- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Just south of the Tropic of Capricorn, on a breezy plateau whose rivers were harnessed for electricity by an engineer from Omaha, Neb., one of the world’s greatest cities celebrated its 450th birthday yesterday.

As the dancers and samba bands hit the streets and fireworks lighted the summer night, Sao Paulo had much to celebrate — not least of which was its sheer size: With 18.3 million people in 2001, it has edged out Mexico City as the world’s second-largest metropolitan area, behind Tokyo, the United Nations reports.

That is up from a bare 65,000 in 1890 — the greatest population explosion in human history, according to the Fernand Braudel Institute, a think tank here.

South America’s biggest industrial powerhouse has 5 million cars, 10,000 clanky cross-town buses and 450 helicopters — the world’s largest municipal helicopter fleet after New York’s — tilting through the skies in aerial “avenues.” Its 400,000 motorcycle messengers, called “motoboys,” average three deaths a day in accidents on the city’s 100,000 streets.

Sao Paulo is rich. With 10 percent of Brazil’s 180 million people, Greater Sao Paulo accounts for a third of the country’s manufacturing output. Per capita income of $9,000 a year is double the national average.

“Sao Paulo means work,” said Soraya Karrer, a manager at the Hotel Unique, an architectural landmark. “This is a city where people work all day and go to school at night.”

But Sao Paulo is also poor. About 1.1 million people live in the 2,018 officially designated “favelas,” urban slums of cardboard and baling wire. An additional 400,000 live in 1,648 tenements — concrete blocks of tiny apartments and exposed wiring. Invasions of empty buildings by hundreds of squatters shook the city in July — winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

Maria das Dores, a seamstress, migrated here from western Sao Paulo state and lives in one room at Cidade Tiradentes, in the grim tenement belt around Sao Paulo’s prosperous core.

Her worst fear is crime — 4,141 murders last year, compared with 596 in New York City.

“I’ve seen people killed in the street,” she said.

Her biggest complaint is her bus trips to make deliveries to customers. The 60-cent fare might not seem like much, “but it’s a lot to bang around inside a tin can for two hours without a bathroom.”

But Miss das Dores adds: “I’d never go back to my hometown. This is the most exciting city in the world.”

And one of the sexiest. Dozens of “love motels” line each of the main roads into the city. They charge by the hour and often feature gourmet room service, bordello-style decor and private pools for each suite.

Yet a state campaign that distributes free AIDS drugs and promotes condom use has helped keep HIV-infection levels below 1 percent.

Sao Paulo residents can be rude and pushy, but that’s all part of its pride in a sense that their city, not Rio de Janeiro, 260 miles east, is Brazil’s leader.

“There’s a lethargy in Rio,” said Norman Gall, director of the Braudel Institute. “Sao Paulo is forward-looking and hardworking.”

History of growth

Here the accents range from musical and aristocratic to the jarring and rustic Portuguese of the migrants who fill the streets. The noise from buses and motorcycles can be deafening. The main avenues gleam, courtesy of 10,000 orange-clad street sweepers. Open-air markets on side streets reek of overripe fruit.

Sao Paulo’s history began on Jan. 25, 1554, when Portuguese Jesuit missionaries began work on a chapel of gleaming white walls and a bell tower.

For centuries, the little mission languished as a trading post for mules and Indian slaves, until cotton, coffee and the American Civil War changed everything.

Sao Paulo cotton found an English market because of President Lincoln’s blockade of Confederate ports. Coffee was sold in huge quantities to the Union Army.

But coffee cultivation demanded labor, and from 1870 through 1930, Sao Paulo received nearly 2 million immigrants, about half from Italy and others from Syria, Lebanon and Japan.

The mix gives the city its cosmopolitan flavor — street after street of sushi bars in Liberdade, the Japanese quarter; trattorias in Bixiga, the Italian neighborhood.

It also is tolerant of women and ethnicity. Sao Paulo has had two female mayors, including the incumbent, Stanford University-educated Marta Suplicy, who turned from leftist advocate to investor-friendly pragmatist during her 2000 campaign.

