By John Fitzpatrick
A number of readers have contacted me over the last few years asking for advice on where to stay in São Paulo. Several were executives and managers with little knowledge of the city, who were being sent here by their firms. Security and educational facilities for their children were their main concerns. People like this will probably have their rents and school fees paid by their firms so they can afford to rent a house or flat in places like Morumbi or Chacara Flora which are close to the Berrini neighborhood where many multinationals are located.
However, by locating in such areas, foreigners can find themselves isolated from normal life and cut off from their Brazilian neighbors. They can also miss the chance to make contacts with local people through the padaria on the corner, where you can buy freshly-baked bread or sit at a counter and have a snack, or the newsstand where you can thumb through the magazines and chat to the owner.
Unfortunately São Paulo has no delightful areas to sit or stroll in, like Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro, the Royal Mile in Edinburgh or the Backs in Cambridge, so residents have to accept second best in this sense. There are a few beautiful spots, like the lush, tropical stretch of Jardim America between Avenida Brasil and Faria Lima, but this a dead zone. The only people you see are security guards, joggers, dog walkers and domestic maids. The rich people who live there have used their influence to make sure that there are no shops or bars to encourage you to linger. They also remain behind their walled fortresses and emerge on four wheels rather than two legs.
Against this background, I always recommend Pinheiros as a district for long or short-term visitors. Like many districts – or bairros” – Pinheiros is not strictly defined and some readers might find my geographical definition a bit elastic. It lies roughly within the borders of the Rebouas, Dr Arnaldo and Naes Unidas avenues, the latter better-known as the Marginal, and merges into the Alto de Pinheiros, Vila Madalena and Perdizes districts on the other more fluid border. It measures about three or four square miles and has everything you need within its confines. It is also convenient for the downtown area around the Praa da S, the business districts of Avenida Paulista, Faria Lima and Berrini, and the upscale Jardins and Morumbi districts. Despite the proximity of these rich enclaves, with their millionaires mansions and exclusive shops, Pinheiros has a good mix of people of all social classes and none of the pretence of these more prestigious neighborhoods. It is not as pretentious as Higienopolis or as fashionable as Itaim. In short, it is unpretentious, lively, friendly and, in my humble opinion, the best place in São Paulo to live.
It is not a pretty area and most middle-class people live in faceless, high-rise apartment blocks. There are few buildings of note or historical interest. The Calvario church, located on a hill overlooking Praa Benedito Calixto, and the Fernão Dias Paes college in Rua Pedroso de Moraes, are among the exceptions. However, a number of new buildings have been constructed in recent years which readers who are more tolerant of modern architecture than I am might consider noteworthy. There are still some remnants of the days when São Paulo was a smaller, quieter place. Around the Rua Mourato Coelho area, for example, there are blocks of pleasant three-story buildings. These were constructed about 50 years ago by a Lebanese immigrant for his large family. They are on a refreshingly human scale and a relief to the eye after rows of 10 and 15-storey monsters. This relief may not last long as high-rises are being built nearby, ready to remove the light and space the residents have enjoyed for half a century.
Small is Beautiful – but not in São Paulo
There are also a large number of small terraced houses in more secluded spots, known as “vilas”. Unfortunately a lot of building is going on and some of these vilas are making way for monstrous housing or office projects or are being overshadowed by them. Some naãve people believe this development will increase the value of their homes but they are falling into the trap set by property speculators who know the price of everything but the value of nothing. The greed of these developers is seen in the sheer size of some of these projects. For example, two 25-storey “luxury” towers are being built in Rua João Moura, a pleasant, leafy street between Rebouas and Artur de Azevedo. If each apartment has four cars, that will bring an extra 200 cars onto the street, thereby destroying the tranquility the developers are using as a selling point. This will increase the traffic, noise level and pollution. If each apartment has a family of six, plus a live-in maid, this means an extra 350 people will require additional resources of water, electricity, gas etc. Small may be beautiful in some places but not in São Paulo.
