The Bitter Loneliness of Brazil’s Rich Ghettos

The menace of high walls and barbed wire and electronic motion detectors, the city as prison camp for its inmate-dwellers: In Brazil’s Revista Trip, James Cimino detects the beginnings of a counter-reaction to the middle class’s long and deepening obsession with security measures, a mentality that he says has annihilated any sense of urban community, while creating a menacing and ultimately hopeless living atmosphere.

Caio Monteiro feels like a prisoner inside his middle-class condominium. The 22-year-old advertiser lives in Perdizes, a neighborhood in the western part of Sao Paulo. “Every time I arrive, I have to spend some time convincing the security guards that I am a resident here.” he says. Then he must type in his apartment’s password in order to make the elevator work; if he forgets to first enter the code, and simply pushes the button corresponding to his floor, something he says “happens at least three times a week,” the elevator locks up, and he will only be released after he correctly answers a series of questions posed to him through the elevator’s intercom. The final step to allow him in, a biometric scan of his fingerprints, does not work properly sometimes. “When the equipment can’t read my fingerprint right, an alarm goes off and someone has to come and check to see if it is really me trying to get in.”

Robbed seven times already, sometimes in broad daylight, he does not consider all of the surveillance systems unnecessary. He just feels the whole arrangement is not very practical, and doesn’t trust the criteria used by such systems. “The other day I arrived with a friend in an SUV, and the gates were opened for us immediately,” he says. He also resents what he calls an atmosphere of mutual hostility among the residents. “I was raised in the countryside, playing in the streets. I knew all of my neighbors and felt completely safe. Today, I can’t even ask my upstairs neighbor for a cup of sugar because I don’t know the password to his apartment.”

The sense of insecurity that reigns over Brazilian cities is driven by anecdotes and by overwhelming rates of violence. Sao Paulo in particular saw its homicide rate in just the first half of 2012 climb by 20 percent; by the end of the year it had registered a historic wave of crime. It was the perfect recipe for the adoption of radical surveillance measures, and the arrival of a flood of high-end condominiums that have their interiors monitored at all times, impregnable walls, and security guards with panic buttons.

While American and European cities see striking new initiatives to improve public spaces, like the High Line Park in New York, Brazilian cities see the streets gradually being abandoned, urban coexistence vanishing. The situation calls to mind the melancholic song City Without Children by the Canadian band Arcade Fire: “I feel like I’ve been living in a city with no children in it/ A garden left for ruin by a billionaire inside of a private prison.”

The atmosphere of rising urban paranoia is closely related to a global phenomenon: the obsession with security. “Until the end of the 20th century, we were rather optimistic about the future of mankind and technological developments”, says sociologist and trend analyst Dario Caldas, from Sao Paulo’s Observatorio de Sinais (a trend analysis company). Due to a number of factors, including the September 11 attacks, the picture has changed. Fear is a given in the 21st century.

In Brazil, the middle-class race for bunkers reflects disbelief in the State, which is supposed to guarantee the safety of its citizens. “Because of a lack of effective policies for combating crime, the cities are being emptied out, with citizens locking themselves inside of mini-fortresses,” says Miguel Leme Brizola Neto of Verzani & Sandrini, one of Sao Paulo’s surveillance firms. Use of the company’s equipment and teams, highly sought after these days, adds about 10 percent to the homeowner’s association fees for a building, already high at between 2,000 and 5,000 reals [$860-2200].

Such technology is only available for the few, and urban insecurity is thus directly linked to social inequality. Although Brazil has shown some improvement in its rates of inequality, with the rise of a ‘new middle class,’ with 40 million people opening bank accounts for the first time in their lives, the country still sits in 12th place in the global ranking of countries with the highest income inequality.

Perhaps we are still walking on a path toward a more equal society, on which will lead us to a city with less crime in the future. But for now, the issue of security cannot be ignored or dealt with aggressively. That is the opinion of urban planner Candido Malta Campos Filho, a professor at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at Sao Paulo University, and former secretary of Urban Planning for the city. One of the authors of the law that limits the height of new buildings in Sao Paulo, he thinks that we must act to restain real estate speculation. The city, he says, cannot keep up with the increase in population brought on by the construction of new apartment buildings. Likewise, he says, we must work to minimize hostile security measures.

“The insecurity problem does exist,” he says. “But people tend to exaggerate it. They are a little bit paranoid.” Campos Filho has himself lived in a house with glass walls since 1967, and some months ago he saw the [simple]security system that he created to protect his family – a six-foot wall and a trio of guards patrolling the streets- fail for the first time in over 40 years. “We now have motion detectors and cameras, but we still walk feely on the streets and live here normally as a community.”

“The same urban planning measures that are intended to reduce the feeling of insecurity can actually enhance it,” he says. “Police themselves say that those with high walls encircling their properties tend to attract more thieves. I therefore practice and believe in moderation: doing the absolute minimum necessary to guarantee your safety, so that you are neither aggressive to society nor to yourself. Because the person enclosed behind walls is really hurting themselves, they have made themselves a prisoner.”

sau-paulo321Sao Paulo. Photo CC: Mirko Eggert.

The feeling of imprisonment behind fenced windows, strangled spaces and skyscraping walls is one of the themes of Neighboring Sounds (2011), the first, and extensively awarded, movie by filmmaker Kleber Mendonca Filho, from the northeastern state of Pernambuco. He is fascinated with what he calls an ugly “aesthetics of security” that has overcome Brazilian cities. Since the 1990s he has been drawing inspiration from the gentrification caused by real estate speculation in middle-class neighborhoods, mainly Setubal, in his hometown of Recife.

