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The Transnational Urban Imaginary: Urban Vignettes from São Paulo, Part II

In Part II of "Urban Vignettes", World Policy Senior Fellow Todd Lanier Lester expands on his ideas, applying a global perspective to how public urban development projects can affect property values and social outcomes for communities around the globe.

By Todd Lanier Lester

In the first part of this essay, I wrote about the continuum of urban space — spanning from public to private, for which the locations of Part I serve as extremes. In this piece, I will consider a more global perspective on the dynamics of speculation, something that I’ll both define and relate to the aforementioned continuum in São Paulo.

In order for something to be global or transnational, there must be another site, one with its own set of relatable, yet different desires. I’ll start by considering New York City and fish around a bit to see if this more globalized idea of speculation holds water.

A much-anticipated elevated park called The High Line has been constructed and subsequently opened to the public over the past decade in New York City. Local developers have surrounded the park with the most posh boutique hotels and ‘concept’ living residences. It now has a public art director working to engender inclusivity and attempting to diversify its usage from high-end residential and tourist hot spot. From there The High Line moves northward up Manhattan to the terminus of the former train bed it now occupies. In turn, gentrification of the West Village and Chelsea — or at least its most recent wave — can be told in the same history as that of the repurposed train track this public space has replaced.

Minhocão

The Minhocão (or ‘big worm'), known officially as Via Elevada Presidente Costa e Silva, a four-lane viaduct that cuts through the Center of São Paulo — and beyond — is essential to diffusing the city’s fierce traffic congestion even if it is a noisy eye sore to the families living in the apartment buildings that flank its path.

In the past few years, New York City’s High Line has become the ultimate object of desire for developers, city planners, and residents in cities around the world who imagine a similar future for their landmarks, as some people living—and potential new inhabitants to whom the area is marketed for rental and home ownership—near the Minhocão do. Whereas I cannot discourage friends living near the Minhocão from wanting a garden as vista rather than a hulking concrete roadway, I can tell them that such transitions just aren’t that simple. More specifically, the new apartments being constructed that flank The High Line in New York City are completely out of my price range, even if I enjoy walking the course of the park through the Chelsea gallery district from time to time.

Some Paulistanos have voiced desires both for and against the contingency in online campaigns as well as public meetings and various lobbying tactics. The Minhocão is currently open to pedestrians (joggers, dog walkers, etc.) on evenings after 9pm and all day on Saturdays and Sundays when there is a range of activities - from skating, running and jogging, to food carts, flea markets and thematic events- on the intermittent roadway. 

Nearby to the Minhocão is the neighborhood of Luz — another site for ample examination of the use of public space.

Nova Luz

On a recent visit to NYC, I was introduced to someone working in the business development department of Lincoln Center. I asked him what his department does, and in response, he explained a suite of consulting services to art centers and cultural districts around the world — “sorta like Kennedy Center does,” he said.

Since I’d already told him about my work in São Paulo making Lanchonete.org, he continued, “You’ve probably heard of our client … it’s the Nova Luz [or 'New Light'] project.” Luz is a neighborhood in the Center of São Paulo where the old train station sits. The Swiss firm, Herzog & de Meuron, won an architectural competition to make a performing arts center in Luz as a part of its transition to Nova Luz. The project was later cancelled, but not before demolitions, forced evictions, and train-loads of public money were spent to renew a neighborhood without any dedicated process of public engagement.

In the same period, I met a man who owns a penthouse apartment — with one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen — overlooking Sala São Paulo (which was previously the train station’s first class waiting quarters) and Cracolândia, the location of my second mugging, as well as the empty lot where buildings were demolished to make way for the aforementioned performing arts center. He bought the apartment as an investment property when he thought the Nova Luz project was a certainty.

He told me that, when he had briefly lived there and served on its syndicate (similar to a co-op board), he tried to make some changes. He asked who was receiving the payments for the commercial antennas on the roof and rent for the shops that used space on its ground floor. One night when he was leaving the building, he was beat up badly and told if he ever came back, he’d be killed.