Thankfully, there are still many houses around. In the better-off areas around Fradique Coutinho, for example, many have been converted into shops, boutiques and restaurants and are no longer used as residencies. These places are keeping the high-rises at bay for the moment. In the worst-off areas, such as Cardeal de Arcoverde and Largo da Batata, a lot of these houses have deteriorated. The walls are crumbling and scored with graffiti and the houses have been converted into seedy tattoo parlors, martial arts “studios” and cheap lodging houses for incoming migrants. There has been talk of redeveloping Largo da Batata and making it respectable with a shopping center, restaurants etc but let us hope these plans remain plans. São Paulo does not need any more shopping centers or gentrification, as the recent development of the Mercado Municipal shows. What used to be a market has now become a victim of fashion and you need to queue up to buy an overpriced mixto quente.
There is no heavy industry in Pinheiros but there are lots of banks, commercial concerns, schools, colleges, hospitals and clinics. Much of the trade is carried out literally on the street. The area around Largo da Batata and Largo de Pinheiros is filled with stalls, selling everything imaginable, and cut-price shops aimed at the lower-income group. Walking on the pavement is like carving out a trail in the jungle and the noise from the people and traffic can make you wish you had never set foot in São Paulo in your life. There are also at least two food markets which pop up on one day a week in different streets. These are good places to get fresh fruit and vegetables at a lower price and of higher quality than the supermarkets.
Pinheiros contains a number of streets which concentrate on one product. One stretch of Rua Teodoro Sampaio, for example, specializes in shops selling musical instruments. It is full of would-be rock stars clutching guitars and salesmen with long hair, garish tee-shirts and tattoos showing their street credibility. On Saturday afternoons one shop puts on a free concert. The audience throngs the surrounding pavement and even congregates on the street itself, risking death as buses and cars thunder past them. If you visit another part of the same street, on the other side of Avenida Henrique Schaumann, you will find dozens of shops selling furniture and house fittings. Just two blocks away, a stretch of Rua Cardeal Arcoverde is filled with shops selling more traditional antique furniture.
Pinheiros is also a good place for book shops. The big FNAC leisure shop, which has now become as much a meeting place as a bookshop, has actually encouraged other book shops rather than crushed them. There are now about half a dozen second hand book stores nearby where you can also buy and sell CDs, DVDs and videos. They all stock English books although these are often in pretty bad condition. Most are of the Tom Clancy/Sidney Sheldon type but you can often find more interesting authors. The prices are a fraction of imported books and you can often negotiate a discount.
Pinheiros houses several colleges and language schools, including Cultura Inglesa in Rua Deputado Lacerda Franco. Cultura’s administrative headquarters is a plate glass and steel building in nearby Rua Ferreira de Araujo. This place opened a couple of years ago and stands out in an otherwise rather rundown area. It houses the UK consulate and other official British bodies and contains an excellent library and IT center. You can read many of the UK papers and magazines for free and watch the BBC TV World Service. You can also become a member for a mere R$15 a year and borrow books. This center also hosts a so-called “English” pub where the prices of the imported beers are enough to make you give up drinking forever or, in my case, stick to the local beer. Pinheiros also has a so-called “Irish” pub in Rua Cristiano Viana which is as authentic as the so-called “Brazilian” cafes found in Europe. The UK influence is strengthened by the presence of the British School, known as St Paul’s. Although the school is not actually in Pinheiros it is as near as you can get, in Rua Juquia on the other side of Rebouas. There is also a Goethe Institut and Japanese-Brazilian cultural center in Pinheiros.
Boy Meets Girl
The large number of students mean that there are plenty of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and places to go dancing. Rua dos Pinheiros, for example, offers lots of options for eating and drinking and is very lively in the evening and at weekends. During the day it is completely different – almost quiet and calm. Praa Calixto, which hosts a market on Saturdays which attracts thousands of visitors, also has lots of bars and restaurants. On Saturdays it can be too lively but it is quieter during the week. Once you have run out of a choice in Pinheiros you can pop over to Vila Maddalena which also offers plenty of night life. These are great places for young visitors looking around for a local boyfriend or girlfriend. Since these districts are popular with students there is a good chance of meeting people who speak English. This is not the case in most parts of São Paulo or Brazil as a whole.