Mrs. Suplicy is a psychologist and former presenter of a frank television show about sex. Her opponent in 2000 was Paulo Maluf, a descendant of Lebanese immigrants.

Immigrants have brought much of the vision and skills needed for industry — men such as Francisco Matarazzo, a 6-foot-3-inch Italian who donned formal wear every morning, spoke Italian to the 35,000 workers at his 365 food-processing plants, and so loved his imported cars that he had his chauffeur follow him in one on his daily walks.

“Sao Paulo is an immigrant city — complete with the get-ahead mentality,” said Cesar Giobbi, a social columnist and trend-spotter for the city’s leading newspaper, O Estado de S. Paulo.

By 1920, Sao Paulo had most of the elements of a great industrial city: railways, an Atlantic port at Santos, 50 miles east, money and skilled workers.

What was missing was electricity. In stepped Asa Billings.

Mr. Billings, born in Omaha in 1876, was a Harvard-trained electrical engineer hired by the Sao Paulo Light Co. He dammed rivers at critical points in such a way that the waters would drop off the city’s 2,600-foot-high plateau, plunging through huge pipes in what amounts to a vertical dam.

From 1927 to 1944, Mr. Billings’ engineering marvel boosted output from 50,000 kilowatts to nearly 1 million. He retired to La Jolla, Calif., in 1949 a few months before his death.

U.S. demand for war materials during World War II was another opportunity for Sao Paulo, but the city again faced labor shortages.

This time, manpower came from internal migration — as many as 1,000 people a day from Brazil’s impoverished northeast. One who came in 1952 was 7-year-old Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — today, Brazil’s president.

Sao Paulo’s population rose from 1.8 million in 1940 to 10 million in 1980.

‘Managers of chaos’

Viaducts, tunnels and helicopters make Sao Paulo look a lot like New York, partly because of a 1950s consulting contract with Robert Moses, the Big Apple’s famed builder of elevated expressways. Even today, inspired by Moses’ pro-car bias, Sao Paulo has only 36 miles of subway lines.

The city has no master plan. From the air, it seems an aimless jumble of meandering streets and mismatched structures.

“That’s an example of the weakness of institutions here,” said Mr. Gall, the think-tank director. “Private groups do what they want.”

Crime is one of the worst failures of a political system featuring overlapping jurisdictions, corruption and a tax structure that leaves Sao Paulo — Brazil’s richest city — with only 10 percent of the revenues it collects.

“We are skilled managers of chaos,” said Mr. Giobbi, the columnist at O Estado. “When I’m in Milan or Paris, I’m bored after two days.”

Mix of cultures

Sao Paulo is weak in traditional cultural symbols, but makes up by importing them — an exhibition of sculptures by the famed 19th century French genius Auguste Rodin, the Chinese terra cotta warriors, a Picasso show opening this month and concerts by tenor Luciano Pavarotti, Madonna and the Rolling Stones.

Then there is the architecture — the Unique Hotel, designed by Brazil’s Ruy Ohtake, with its sweeping inverted arc and sun-dappled lobby; and the huge, S-shaped Copam building and domed Oca exhibit hall, both by Oscar Niemeyer, designer of the country’s futuristic capital, Brasilia.

Sao Paulo’s Fashion Week is a fixture on the international calendar of chic, and its night life is as lively as those of New York and Paris. Daslu, a boutique for all designer brands, is a one-stop Rodeo Drive, where customers pick a personal sales associate from among 78 “dasluzetes” — young women hired from Sao Paulo’s society pages.

Although it might have peaked in population, Sao Paulo is growing in sophistication and power.

“Sao Paulo is undergoing a qualitative ascendancy,” said Mr. Gall of the Braudel think-tank. “Its people are becoming better-educated and more confident.”

Said Mr. Giobbi, the social columnist: “Sao Paulo’s destiny is to become one of the leading cities of the planet, bringing all the verve and openness of Brazilians to the rest of the world.”

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