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Thread: Sao Paulo's Favelas

  1. #1
    Mar 2004
    Cleveland, OH

    Sao Paulo's Favelas

    When I was in Sao Paulo, I spent a couple of days exploring the favelas. It was not easy to locate them. First I did some searches on Google to get background information and perhaps come across the names of a few favelas. I found the names of the two biggest favelas, Heliopolis and Parasaiopolis, each with 50,000-100,000 people. I had the names but I still had no idea where they were in this unbelievably vast city. The favelas were not everywhere you looked as in Rio, one had to actively search for them.

    I bought a giant street atlas that had every single street in the Sao Paulo metro, something like 100,000 streets! In this atlas, it listed all of the little sub-barrios, little neighborhoods of a few thousand people, including all of the favelas. There was something like 1,000 favelas listed in the atlas. Before setting out to Heliopolis and Parasaiopolis, I picked out two random favelas on the map and decided to go to them first. I had to find favelas that were located fairly close a trains station as to reach these by bus would be incomprehensible.

    Of the thousand or so favelas, only a few were located within walking distance of the city's metro station. There were more located near the commuter rail lines, but one still had to walk atleast a half mile to reach them, often through industrial and otherwise wastelands. That gives the idea of the isolation of these places, and the way they are hidden within the giant and sprawling fabric of the city. So the first favela I set out for, as it was the easiest to get to, was located only 5 blocks from the subway throuh a semi-industrial, working class neighborhood. The street atlas was an excellent guide in leading me to it.

    I had been walking along a fairly deserted arterial road, lined by walled-off complexes and general industrial buildings, when I encountered a sea of humanity. On the street corner there were some 20 or so people, with chickens and dogs everywhere. There was some kind of commotion going on, not sure what. I turned the corner past the people and there laid a city street, with the favela to one side and wall to the other side. The favela was no more than two blocks long by 1/4 of a block, it was tightly crammed into this narrow wedge. Yet it must have housed several thousand people at the minimum.

    The city street was where the community spread out of their houses. There were trash bags and refuse everywhere. Some of the bags were loaded unto ancient trucks, others were simply laying around. Dogs and children roamed about everywhere. Women and children greatly outnumbered men. The lack of wage earners and the predominance single mothers in the favelas is a seriously problem, and is a reason why many young kids turn to selling drugs and thievery.

    Branching off the main street were tiny cul-de sacs lined with the residences, that were backed up against another wall (this is the city of walls). These little streets were nothing more than passages, barely wide enough for a couple of people to walk by. This was obviously a very impoverished favela, despite the fact that it was closer to the center with better transit links than any other in the entire city. If this was in such a poor place, with miserable, ramshackle dwellings and poor kids and mothers with nothing to do all day, what were the isolated favelas 10-20 miles from the center like?

    From there I set off for a a grouping of favelas located 5 or so miles further east in the city. From the map these favelas appeared to be mixed among regular working class neighborhoods. To get there I took the subway, then transfered to a commuter train. I was the only person to get off of the train at my stop. I walked out of the station, crossed a traffic heavy street, and emerged into a pleasant residential neighborhood. This neighborhood was like a lot of the middle class residnetial areas of the city, built on gently rolling hills with streets twisting and curving to the natural contours of the land, lined with rowhouses. They are full of shade trees and they have a nice, tranquil feel to them, a contrast to the maddening energy that exists in many parts of the city.

    Before reaching the favelas I had a lunch of some Brazilian beef stew and rice in a little corner store that appeared to specialize in wholesaling bulk foods like rice, potatoes and corn. They also served very cheap lunches on outdoor tables with some construction and city workers eating at the time. I sat there in the refreshing climate, watching life go by in a simple Sao Pauloan neighborhood. Kids getting on little mini-buses to go to school, groups of teenagers walking by, mothers pushing strollers, a couple of elderly people ambling about and others. I also reviewed my map and the favelas appeared to be about 5 blocks away.

    As I approached the favelas, the street I was walking on began to thicken with humanity. When I first set out walking, I would pass by only a few people here and there. But as I got close to the favelas, seeing them rising up on nearby hillsides, the streets had dozens of people walking to and fro, mostly teenagers and young kids.

    Soon I turned a corner and entered a favela street. Really the street wasn't much different than normal residential streets. It was of similar width, paved for automobiles, and had houes lining them. The houses were built of brick and in a more makeshift manner than the non-favela houses in the neighborhood, but were basically the same. They also weren't setback from the street with gates in front like the normal houses were.

    This favela had a main street just like the other one, except there was no trash anywhere and the buildings were in much better shape. Also the people seem to dissipate upon arriving in the favela, more content to congregate just outside its borders. This favela had the little side passages like the other one, except many more of them and not so medievally claustophobic. The main street was on the top of the hill, and the little cul-de sacs and passages clamored down the gently sloping hill. There were several other favelas just like this right next to each other that seemed to weave in and out of the regular residential neighborhoods.

    At one point I was taking a picture of this scene of an empty and sandy soccer field with a favela in the background rising up on the hill side. The soccer field looked like a desert and the favela looked like some Arabian city like Sa'naa or Medina, rising up on the hillside. It was incredible scene. After I had taken it, several young men came walking briskly towards me from the other side of the soccer field. When they approached me one immediatly began looking through my shoulder bag, another patted me down while the other was asking if I was the police. These guys were obviously drug dealers and they weren't pleased I had taken a photo so near their operation. I immediatly started talking in Spanish, saying I was just taking photos, and they realized I was a foreigner and not a cop. At once they started laughing at the crazy gringo and said take more pictures, and went back to business.

