The rise, fall, and rebirth of São Paulo city center

. Jul 21, 2019
rebirth são paulo city center Project of the Minhocão Park, in the heart of São Paulo city center

Where is the center of São Paulo? The question seems redundant, but the answer is hardly obvious. The “center”—certainly the financial center—has been dislocated westward repeatedly, such that it now finds itself some 6 to 8 kilometers to the southwest, on Avenues Faria Lima or Berrini. But there is some suggestion now that the center is coming back—to the center—with important revitalization plans afoot.

After decades of depopulation and deterioration of central regions of the city, real estate speculation has shot up over the past decade. Ten percent of new vertical residential buildings in São Paulo over the period have been in the Sé region, which includes the gentrifying neighborhoods of República and Santa Cecília; this rises to well over 15 percent if one takes only the past couple of years. It amounts to 33,582 new buildings of this type from 2007 to 2017.

Anyone who lives in the region can testify to this; anecdotally, it seems as if every third block has a new residential building, either recently completed or under construction.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="989" height="1003" src="ão-são-paulo.jpg" alt="minhocão são paulo" class="wp-image-21077" srcset="ão-são-paulo.jpg 989w,ão-são-paulo-296x300.jpg 296w,ão-são-paulo-768x779.jpg 768w,ão-são-paulo-610x619.jpg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 989px) 100vw, 989px" /><figcaption>Highlighted on the map, the Minhocão</figcaption></figure> <p>One significant part of this process is the upgrading of public spaces, such as the<a href=""> plans for the Vale do Anhangabaú</a>. Another such project concerns the <em>Minhocão—</em>or “big worm”—a 2.8-kilometer overpass that runs like a scar from the start of the West Zone through to the Center. An idea to turn it into a park, inspired by New York’s High Line, has existed for at least five years, but it may finally be realized in the coming 6 to 18 months.</p> <p>But a Minhocão Park is not without controversy, as the construction has been throughout its history. In fact, the trajectory of this automotive viaduct is in some ways the story of central São Paulo in microcosm.</p> <p>São Paulo, despite its 465 years of existence, is really a city of the 20th century. Its “old center” grew significantly in the 19th century, powered by <a href="">coffee exports</a>; it then expanded westward to the adjacent “new center” (on the other side of the Vale do Anhangabaú) in the 1940s, as the economy became increasingly industrialized. Through the 1950s and 1960s the city boomed, during which time the financial center moved to Avenida Paulista, displacing the old coffee baron mansions that had set up there in the late 19th century.&nbsp;</p> <h2>A scar in the face of São Paulo</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="800" height="445" src="ão.jpg" alt="construction minhocão" class="wp-image-21001" srcset="ão.jpg 800w,ão-300x167.jpg 300w,ão-768x427.jpg 768w,ão-610x339.jpg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 800px) 100vw, 800px" /><figcaption>The construction of Minhocão</figcaption></figure> <p>At the start of the 1970s, with the country under military rule, then-Mayor Paulo Maluf mandated the construction several massive viaducts, going around or into the city center. One of these was the Minhocão—until recently holding the official name Elevado Costa e Silva, <a href="">after the military dictator</a> who named Maluf mayor.</p> <p>The Minhocão’s 144,000 tons of concrete were set in only 420 days, and the roadway was inaugurated in 1971. The dirt, noise, and pollution it created in its run from Roosevelt Square in República, through Santa Cecília and Barra Funda neighborhoods, made an already controversial construction hugely unpopular with residents. Already in 1976, the decision was made that the viaduct’s four lanes should be closed to traffic at night, giving locals some limited respite. However, still today, 78,000 vehicles pass on it daily, often in standing traffic at busy hours.</p> <p>The concrete monstrosity’s construction led to a significant fall in land values around the area and turned previously elegant avenues below into gloomy and oppressive tunnels. Residents of adjacent apartment buildings, meanwhile, found themselves practically living amongst traffic.&nbsp;</p> <p>This period, from the 1970s through to the early 2000s, coincided with a deterioration of the center as a whole, as real estate money flowed into other parts of the city, and businesses moved offices to Avenida Paulista or further afield. The region<a href=""> lost nearly 25 percent of its inhabitants</a> over the course of the 1990s—and naturally it was those who could most afford to move who did.&nbsp;</p> <p>Then, this decade, a group of local activists saw an opportunity and founded the Minhocão Park Association in 2013, to lobby for the realization of a park. São Paulo&#8217;s 2014 Strategic Master Plan followed, foreseeing the gradual deactivation of the Minhocão. While it excited those who imaged it becoming a new, pedestrianized urban space for residents, it disappointed those who wished for its demolition—as well as planners worried about the increased burden it might place on traffic in the region.</p> <p>The first step was mainly symbolic, with the renaming of the thoroughfare Elevado João Goulart, after the president deposed in the coup of 1964. Under mayors Fernando Haddad and then João Dória, the roadway was closed to traffic for increased hours in the evenings and at weekends. Then, under current mayor Bruno Covas, it was announced in February of this year, after nearly four years of municipal proceedings, that a permanent park would indeed be created, covering its 17,500 square meters.