São Paulo, 1987
Rich and poor in Brazil’s Big OnionBy John Ryle • 1987 • Departures (“São Paulo: A serious city that works”) • Revised • Posted 2016 • 5,118 words
It’s a short flight from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo, from the Guanabara Bay up over the coastal escarpment to the high plateau. In less than an hour the flight takes you from one of the world’s most spectacular cities to one of its most unsightly, a vast urban blur that spreads across the central plain of South Central Brazil like spilt ink. This is São Paulo, Rio’s ugly sister—twice its size, the fourth largest conurbation in the world.
“Rio is a beauty,” Marlene Dietrich is reputed to have said, “but São Paulo—São Paulo is a city.”
Seen from the window of the plane a thick haze hangs over the city, pierced by a thousand blank white towers—jagged clumps shooting upward like dragon’s teeth. Around the towers lies the great blur, four hundred square miles of urban sprawl, where Brazil’s post-World War II economic boom staggers on towards the millennium. Three times the size of Chicago, São Paulo is growing at the rate of one square mile a fortnight. Half the industry in this vast country is here. It’s Brazil’s Big Apple, its Big Smoke, its Great Stain.
Crazy, but contemporary
It’s hard to love a city like this, but people do. My neighbour on the plane from Rio, born in Romania, a scion of the deposed Romanian royal family, who had lived in Brazil since the 1940s, was stout in its defence.
“It’s a crazy place,” she said, as we stared out of the window, down into the haze, “but it’s great. It’s supercontemporâneo.”
She told me that the international airport, the one we were flying to, which opened two years ago, had been closed on no less than ninety different occasions since its inauguration, due to atmospheric pollution or other malfunctions. The day we arrived a columnist in O Estado de São Paulo, one of the city’s staider newspapers, referred to the airport as a “disaster movie”.
Even in the early 1920s, when São Paulo was still of manageable proportions, Mario de Andrade, one of Brazil’s most celebrated modernist poets, himself a Paulistano (a Paulista is an inhabitant of the state of São Paulo, a Paulistano of the city itself), described São Paulo as “Desvairada”, a city in the grips of a hallucination, or hallucinations.
At this point, aphorisms about São Paulo come to an end. Perhaps it’s not the kind of place aphorists visit. Or perhaps the airport was closed when they arrived. Perhaps it is because the city is beyond words. Instead they have statistics. The wealth of data available— demographic, economic, social, environmental—is an index of São Paulo’s seriousness, its fractured modernity. You touch down in a haze of data, and they all tell one story: a story of growth, unstoppable, unparalleled and effectively uncontrolled. Rising population, rising production and consumption, rising levels of violence and pollution and homelessness. Nothing is diminishing here—except light and air and space. The actual rate of growth is slowing, statisticians say, but the delirious expansion continues. And it’s all monitored; the city is data-based.
São Paulo is a strictly twentieth-century monster. A hundred years ago the population was just thirty-five thousand. Now it is ten million—or going on for twice that if you include the metropolitan area beyond the city limits. In a century it has grown three-hundred-fold. Other cities of South America—entire countries—are dwarfed by it. Its economy is bigger than that of Paraguay and Uruguay put together. In the southern hemisphere, in terms of population, only Jakarta, with seven and a half million, comes anywhere close. In Latin America São Paulo is neck-and-neck with Mexico City. Both display the ugly contradictions of countries strung out between the West and the rest of the world: luxury cheek-by-jowl with squalor, wealth with penury.
A city built on coffee
How does such a city come to be? São Paulo was built on coffee, grown in the fertile hinterlands, but it soon hit the harder stuff: textiles, paper, steel, cars, and latterly petrochemicals and communications. Landless peasants, arriving from Italy and Germany in the early years of the century, hungry for a better life, brought a new influx of European dynamism (many of the most prominent names in politics and industry in São Paulo today are Italian). Some time later Japanese immigrants came with their own brand of entrepreneurial energy. There are over 100,000 Paulistas of Japanese descent, the largest number anywhere outside Japan. Then there are the Lebanese, the Syrians, the Jews and the Chinese. Together with earlier settlers they created an engine of wealth and wage slavery that drives the economy of the whole country.