There are samba shows at the bottom of Cardeal Arcoverde as the road approaches the Eldorado Shopping Center. If you are looking for paid sex it’s available too. Female prostitutes and male transvestites – known as “travestis” – are on tap day and night, particularly on the other side of the river near the Jockey Club. This district is not as sleazy as the garish bars and “saunas” found in the Consolaão area near the old center. I am not sure if Pinheiros has any “gay” scene. However the stretch of Rua da Consolaão in nearby Cesa Cerqueira, running from Alemeda Santos to Oscar Freire, is the probably São Paulo’s biggest meeting point for homosexuals.
Pinheiros also has good communication links to other districts and towns like Osasco and Alphaville, through traffic arteries like Rebouas, Avenida Henrique Schaumann, Avenida Sumar, Rua Cardeal Arcoverde, Dr Arnaldo and the Marginal. These roads are all served by local and long-distance buses. Pinheiros is also blessed with metro stations at Clinicas and Vila Maddalena and the Pinheiros and Rebouas/Hebraica CPTM train stations. This train link makes it convenient to get to places like Santo Amaro in one direction and Osasco in the other. This makes it a good place to live if (like me) you dont have a car or are afraid of risking your neck among São Paulo’s crazy drivers.
Now the Bad News.
Despite these eulogies, Pinheiros has a number of drawbacks. Although Pinheiros means “pine trees” in Portuguese there are not too many pines around nowadays. In fact, the lack of green space is one of the district’s main disadvantages. However, Pinheiros is not far from the sprawling Ibirapuera park, the large open campus at São Paulo University, the less attractive Villa-Lobos park or the Trianon park in Avenida Paulista. Despite its name, the excellent Esporte Clube Pinheiros, the largest and probably best-equipped sports club in Latin America, is not actually in Pinheiros but in Jardim Paulista. To get in you need to be a member or be signed in by one. Pinheiros has a modest little sports club which is part of Hospital das Clinicas. Anyone can join but the facilities are primitive and unimpressive. However, it provides a quiet, green spot away from the hustle and bustle.
There are also areas of poverty and misery, particularly near the Marginal. Walking down some of these streets is not recommended since beggars and tramps use them as communal toilets and the smell can be revolting. The district also attracts lots of refuse collectors known as “catadores”. These are men who wander the streets in search of scrap metal, glass, clothes etc which they can sell. They pull primitive carts like rickshaw drivers. They are usually ragged, bare-chested and sometimes do not even wear shoes. There is a recycling center just behind the Calvario Church, which is one of the ugliest, smelliest, most unpleasant places in the city. Refuse collectors who bring their wares there hang around or use the area as a base, sleeping on old couches and mattresses and fouling the pavements. This area is about a two-minute walk from Praa Calixto, with its trendy bars and designer shops, and shows the social contrast which mark life in Brazil.
The Sounds of Sirens
Having said that, Pinheiros has no favelas or favela-like areas and, in terms of security, is no worse than other areas. Some years ago there was a spate of assaults on motorists at the junction of Henrique Schaumann and Rebouas but policing has been stepped up and the situation has improved. The main drawback of this particular part of Pinheiros is the traffic which is never-ending. Life as a pedestrian was always unpleasant and dangerous but has become worse over the last eight months, thanks to a poorly organized road “improvement” scheme which has left Rebouas virtually without pavements. Pedestrians are forced to walk across craters and mud or else take their chances on the road. Accidents are common, particular among the city’s manic motorcyclists. Fortunately for them, Latin America’s biggest hospital, Clinicas, is in Pinheiros. If they dont pull through the Araa cemetery is just across the road. The presence of Clinicas also means that ambulances and helicopters handling urgent cases are a constant presence and noise. Had Paul Simon lived here he would never have written the Sounds of Silence.
John Fitzpatrick 2005
John Fitzpatrick writes on Brazilian politics and culture for sites and magazines, including infobrazil.com and brazzil.com. He runs Celtic Comunicaes which specializes in editorial and translation services and can be contacted at email@example.com