In this example, an international architectural competition in a location where there are complex urban dynamics at play (and for which there are not adequate modes of public engagement) compounds the effects of inequitable or non-participatory urban development. It also manifests in a personal indignity for which an act of individual or group criminality cannot be singled out from the societal desperation that moments of rapid urban change occasion. To make this case, it helps to look at a third area in the Center of São Paulo.

Vale do Anhangabaú

Vale do Anhangabaú, which I’ll call ‘the valley’ henceforth, is a public area in the center of São Paulo, where carnival blocos, public demonstrations, and political rallies are often held. While this area sees heavy pedestrian traffic during the day, it becomes quite desolate by night in the same way that other areas in the city's center commonly do. In addition to its centrality, vistas from the valley and the viaducts that cut across it offer a glimpse of the topographical contours of the city, as well as site-lines on some of the city’s most notable buildings, e.g. the Town Hall (Prefeitura do Município de São Paulo), Municipal Theatre, and Brazil’s first skyscraper, the 30-floor Martinelli Building. 

Itaú Bank has recently hired famed Danish architect, Jan Gehl, to plan an overhaul of the valley. The project stands to enhance pedestrian access and refine the run-down appearance of the area, yet some local groups complain that the project was undertaken without informing the public about the plan. In response, an urban development watchdog organization Arquitetura da Gentrificação, along with media outlets Repórter Brasil and Article 19, have launched an investigation into the land holdings of Itaú Bank in (and the default privatization of public space for) the valley to try and better understand the bank’s master plan.

***

My last blog concerned mugging, a hardship at the individual level. But really, what is an equivalent violence at the societal level? In sociologist Saskia Sassen’s newest book, Expulsions, she asserts that:

From finance to mining, the complex types of knowledge and technology we have come to admire are used too often in ways that produce elementary brutalities. These have evolved into predatory formations — assemblages of knowledge, interests, and outcomes that go beyond a firm’s or an individual’s or a government’s project.           

For those of us who think about cities and watch for new urban phenomena, the connection between the ‘personalities’ of the large cities of the world and the topic of security is not an esoteric one. Nor is the relation between the economic strength of a city and its ability to dispossess and hide the dispossession of demographics within its overall makeup.

As we see in the cases of The High Line, the Minhocão, Novo Luz, and the Vale do Anhangabaú, the weight of external interests on public projects can tip the balances of equality, inclusivity, access, and transparency against the local community and very population meant to benefit by (and at times used to justify) their undertaking. These results may come from projects that repurpose aging infrastructure—be they abandoned or functioning—as in the cases of New York's High Line and São Paulo's Minhocão, respectively.

However, this is the default (and the power) of the market, and not the only way to make a project. In the section on Novo Luz, I tell of an apartment owner (near the site of my second mugging) who speculated based on one such project and was met with violence. His character is that of the ‘pioneer’ we hear about in gentrification discussions. This article is not meant to criticize his position, but moreover to elucidate the macro set-up, a global perspective on speculation by which the penthouse owner’s ordeal can be contextualized.

The ultimate results of these trends can have violent effects—at the micro and macro levels—in the form of numerous consequences that do not best serve the well-being of residents who do and will call these places home.

***

The aforementioned Lanchonete.org project is an artist-led progressive cultural platform focused on how people live, work, share, and survive the contemporary city. It gets its name from the ubiquitous lunch counters that populate almost every street corner.  Lanchonete.org invites international artists to the Center of São Paulo to work with local artists and the general public through an artist engagement program that focuses on contemporary urban issues, such as housing and food sovereignty. Jakub Szczęsny was the first such resident, hosted in March 2014. During his tenure, he launched a series of discussions which demonstrated the community’s desire to construct a small garden in a courtyard area, a hybrid space that is both contested due to being ‘occupied’ and simultaneously open to the public.  The forthcoming Oct. 15 Arts-Policy Nexus piece is an interview with Jakub Szczęsny about his second trip to São Paulo to co-create a community garden with the São João community. 

*****

*****

Todd Lanier Lester is an artist and cultural producer. He is the founder of freeDimensional and more recently Lanchonete.org, a project focused on daily life in the center of São Paulo, where he currently lives.

[Photo courtesy of Preliminaries 2013]

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