IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Fall)

Brazil Letter Home

By students Lexi Doolittle, Elizabeth Erickson, David Truong, Sarah Arndt.

Opening our eyes after nine hours of attempted sleep on the plane ride to Sao Paulo, our first view of the city was from above: a sprawling mass of concrete buildings spreading for miles in every direction. On the ride from the airport we passed building after building, and behind each building, each door and window, were people and their lives - families, friends, strangers, neighbors - all with stories to tell. Sao Paulo blew us away from the beginning with its sheer size, and our five weeks there were spent trying to make sense of it all amidst the grandness. How to find order out of seeming chaos? How to find community out of felt anonymity? How to find stability in a place of constant change? We were able to grapple with such questions through our experiences with host families, guest lecturers, site visits, nongovernmental organizations, government officials, students, community leaders and even the strangers we met on the street.

Sao Paulo from the top

Following our time in Sao Paulo, we continue to struggle to make meaning from our experience - we had some trouble coming up with one theme or pattern to represent our time in Brazil. Our experiences were too different. One thing we could agree upon was the impressive presence of graffiti in Sao Paulo. Graffiti has a story to tell: as a form of artistic expression, as a means of building community, as a way of asserting rights in the city and as a way of claiming and appropriating space.  Graffiti represents the good, the bad, and everything in between: extreme inequality, the expansion of citizenship, the power of community. 

Luckily, we had the chance to meet with some of the graffiti artists early on and hear about their art. These artists stood out to us because their backgrounds were so different: some had grown up in difficult areas in the periphery of the city, some had graduated from university, and one was a woman. Each of them felt that graffiti was a "voice for voiceless" and a "release for the mind." Each artist took a group of us on a tour in the afternoon, where we were able to visit different neighborhoods where their work was present. For many of us, it was the first time we got a sense of a smaller community within the larger insanity of Sao Paulo. Our tour guides recognized friends on the street, waved hello, and knocked on doors. They could explain both their own work and the work of their friends. Furthermore, many students mentioned the visits as being one of the first times where they felt a strong sense of friendship within the IHP group.

In Vila Madalena

Lectures and site visits on our first week in Brazil also helped frame the rest of our stay. We spent a full day learning the history of Brazil and Sao Paulo to give us some context in which to place and position our thinking. We also received a lecture on race in Brazil - allowing us to see and look out for how the perception of race, as mixed and integrated, differed from the reality of race, in which racial inequality still exists. Finally, we had the chance to visit different neighborhoods where we were again able to situate personal histories, identities, and communities within the greater city. We visited a Bolivian immigrant community, a black community with a strong tradition of samba, and community groups in various favelas. By the end of the first week, we were still overwhelmed by the city's size. However, our experiences had started to unveil the beautiful hearts and minds of the people of Sao Paulo and their ability to create art and beauty in empty space and to build friendship and community in seeming chaos.   

Some of the challenges we faced during our stay in Brazil were present as soon as we arrived. Some of us had not fully prepared ourselves for the everyday complications that arise when visiting a new place. Negotiating SIM cards, ordering food in Portuguese, and navigating Sao Paulo's metro and bus system became easier with time, but never worked perfectly smoothly. Even though we spent long days together as a group, meeting at 9 in the morning and sometimes not making it home until 7 or 8 in the evening, many of us felt isolated. Even though all of our home stays were roughly near the city center, the sprawl of Sao Paulo is almost impossible to describe and each homestay seemed to exist in a different world.  Combine that with miscommunication, occasionally unreliable buses, and the homesickness that really kicked in once we left the familiarity of the US, and it makes sense that some of us continue to associate Sao Paulo with anonymity and chaos.  

Even more challenges presented themselves to us as we studied. How were we supposed to integrate what we learned on our site visits with the often conflicting information presented to us as “facts” in our more formal lectures? How did we explain to strangers and new friends "what we were doing" and "why we were there"? Were we students or tourists? What did it mean to be "an American" in Sao Paulo, which is technically the largest city in "the Americas"? And how were we supposed to finish all of the assignments our professors had given us, even though we didn't all have backgrounds in ethnography, political advocacy, or architectural mapping? Luckily, as a group, we relied on each other's strengths, forgave weaknesses, and managed to learn more about ourselves through our academic work.  

Group dynamics were the topic of many side conversations throughout our stay in Brazil. In addition to making sense of the cities of Sao Paulo and Curitiba, we had to make sense of ourselves: a group of 35 accomplished and motivated students that seemed more different from one another each day we spent on the program. Even though community building sessions had been carefully planned into our program by our country coordinators, many students felt that they were lacking the community or “home away from home” feeling that we had hoped for pre-departure. After two weeks, we were ready for something new.

