A Rooftop in São Paulo, Argentina

That bar, that rooftop, neither of which I can remember the name of

The crowd inside the diy bar above the office of the Choque Cultural art gallery pour out onto the roof. I slide out with them, hoping to escape the thick mugginess inside and the awkwardness of not being able to understand that evening’s entertainment. Bit stoopid going to a Brazillian-beatnik-style poetry event when you don’t understand Portuguese. I nodded occasionally. Earnestly. Whilst frowning. It is Downtown Beatnik, after all. Here’s the thing, though; signposts in São Paulo don’t describe this area as ‘Downtown’ anymore. It’s now the ‘Historical Centre’. Yeah. A gentrification of urban descriptors that thankfully doesn’t reflect the reality of the place. Downtown São Paulo is still decadently downtown in every sense of the word, geographically and economically. Not that ‘Historical Centre’ isn’t accurate, but as I’d rather celebrate downtown vibes, I’ll stick with calling a spade a spade.

Given that I am writing recommendations for places to go see, it’s a bit embarrassing forgetting the name of the bar the morning after you’ve just been in it. But as it was a spontaneous diy place, it will probably have been dismantled by the time you get there anyway. But if you ever find yourself at Choque Cultural, just head-on up the stairs, aim towards the roof, and if it’s still there, it’s still there. I may not remember its name, but I do vividly remember dropping my phone in a puddle of toilet pee once inside. This memory is going nowhere, I thought as I was forced to wipe it clean with the corner of my sleeve.

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I’m hanging out with Baixo and Mariana, the couple who created the Choque Cultural art gallery in Vila Madalena, one of São Paulo’s more influential. (Baixo is the man to speak to about Brazilian street art, by the way. Should you ever need to.) Somehow – probably because we are on this roof gazing out across São Paulo – the conversation takes a turn, and we start discussing the city’s neighbourhoods. Baixo uses his beer bottle to point out the different areas of São Paulo stretching out before us. Way before us. Like, for miles and miles before us. São Paulo is huge. Monolithic. 20-million-people-huge, to be precise. Monolithic for miles.

As he is also working as an ‘urbanist’ these days, Baixo doubly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to his city. He’s busy informing and working with local government about what its people want – and need – in order to make territories a better place for everybody. He hopes to facilitate a good evolution for the city by having its designers and control players execute territory plans effectively.

I like Baixo’s methodology of grouping like-minded people into ‘cultural territories’ and ‘allotments’, and I find myself in thoughtful gear. I may not remember the name of the bar, but I do remember everything Baixo told me on its roof that night. So, I’m going to write about the various neighbourhoods of São Paulo instead of its bars, as was my original intention. I’ve also decided that it’s a good idea to organize your travel by neighbourhoods to be explored as opposed to a shopping list of separate attractions. Not that I’m a snob about these things. I don’t buy into that traveller v. tourist hierarchy; who cares? See what you want, how you want. But it might be a better way of organizing your time. Allowing yourself time to wander one particular area and see what you stumble across instead of breaking your neck to zig-zag across town pursuing separate attractions.


From Vila Madalena to Downtown São Paulo

São Paulo is lucky; despite having what seems to be a never-ending horizon of concrete skyscrapers, it still has many ‘street’ neighbourhoods too. As in areas that you can literally walk around. The ability to do this, to people-watch, to brush shoulders with actual neighbourhood-dwelling humans is much taken for granted in, say, New York or London. Many cities involve no interaction with anyone at all. Jumping in your car (or taxi) at point A and getting out at point B with not much in between. How I’ve craved a system of pavements in most of the cities, I’ve travelled to. To walk for coffee. To the shops. To interact with humans. The humble pavement; who’d have thought its absence would mark such a decline in social experiences.

Vila Madalena

Vila Madalena in Pinheiros could be described as the Brooklyn of São Paulo. It probably doesn’t want you to describe it as such, but it’s similar in that it has increasingly fewer urban issues to resolve as it’s been gentrifying for some time now. An evolution caused by the usual regeneration catalyst, an injection of youthful creativity bringing its own audience and, more importantly, a new, cold-hard-cash-paying audience. A common story of ‘cultural regeneration’. The bohemians and the students used to live there because it was cheap. Still, the state got assertive with its new building program, the population started changing, and the cultural core of the neighbourhood eroded. But Vila Madalena is trying to hold on to its more relaxed style of bars and shops, open to the sidewalk. According to Baixo, Vila Madalena is in the middle of a kind of ‘urbanist war’ with the state trying to take the neighbourhood in the opposite direction of what’s happened traditionally.

Baixo doesn’t know if Team Vila Madalena will achieve gentrification that does not destroy the identity of the neighbourhood. But he does feel – rather positively (considering) – that the most important part of the transformation is learning from it, the process and its outcome.

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The bit in the middle

Continue through Pinheiros, and your walk along the main street from Vila Madalena to Jardins will bridge the socioeconomic gap between the gentrifying Vila Madalana and the developed ‘up-town’ Jardins.

Each weekend the open-air vintage/flea market, Fair Benedicto Calixo, is held in the Praça Benedito Calixto square. The surrounding area is buzzing with bars and restaurants that spill out onto the street. This area is also where second-hand musical equipment stores and vinyl record shops are. Bar and Grill Underdog is just around the corner, owned by Santiago. Much more about him later.

