Sao Paulo, Brazil: Lovely if You Close One Eye

An aerial view of The Copan Building designed by the Brazilian Architect Oscar Niemeyer. The Copan is a 38 story residential building. Joao Pina/Redux

A friend once said, when I decided to move from Porto Alegre to São Paulo a year ago, “São Paulo is not for amateurs.” And the metropolis does seem scary from above: an urban landscape that spreads for miles and miles, looking endless. But after landing, things feel quite different from the urban hell usually associated with this city. The first sight that impressed me was that there were people on the streets—walking around, doing errands on foot, and using public transportation. I was used to Porto Alegre, a place where cars dominate the streets and the pedestrian has become an exotic animal. The image on television of São Paulo is of a city filled with larger-than-life traffic jams and pollution—maybe that was the reason I felt shocked to see people walking at night, returning home from bars and parties in the wee hours on foot. And, even though it was known for its crime rates, the city felt safe. In Porto Alegre, nobody walks at night anymore, scared of mugging and armed robbery. I quickly found out, though, that this safe city bursting with life was not São Paulo, but middle-class São Paulo.

Unlike many other Brazilian cities, somehow a middle-class bubble has emerged in western São Paulo. This secluded and isolated portion is the city that everyone interested in art, culture, and gastronomy immediately falls in love with. If you have the time for it—that is, if you’re not a workaholic—there are things to do every night: on Monday, you can go to an ambient music festival; on Tuesday, to an exhibition of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Polaroids; on Wednesday, to a screening of the new Pen-Ek Ratanaruang movie. If you stay at home, you feel like you’re missing out.

But this part of São Paulo hides a much darker place. I believe that what best showcases the contrast that lies in the heart of the city is a huge neoclassical building called Sala São Paulo, a cultural center built in what used to be a historical train station. If you’re a classical-music enthusiast, there’s nothing quite like this place in Latin America, a beautiful temple to music with a lofty ceiling. You leave Sala São Paulo feeling like you’re walking on clouds—only to find yourself in the middle of “Cracolândia,” an area overtaken by the poor and drug addicted. It’s a grim vision of the underside of Third World capitalism, filled with dilapidated buildings and streets filled with trash. Take a wrong turn and you’ll witness a scene worthy of The Walking Dead—people wandering around aimlessly, like zombies, people whose lives were completely ruined by crack. The city government tried to remove these addicts by force, but it is pretty clear that repressive actions will never fix a problem so central to Brazilian urban life: the terrible, unequal distribution of wealth.

But in the poor sections of the city, there are also interesting spots to be discovered, like Rinconcito, a Peruvian restaurant in the middle of Cracolândia, frequented mostly by Latin immigrants, that serves authentic seviche. Which brings us to what may be the most amazing thing in São Paulo—it is a city formed by people from all around the globe. Residents say that the hardest thing to find in São Paulo is a Paulista, someone who was born in the city and always lived here. What one encounters, instead, are southern gaúchos (like me), or people from the midwest or the northeast part of the country; or Japanese, Korean, Mexican, and Bolivian immigrants; or American and European tourists. You never know whom you are going to meet when walking down Paulista Avenue.

“São Paulo is not for amateurs.” Maybe my friend was referring to the occasional ugliness of the scenery, the immense modernist buildings, the grayness of the sky. Maybe to the loneliness one can feel if you are not open to social interactions. But one thing is for certain: São Paulo can be hell for those who cannot afford its cost of living, such as the mass of workers who wake early in the morning and face the crowded subway, commuting from the city’s outskirts. For them, it can seem like a hopeless and desperate place. A newcomer like me may feel great about São Paulo—but to do so you must shut your eyes to the city’s nastier parts.