one kid, so you have a second kid to feed the first, then a third to feed the second. It’s a trap.


The standoff

In 2006 the building was threatened with closure and the occupiers , including Samara, took to the street in protest – they closed off this vital avenue to traffic, and the police intervened. The residents started turning on each other.  During one of the residential meetings (top image) they accused this guy of being a spy. The woman in the front row is Samara, with her new baby. What sickens me about this picture is the guy rubbing his hands together with glee. The paranoia of this meeting was exactly the sort I also encountered in Alphaville.

The exodus

The exodus came in 2009 – everyone was evicted. This shot to me sums up how small the residents were in the eyes of the city. By the time of the exodus I didn’t see the activists, the artists or the NGOs any more. All I saw were the people left behind. And that’s the thing. You’re always on your own. It is a city of almost 20 million but in the end you’re always on your own.

(3) Sleepers

Over the years I watched the homeless population in the city grow: recently the Brazilian Institute for Populations said there were 15,000 of them. There have been claims that they are being murdered to clear up for the World Cup – I’m not sure I believe that, but they are definitely being moved out of certain areas.  Behind Prestes Maia there’s an area known as “crackland”, where there was a lot of public drug use. It was like Dante’s ‘Inferno’. Now they are being shipped out of the area, out of town and out of sight.

Human graffiti 

For the most part São Paulo is warm but the rising pollution levels have brought about thermal
inversions [when a pocket of cold air is trapped close to the ground by the hot air above it], so you sometimes have people freezing to death.  This is the last picture I took in São Paulo. We were driving through the city and we saw this apparition – almost a ghost wrapped up against the cold. The question I always ask myself is, was the graffiti done by him or by somebody passing by? It’s that kind of city where you can imagine somebody walking by and painting on a person as if they were an inanimate object.

Some of what I saw I will always carry around. It’s incredibly tough, but you have to accept that this is the way it is and if you believe you are going to change this then you are mistaken. The only people who can solve São Paulo’s problems are the people living in the city, but equally they can make them worse. I believe that if you draw a line in the sand and say this side is shit and this is good, then people will try and move that line. The “good” area then spreads, increasing inch-by-inch. If you build a wall and write off everything on one side, then nothing will change for them.

Carlos Cazalis is the author of ‘Occupy São Paulo’, published by Kehrer Verlag at £32.99. 

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