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The richest neighbourhood, with its plan of international stores selling big globally-known brands. Leafy tree-lined Jardins is a neighbourhood of the past, the consolidation of the rich, right-wing politicians who were very conservative in their ways of thinking and living. But before you start thinking blimey, Jardins sounds terrible, wait on. In the 1960s, there was really only one main exit from Jardins. A street called Augusto. Money and the rich flowed in one direction, and ideas and culture flowed back in the other. Ultimately, the two different cultures mixed, and Augusto became one of the city’s most exciting streets. Not too dissimilar to what was happening in King’s Road, London, at the same time. Galleries and stores, cars, philosophers, creatives and fashionable people all mixed alongside each other, sharing ideas. It was an important cultural change and a strong cultural narrative that continued into the ‘80s. The neighbourhood grew organically and at its own pace. It was a very natural gentrification. At the same time, the original neighbourhood was being maintained, the simple idea of the street. Jardins kept its original style, retaining the small buildings alongside the newer, bigger buildings.

Being fully evolved, the city need not worry or wonder what the future of Jardins will be (making it totally different from Vila Madalena). It has a good economy working well with a lot of money flowing around its stores and businesses, and as such, there is a lot to learn from Jardins. Let’s be realistic; a city is never going to be without its share of homogenized designer shops. But Jardins is a fine example of how premium-retail neighbourhoods could be. It has retained its street stores at street level and is ‘open’ to the city. Newer places are being planned as rich places for rich people. But these are like bubbles, shopping malls and gated communities. Closed to the city with offices and housing and shops all in the same place. A closed city within the city, and unfortunately, this is a strong trend currently happening in Brazil.

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The last of the ‘Grand Houses’ of Augusto. There was a time when these lined the whole of Augusto. Before the office blocks came.

Downtown (Ahem. Historical Center).

Squint in the lazy downtown sunlight and the now waterless fountains and Açaí palm-tree lined squares and boulevards of downtown São Paulo will transport you immediately back to the elegant 1900s. Straw-boater-wearing gents with canes promenading on a hot sunny day with their white-dressed wives. The early sounds of what was to become Brazilian carnival music, Samba, wafting out of some café now serving the new Brazilian cocktail, a Caipirinha. (Strictly speaking, Samba evolved out of the urban districts of Rio De Janeiro, not São Paulo, but as it was soon adopted by São Paulo, I’m choosing Samba as the backing music for this particular daydream.)

Sure, the downtown area is rich in atmosphere and nostalgia-drenched architecture, but it’s not the most comfortable or secure-feeling place to walk around. I’m rudely jolted out of my 1900 daydream by the aggressive sound of passing skateboards and hordes of young Brazilians tearing up the old squares and fountains, now used as makeshift skate bowls during the day and makeshift tent communities for the homeless by night. Downtown São Paulo is pretty much at the beginning of its much-needed renewal. But the old downtown is full of potential, and the city is currently in the process of forming a new identity for this, its oldest neighbourhood. At the head of this is Baixo and his Choque Cultural collective, working together to put forward a new model to develop urban territories using the downtown renewal as an example. Through managing its development now, Baixo hopes to create a good model for the future. Downtown is his space to dream, to have a vision about, a vision that works and that the city can be committed to. Not surprisingly, his office for the Choque Cultural Gallery is right here, right in the heart of downtown São Paulo and visiting it is the very reason why I ended up on that roof drinking cocktails and thinking about neighbourhoods in the first place.

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Urban renewal, according to the Choque Cultural collective

Goes without saying that the main criteria for your vision for the future are for it to be better than the present. Without the promise of things being better, people resign themselves to becoming frustrated and depressed. People need causes and the opportunity to be creative. That linked with true vision and leadership can inspire people to make things happen. São Paulo is an incredible place to try new things and new urban experiences that can be shared as an urban population. New ways of dealing with bikes and squares, for example. ‘It’s like an incredible urbanist zoo’, as Baixo puts it. And the population of São Paulo is interested in a new way of dealing with its city. Everybody is open to experience, and they are in a good place to start.

Choque Cultural have a more formalized manifesto, but these are just a few of its ideals; I learnt that night on top of a rooftop in downtown São Paulo. (After dropping my phone in that puddle of toilet pee.)

  • A Cultural Territory: a neighbourhood in which the limits and borders are defined by the activists within who share and enjoy a similar kind of culture to each other.
  • Understand that people often occupy two or three neighbourhoods within any given time span. They may work in one, party in another, or live in the other. No territory can be looked at in isolation from another.
  • When we consider what emotionally connects these territories, we need to consider the differences as well as the similarities.
  • By identifying and making visible who the control people and players are, these people can be connected to each other so that they can build a plan for their territory.
  • Give the people the planning tools they need to build effective plans. Help them activate these plans and ultimately help them with their cycle of activity. Practical actions, priorities, and how to do these things as a collective.
  • Having the local governments involved in these territory plans (and having them seen to be involved) can help to provide better projects in the long term and for other territories.
  • Finally, celebrate the cycle of knowledge, the new relationships made, the new connections and the fact that everybody did something practical together that made their territory a better place for all.

A couple of years from now, I intend to revisit Team Choque Cultural for an update on their work.

I will keep you posted.

For professional work: http://www.ideasmakemanifestos.com