Sao Paulo, Lovely If You Close One Eye

Article excerpt

Byline: Antonio Xerxenesky

A friend once said, when I decided to move from Porto Alegre to Sao Paulo a year ago, "Sao Paulo is not for amateurs." And the metropolis does seem scary from above: an urban landscape that spreads for miles and miles, looking endless. But after landing, things feel quite different from the urban hell usually associated with this city. The first sight that impressed me was that there were people on the streets--walking around, doing errands on foot, and using public transportation. I was used to Porto Alegre, a place where cars dominate the streets and the pedestrian has become an exotic animal. The image on television of Sao Paulo is of a city filled with larger-than-life traffic jams and pollution--maybe that was the reason I felt shocked to see people walking at night, returning home from bars and parties in the wee hours on foot. And, even though it was known for its crime rates, the city felt safe. In Porto Alegre, nobody walks at night anymore, scared of mugging and armed robbery. I quickly found out, though, that this safe city bursting with life was not Sao Paulo, but middle-class Sao Paulo.

Unlike many other Brazilian cities, somehow a middle-class bubble has emerged in western Sao Paulo. This secluded and isolated portion is the city that everyone interested in art, culture, and gastronomy immediately falls in love with. If you have the time for it--that is, if you're not a workaholic--there are things to do every night: on Monday, you can go to an ambient music festival; on Tuesday, to an exhibition of Andrei Tarkovsky's Polaroids; on Wednesday, to a screening of the new Pen-Ek Ratanaruang movie. If you stay at home, you feel like you're missing out.

But this part of Sao Paulo hides a much darker place. I believe that what best showcases the contrast that lies in the heart of the city is a huge neoclassical building called Sala Sao Paulo, a cultural center built in what used to be a historical train station. If you're a classical-music enthusiast, there's nothing quite like this place in Latin America, a beautiful temple to music with a lofty ceiling. You leave Sala Sao Paulo feeling like you're walking on clouds--only to find yourself in the middle of "Cracolandia," an area overtaken by the poor and drug addicted. …