The Transnational Urban Imaginary … A speculative force that may lack nuance

Part 2 of 2: Urban vignettes from São Paulo

by Todd Lester

In part one of this blog, I wrote about the continuum of urban space—spanning public to private—for which the locations of My Two Muggings serve as extremes. In part two, I consider the notion of ‘global speculation’ something that I’ll both define and relate to the aforementioned continuum in São Paulo. In order for something to be global or transnational, there must be another site, one with its own set of relatable yet different desires. I’ll start with a meditation on New York City and fish around a bit to see if this idea of ‘global speculation’ holds water.

A much-anticipated elevated park called The Highline has happened over the past decade in New York City. Local developers have surrounded it with the most posh boutique hotels and ‘concept’ living residences. It now has a public art director focused on engendering inclusivity and attempting to diversify its usage from those who can afford to live nearby and tourists. The Highline soon completes itself as it moves northward up Manhattan to the terminus of the former train bed it now occupies. Gentrification of the West Village and Chelsea—or at least its most recent wave—can be told in the same history as that of The Highline.


The Minhocão (or big worm), known officially as Via Elevada Presidente Costa e Silva, a four-lane viaduct that cuts through the Center of São Paulo—and beyond—is essential to diffusing the city’s fierce traffic congestion even if it is a noisy eye sore to the families living in the apartment buildings that flank its path. In the past couple years, New York City’s High Line has become the cumulative object of desire for developers, city planners, and new and old residents as they imagine a future for the Minhocão. Whereas I cannot discourage friends living near the Minhocão from wanting a garden as vista rather than this hulking concrete roadway, I can tell them that it’s not as simple as that and—more specifically—that the new construction that flanks our High Line is completely out of my price range even if I enjoy walking its course through the Chelsea gallery district from time to time. And for their part, Paulistanos have voiced desires both for and against the contingency in online campaigns as well as public meetings and various lobbying tactics. The Minhocão is currently open to pedestrians (joggers, dog walkers, etc.) on evenings after 9pm and all day on Sunday when there is a range of activities, including food cart/truck rodeos, something I discuss in greater length in a text for the NYC Art in Odd Places Festival. Nearby to the Minhocão is the neighborhood of Luz.

Nova Luz

Through an introduction by a friend, I met a business-type working at Lincoln Center in New York City for a coffee. I said, “what does a Harvard MBA do at Lincoln Center?” He replies by telling me about their consulting services to art centers and cultural districts around the world … “sorta like Kennedy Center does” he said. Since I’d already told him about my work in São Paulo making, he continued, “you’ve probably heard of our client … it’s the Nova Luz [or new light] project.” Luz is a neighborhood in the Center of São Paulo where the old train station sits (including the Sala São Paulo, which was previously its first class quarters). The Swiss firm, Herzog & de Meuron won an architectural competition to make a performing arts center in Luz—as a part of its transition to Nova Luz—a project that was later cancelled, but not before demolitions, forced evictions, and train-loads of public money spent to renew a neighborhood without a deep process of public engagement.

I recently met a man who owns a penthouse apartment—with one of the most spectacular views I’ve seen—overlooking Sala São Paulo. It also overlooks Cracolândia, the location of my second mugging, as well as the empty lot where buildings were demolished to make way for the aforementioned performing arts center. He bought the apartment as an investment property when he thought Nova Luz would happen. He was trying to rent it to me about a month before my second mugging happened, just one block over. He asked that we meet in a nearby diner after I was shown the apartment by its current tenants. I asked him why. He told me that when he had briefly lived there and served on its syndicate (similar to co-op board), he tried to make some changes. He started asking who was receiving the payments for the commercial antennas on the roof and rent for the shops that use space on its ground floor. One night when he was leaving the building, he was beat up badly and told if he ever came back he’d be killed. I want to argue that the role of international architectural competitions in locations where there are complex urban dynamics—and for which there are not adequate modes of public engagement—may compound the effects of inequitable (or non-participatory) urban development. And, I want to call this macro set-up a form of diffuse ‘global speculation’ in relation to the penthouse owner’s micro—and more literal—speculative investment.

Vale do Anhangabaú

Vale do Anhangabaú, which I’ll call ‘the valley’ henceforward, is a public area in the Center of São Paulo where public demonstrations and political rallies are often held. While this area sees heavy pedestrian traffic by day, it becomes quite desolate by night (in the same way that other areas in the Center commonly do). In addition to its centrality, vistas from the valley—and the viaducts and bridges that cut across it— offer a glimpse of the topographical contours of the city and site-lines on some of the city’s most notable buildings, e.g. the Town Hall (Prefeitura do Município de São Paulo), Municipal Theatre, and Brazil’s first skyscraper, the 30-floor Martinelli Building. Itaú Bank has recently hired Jan Gehl, coiner of Cities for People and principal of the Danish firm Gehl Architects, to plan an overhaul of the valley. Given the past work of Gehl, the project stands to be thoughtful in the sense of pedestrian access and aesthetics, yet some local groups are complaining that there was not a public discussion to inform the plan. The urban development watchdog Arquitetura da Gentrificação along with media outlets Repórter Brasil and Article 19 have undertaken an investigation into the land holdings of Itaú Bank in—and the default privatization of public space for—the valley to try and better understand the bank’s master plan for which the architectural beautification project is seen to be a spearhead.


My last blog was about being mugged—a hardship at the individual level—but really, what is violence at the level of society? In Saskia Sassen’s newest book, Expulsions, she asserts that:

From finance to mining, the complex types of knowledge and technology we have come to admire are used too often in ways that produce elementary brutalities. These have evolved into predatory formations—assemblages of knowledge, interests, and outcomes that go beyond a firm’s or an individual’s or a government’s project.           

For those of us who think about cities and watch for new urban phenomena, the connection between the ‘personalities’ of the large cities of the world and the topic of security is not an esoteric one. Nor is the relation between the economic strength of a city and its ability to dispossess and hide the dispossession of demographics within its overall makeup. In another recent blog, I discuss the relationship between the housing movements of São Paulo and the drive to redevelop the city center, a process that has yielded a spate of forced evictions and arguably affects the working classes most profoundly. To learn more about forced evictions and how to prevent them, see work done by WITNESS and International Accountability Project.

June 2, 2015
Todd Lanier Lester