“To me, these obstacles – fences and walls – are rich in meaning. They are hyper-aggressive, a physical and architectural demonstration of distrust toward others. If you build a 12-foot high wall around your house, without ever having been attacked, you are saying that you do not like the world, that you do not trust Brazilian society at all.” Attitudes like this, he says, do not necessarily generate a sense of tranquility, and do not build “an idea of a more humane city.”

As ghastly as they are, these high walls and fences, they are a trend that is not going to disappear, says fellow filmmaker Fernando Meirelles. “In a city as huge and impersonal as Sao Paulo, I think the formation of smaller communities is comprehensible.” A firm believer in ‘slow-life’ (“I refuse to live every day as if it were a race to keep my father from being sentenced to death by hanging”), the director of City of God has created his own small community without walls: for the last 20 years he has shared living on a ranch outside Sao Paulo with friends.

“The idea was for us to have more space to live and to raise our kids in a more relaxed manner,” he says. A fence surrounds the property, and there is nothing but green vegetation between the houses. The only way into the ranch is a dead-end street with a security guard post that serves as the reception to the place. “I’ve never bothered much with security; our fence is low and my house has ten doors that open to the street. Nothing has ever happened.”

Meirelles’ story gives strength to the argument of those who favor discretion over the building of fortresses when it comes to the issue of security. “By looking rich, you attract predators,” says Rio de Janeiro psychologist Francisco Daudt. “My richest client travels by subway, hates being photographed, and enjoys the pleasures of a low-profile lifestyle.” He goes even further: “A high self-esteem is a source of security, and translates into a body language that conveys a message of strength. There are no guarantees for anything in this world, obviously, but a person that is sure of themselves is less likely to be harassed”.

Architects Isay Weinfeld and Marcio Kogan used subtle irony to discuss the relative inefficacy of security measures adopted by apartment buildings in their creation Muromovel [MobileWall], a gigantic brick wall topped with spikes and shards of glass that can adjust its height according to the city’s present crime rates. The wall was first presented at the Happyland Vol. 2 exhibition, which took place at Casa Brasileira Museum almost ten years ago. They also created a “mugging kit”, a suitcase filled with fake desirables such as Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton cigarette cases, to fool potential thieves.

sau-paulo221Sao Paulo. Photo CC: Mirko Eggert.

But the walls and fences are not the only things that empty the streets and increase the sense of insecurity; certain aspects of Brazilian urban planning are also guilty. The main culprit is the philosophy that favors cars over pedestrians. “In downtown Sao Paulo, narrow sidewalks and wide avenues with traffic lights that change too quickly tend to keep people out of the streets”, says critic and architect Guilherme Wisnik. The longtime underdevelopment of public transportation, which could greatly reduce the number of cars on the streets while bringing citizens and the city together, makes the situation worse. The same might be said of the boom in shopping mall construction; viewed as safer than shopping in the public streets, malls are another element that keeps people out of public places.

Until urban planning policies change, the idea of retaking urban spaces and reigniting communal existence “in the streets” is the key to erasing the metropolitan atmosphere of abandonment and insecurity. “The solution to this problem is in community life”, says Joao Sette Whitaker, a professor for the schools of Architecture and Urban Planning of both Sao Paulo and Mackenzie universities. He has conducted an experiment to shows that there is an “industry of fear” that draws people away from community life: he selected some of his female students to test their “feelings of insecurity” on Morumbi, a wealthy neighborhood in Sao Paulo’s West Zone, and on Augusta, a street near downtown Sao Paulo considered to be very dangerous. The students reported that they felt more unsafe on the walled streets of Morumbi, completely empty of life by 7 p.m., than amongst the prostitutes, drug dealers and clubbers that crowded Augusta Street by 11 p.m.

The occupation of the area known as Lower Augusta, a onetime prostitution zone reclaimed by middle-class students and bohemians alike a few years ago, is a good example of citizens taking back the city; the same can be said about the explosion of a “bicycle culture”and of public demonstrations of all kinds – in 2011, the streets of Sao Paulo stopped more than a thousand times (almost three times a day) to let demonstrations through. “The demonstrations, the parties at Minhocao[a low-income housing complex located at Perdizes, one of Sao Paulo’s most exclusive neighborhoods], the Virada Cultural [a vast 24-hour street party that started a couple years ago]and the Churrasco barbecue held to denounce the controversy behind the construction of Higienopolis subway station are positive examples in this new scenario, says Dario Caldas.

[Higienopolis is one of Sao Paulo’s wealthiest neighborhoods. In 2011 the city announced the construction of a subway station that would connect the neighborhood to the rest of the city. The residents of Higienopolis took to the streets to protest the new station, saying that the subway would bring “differentiated people” (meaning the poor) to the area. The “differentiated people” themselves then organized a huge churrasco barbecue in front of one of Higienopolis’ most exclusive malls to denounce the situation.]

The rise of a bicycle culture, with people biking to work and whole families riding together, is extremely important in a city with few spaces that promote true democracy, according to Caldas.

One thing that would help improve safety in the city through occupation would be to turn the ground floors of all buildings into public spaces, suggests Ciro Pirondi, a professor at Escola da Cidade, an architecture and urban planning university. “That already happens in Brasilia”, he says. Another alternative would be to recycle ruined urban areas, as architect Guto Requena did when he renovated an apartment in an area of the city known as “Paulista Avenue Island” [Ilha da Paulista], a patch of concrete that remained useless after construction of the intersection at Paulista and Consolacao avenues during the 50’s and 60’s. “A lot of people in my block wish to close off our street, which is illegal, and install security guard posts in it to keep skateboarders and homeless people away. But denying people of their city is not the solution,” he says. “The persecution towards the skateboarders is absurd. They are usually the first group to occupy and reclaim parts of the city. And occupying is good”.

James Cimino