The walls surrounding the houses get higher and higher as we drive closer to the favela. Then suddenly there is a road with no walls. The road’s dusty flatness comes us a surprise after the well-paved streets of the main city . Welcome to Paraisopolis. Somewhat ironically, the favela’s name translates as Paradise City. It may not be your standard vision of paradise, but it is home to many people for whom conditions could be much worse.
Leo, our tour guide from the tour guides Flavia Liz, has assured us that he has gotten permission from the powers that be to visit the favela. We are here in Paraisopolis to meet a couple of artists who work with recycled materials. I will write about these artists in a later post because their work is really interesting in its own right.
Leo has been given two conditions for our visit to Paraisopolis. We need to have our windows rolled down so people can see in our car and we can only take photos if we ask for permission. Apparently we are safer in Paraisopolis than anywhere else in the city on that morning. The word of the one gang that controls the city’s favelas is the law in this neighbourhood.
After having spent a week in an armoured car with tinted windows that don’t open, I am at first disconcerted by the fresh air and sunshine streaming in through the car windows. Soon, however, I am fascinated by the life in the busy streets. There are a lot of children staring at us curiously (Sao Paulo can only afford half-days of state-sponsored schooling). You also get mothers with babies on their hips, beautiful young women sashaying along in their tight clothes and the occasional dodgy looking group of men hanging out on a doorstep.
Paraisopolis is the second biggest favela in Sao Paulo. This favela sits cheek by jowl with the wealthy neighbourhood of Morumbi. My friend’s daughter goes to the American School in Sao Paulo which is located in Morumbi so I am guessing an equivalent neighbourhood in London would be St. John’s Wood. A well-known photograph of a luxury high-rise in Morumbi, which has a swimming pool on each floor, overlooking the favela shows this juxtaposition clearly. The neighbourhoods are so close and yet so far.
Like other favelas, Paraisopolis sprung up in the steep hillsides surrounding Sao Paulo when people from the north of Brasil came south in search of a better life. Even if they found jobs, they were priced out of the housing market in the city. The immigrants became squatters on the outskirts of the city which eventually became a neighbourhood. So, bizarrely, people may own their homes but they don’t own the land underneath their house.
Crowded conditions in Paraisopolis have led many homes to have a second floor. People just built another house on top an existing house with the most random collection of staircases connecting the two parts. Many of the staircases just looked really unsafe cobbled together from whatever materials were at hand.
Another thing you notice is the spider-web of illegal cabling running along every house and street providing services such as electricity and gas. The pipes just open onto the street and you feel the occasional splash of water from dodgy plumbing. The city’s rivers are polluted thanks to the illegal dumping of untreated sewage from the favelas.
Wedged between Morumbi and the mountain, Paraisopolis has to accommodate approximately 100,000 people who live there. The city of Sao Paulo has built some high-rise buildings but the premium on land means there are not very many.
The neighbourhood has become famous by association with the Brasilian soap opera I Heart Paraisopolis, a fictionalised account of the neighbourhood. Although it reminds me of the British soap opera Eastenders about a working class neighbourhood in the East End of London, the Brasilian soap opera has better looking people. Women in Paraisopolis are well-groomed and well-dressed no matter what the circumstance.
Paraisopolis has its own schools, grocery stores, boutiques etc. There is also a terrific football pitch with astroturf. Many people live in Paraisopolis but work in Sao Paulo. The city is trying to extend services such as gas and water to the neighbourhood which is a de facto acceptance of the favela. Currently, many of the services are illegal connections to the city’s supply.
Life is different in Paradise City. Yet, it feels like a real neighbourhood. We walk around with the artists that we met. It seems they know everyone and everyone knows them. I expect there is much more of a community here than in the wealthier areas where each house is surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire.
Having seen the wonderful if disturbing 2002 film Cidade de Deus (City of God) set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Paraisopolis. I trusted that Leo was not going to take us into a dangerous situation.
Yes, there are signs of marijuana use but Paraisapolis seems to have the trappings of a working class neighbourhood where many people try to eke out a living as best they can. As we leave Paraisopolis, I find it disturbing to note that these conditions are not the worst in Sao Paulo.