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="680" height="453" src="ão-são-paulo-city-center.jpg" alt="minhocão são paulo city center" class="wp-image-20994" srcset="ão-são-paulo-city-center.jpg 680w,ão-são-paulo-city-center-300x200.jpg 300w,ão-são-paulo-city-center-610x406.jpg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 680px) 100vw, 680px" /><figcaption>Minhocão on a Sunday</figcaption></figure> <p>Initially, the plan is for an upgraded, tree-lined landscape to cover just the initial 900 meters of the viaduct, from Praça Roosevelt to Largo do Arouche. But eventually, the planned BRL 38 million in investment would create a long park, linking a regenerated Augusta Park (also in the works after being shuttered for nearly a decade) in the Center to Rio Branco Park, in the West Zone.</p> <p>Based on plans by urbanist (and ex-mayor of Curitiba) Jaime Lerner, the park would benefit from new access ramps, benches, and trees, as well as other vegetation, which would also help create a barrier between the park and adjacent buildings. Ventilation holes would be created along the center of the viaduct to allow for air and light to penetrate down to the damp and dark stretches along the avenues the Minhocão has covered for nearly 50 years.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Legal battles</h2> <p>Now though the public prosecutor’s office has lodged a case alleging the Minhocão Park is unconstitutional because such an act of creation is the remit of the executive,—the law was signed by city councilors instead. The case was brought by Councilor Caio Miranda (of the center-left Brazilian Socialist Party), who argues the structure is too old and requires stability studies. He favors its demolition—raising the prospect of a continued battle between two different visions for this region of São Paulo.</p> <p>Regardless of the outcome gentrification of the area will continue apace—though it would certainly be accelerated by the park. If the High Line is anything to go by, the impact would be significant. In blocks adjacent to the elevated public park in New York, property values<a href=""> increased 51 percent</a>, relative to even just a block away. Worries are that this will<a href=""> lead to further social exclusion</a>. The irony of the fall in property prices precipitated by the Minhocão was that it allowed for a more socially-mixed city center. Many will have to move further afield if rents continue to increase.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="866" height="1024" src="ão-project-866x1024.jpg" alt="minhocão project" class="wp-image-20995" srcset="ão-project-866x1024.jpg 866w,ão-project-254x300.jpg 254w,ão-project-768x908.jpg 768w,ão-project-610x721.jpg 610w,ão-project.jpg 1690w" sizes="(max-width: 866px) 100vw, 866px" /><figcaption>The new Minhocão would have access ramps to nearby buildings</figcaption></figure> <p>There is no simple solution. São Paulo needs more public space. It remains car-dominated and sprawling. It was not a monumental city like Rio de Janeiro, built for governors and priests. It can be disorienting, lacking both geographical and human landmarks. Perhaps other than the modern art museum, <a href="">MASP</a>, there is no classically “São Paulo” postcard image of the city. Of course, for those who love the city, this may be part of the charm—it is a city to be <em>lived</em>, not admired. Nevertheless, if the best-case scenario for the Minhocão comes to fruition, it would become an identifiable city landmark, in the best modernist spirit of mass social inclusion—a rebuke to the São Paulo of gated condominiums or shopping malls.</p> <p>The more realistic scenario is that it would be both: a new urban space, but<a href=""> encircled by middle-class gated condominiums</a> (albeit of<a href=""> increasingly small and expensive</a> apartments—the average in the area has fallen from 61 to 41 square-meters this decade). So those on lower incomes, locally, would lose, the middle classes can afford to remain might benefit marginally, while the real winners would be the developers. This, in a city in which 1 percent of property-owners<a href=""> hold</a> 49 percent of all real estate value.&nbsp;</p> <p>It would also fit into a broader pattern of development, not just of São Paulo, but of Brazil—something author Benjamin Moser calls “auto-imperialism”. That is, Brazil is not so much a colonized society as a colonizer; but the place to be conquered is <em>itself. </em>This has resulted, throughout its history, in a chaotic process of development, of speculation and construction, followed by abandonment once that which has been built no longer serves its purpose. Concreting over past “errors” has been a repeated pattern, and it is easy to see the Minhocão (past, present and maybe even future), fitting into just this haphazard and anti-social model.&nbsp;</p> <p>So, although more free public space is very welcome, and a Minhocão Park would be a great step forward for the region and the city, the question remains: does it mean a more social area for some, while representing yet another anti-social step, for many more?

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Alex Hochuli

Alex is a writer, researcher and consultant based in São Paulo, Brazil. He is host of the global politics podcast, Aufhebunga Bunga, and is currently researching a book on anti-politics.

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