    I wasn't really rattled or scared by this encounter, they were just young hustlers worried about their own safety. They could have done what they wanted to me, taken my $300 camera or my wallet, but they were not interested in anything of the sort.

    I continued walking around the area for an hour or so. Later I was to see one of those drug dealers speeding down the street on a motorbike, with sunglasses and a determined look on his face, looking like some character out of the doomsda, sci-fi movie Mad Max. Those guys were obviously some of the primary money makers in the favela, likely supporting large fatherless families. Yet their means of commerce was illegal, and thier lives, their families and their community could be shattered any day with imprisonment or by getting murdered by the cops. I am deeply pained by the victims of the horribly unjust war on drugs and I loathe the sick society and elite that sustain it.

    It was starting to get late in the day and I jumped on a small bus that winded its way through residential baskstreets for an hour. When I got back to my hotel, I overlooked my atlas and began planning to set out for Sao Paulo's two largest favelas, Parasaiopolis and Heliopolis. I was intriged as to what I would encounter, as the previous favelas were nothing more than little villages, whereas these ones were like small cities.

    I woke up the next day, and after breakfast set out for Heliopolis. Heliopolis was to the south of the center and it was easily reached by commuter train. It sat tucked away along anonymous Sao Paulo sprawl, a mixture of industrial and residential (Sao Paulo is an extremely industrial city).

    Heliopolis had a very formless feel to it, huge, sprawling and moderately dense. Many traffic laden city streets cut through the favela and there were also several housing project highrises jutting up in the middle of the area. I'm not sure if the highrises were built first, and the favelas simply overtook them, or vice versa but it was a strange sight, especially to see 3-4 story favela buildings surrounding wall to wall to a 10 story highrise.

    The area was generally very ugly. The favela at times was clean and in good shape, at other times impovershed, dirty and very poor. There seemed to be a more balanced population here, with a mixture of sexes and age groups, unlike the other favelas. In the better parts of the favelas, on the main streets there were lots of little, small businesses. A really sad sight was this one section of the favela, where it converted some kind of industrial/warehouse building into shanty housing and the aisleways were turned into little streets. Just outside of this complex there were little shacks made of refuse, by far the worst housing I had seen anywhere, and two mothers, either overweight or pregnant were languishing on their couches in the broad daylight in pajamas right next to a busy roadway, while their numerous kids played in the surrounding muck. One is kind of barraged with depressing sights in Sao Paulo, but none moreso than this.

    I left Helipolis by crossing over an elevated highway that divided it from a more regular neighborhood. I boarded a cab and set out for Parasaiopolis, some 5 miles to the west. Parasaiopolis was paradoxically set in one of the richest and mox exclusive neighborhoods of the city in Morumbi, whereas Heliopolis was in a gritty and ugly industrial neighborhood. Approaching the favela I saw nothing but windy streets lined with big expensive walls and gates, behind which were mansions and luxury apartment buildings.

    How this favela happened to arise here was surely accident, a result of favela dwellers overtaking undeveloped land. The favela had a much more pleasant feel to it than Heliopolis. It felt more like being in a small city in the countryside, sitting on hills surrounded by trees and open land. There were also some wealthy apartment buildings that abutted the favela, which was quite a visual contrast. Interestingly enough, as I passed by these highrises on a mini-bus going back to the city, they had very little security relative to most of the condos in Sao Paulo. Here were luxury condos sitting around the corner from a huge favela, yet the people felt no need to construct giant walls, gates and install security guards as the rest of the crazy upper class were doing in the city.

    As in Heliopolis, all of the people here were nice. Some were naturally curious as to why I was taking pictures, but in general people didn't pay me any attention. The people in this favela were better off than the other ones, well dressed, well-stocked shops and grocery stores, clean streets, nice houses, with schools, a small hospital, and mini-bus routes all located within the favela. Many of the houses had cars parked outside and I saw real estate signs, which must meant people bought and sold these houses.

    Those are my impressions of some of Sao Paulo's favelas, Tommorrow I'll right about some ideas that I have cure some of the povery and social ills and improve the quality of life in the worse off favelas.

    Photos of these four favelas, which are mixed in general city photos of Sao Paulo, can be viewed here:


  2. #2
    Apr 2004
    Detroit, MI

    you are braver than i...

    i have been to sao paulo twice and went to rio de janeiro for the first time during the brazilian winter this year. i wanted to check out the favelas but one of the girls i was traveling with, who had grown up in sao paulo, thought i was crazy for even wanting to wander around there. the closest i got to a favela is when i took a wrong turn near copacabana in rio and ended up in a neighborhood with garbage blowing and kids running everywhere. i quickly traced my footsteps out of there.

    i give you kudos for being adventurous enough to walk through the favelas. it is no secret that they can be dangerous, especially for a tourist. tourists that do go through there are usually on chaffeured tour buses as opposed to a solo jaunt.

    i do recommend a movie for you so you can compare your favela experience with the movie industry's rendition: "city of god". it is now out on dvd and it is a heartbreaking movie that shows the hard knocks of life inside many of brazil's favelas.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian boilerplater's avatar
    Dec 2003
    Heaven or Las Vegas
    Fascinating set of pics and narrative. I hope to make it there myself someday. I'm at a loss about what to do about it all.
    Adrift in a sea of beige

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Dharmster's avatar
    Oct 2001
    Arlington, Virginia
    Just out of curiosity what took you to Sao Paolo?

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