Tubes. Tubes. And more tubes. That slightly sums up the middle of our time in Brazil. After two weeks deep in the midst of chaos, it was time for a much needed break; this time in a planned city. During our third week in Brazil, we visited, learned about, and embraced Curitiba, which is hailed as a model city for its urban planning and impressive public transportation system. Through our own experience navigating the city, we learned quite quickly just how well planned this city actually was.

Curitiba presented a fresh experience for us as we settled into new home-stays, a new venue and an entirely new city with its own quirks. One of the highlights included visiting URBS, the department that manages the public transportation system of the city. Our speaker boasted and praised the efficiencies of their transportation system and revealed some of their future innovations. Skeptical, we decided to take matters into our hands, riding and experiencing the system ourselves. Here we learned the truth and realities of their transportation system. Was it innovative? Yes, though not so anymore. We learned this the hard way; now the buses are crowded, routes are confusing and the experience is just plain unpleasant.

However, Curitiba is more than just transportation. For a few days, we explored sustainability initiatives local residents chose to take on. A passionate biker preached his fight for more bike lanes in the Brazilian city with the largest ratio of vehicles to residents. Some students went to an urban farm experiment where Curitibans had taken matters into their own hands, claiming their rights to keep goats, chickens and rabbits as a source of food and a means of achieving self-sufficiency. Others visited a student-run project maintained by students at the Federal University of Paraná. 
It wasn’t just all work and no play though. In Curitiba, our inner tourist erupted as many of us took the tourist bus line and visited a multitude of places around the city, including, but not limited to, the Botanical Gardens, Unilivre, the Polish Gardens (or another of the many dedicated gardens) and even sample a market held on Sundays, where we bought cool souvenirs. Our relaxation continued as we spent time and interacted with students from a local university. To keep up this streak of fun, it was back to Sao Paulo at the end of the week, where we returned to a place that felt surprisingly comforting and familiar yet also with a new perspective on the city as a whole. 
Our final week in Brazil was spent bridging the gap between problems and solutions in a more hands-on fashion.  We broke into small groups and researched different aspects of a favela in the far north of Sao Paulo called Cabuçu de Baixo 12, which has been slated for upgrading as part of the ‘Renew Sao Paulo’ city-wide project.  Both our group and the city council is particularly interested in Cabuçu de Baixo 12 because it is situated over a highly polluted river which floods during the rainy season and wipes out the numerous self-constructed wood homes perched on pylons above the river.  In the course of our visits to the area, we met with the Housing Department liaisons responsible for the area, the architects who won the bid to rebuild the area, and many locals who are currently working in Cabuçu de Baixo 12. 

We visited the site numerous times, first meeting with local officials who guided us around their neighborhoods and pointed out several things: the public transit deficiencies; the unstable housing structures; the debris of a recently demolished home beside the river which can’t be removed due to the narrow streets, which are not wide enough for any machines to enter; and the lack of formal sewage treatment or drainage. We even visited the local community center and met the children who go there after school every day. 

I think all of us were a bit stunned when we walked into Cabucu de Baixo 12, and for many of us it brought home the notion of what this trip is all about: experiential learning.  We have become progressively more entrenched in the city of Sao Paulo, reading articles which highlight aspects of the city gone previously unnoticed, meeting with department heads and community leaders who articulate their challenges and community solutions, visiting campaign headquarters where promises are made and neighborhoods that question the authenticity of those promises. We felt like the city had begun to seep into our skin, and its streets became familiar, even when its language often eluded us.  Visiting Cabuçu de Baixo 12, and the project we undertook to better understand each facet of its challenges, was truly a unique experience and one that cannot often be encountered when you’re not a local. 
Our final presentations on our case studies, from transit to social services to political participation, were attended by a community member as well as members of the Housing Department responsible for the upgrading of Cabuçu de Baixo 12.  We all felt a little intimidated to be endowed with the power and respect granted to us by their presence, which brought home the notion that this wasn’t just another class presentation.  For each case study, we spoke about the problems we encountered, the community’s perspective, the role of ‘Renew Sao Paulo’ in our area of concentration, and the potential solutions.  The whole process of researching, creating a presentation for review, and actually presenting our findings felt tangible in a way which many of us had not experienced before.  It was a nice way to wrap up our time in Brazil, our progression of learning about Sao Paulo and Curitiba’s issues, and the potential and tested solutions.  This all began to make more sense when it was applied to our own research. 
Our last days in Brazil were spent reflecting on the amazing experiences we had accumulated, the extraordinary leaders and thinkers we had encountered, and the city as a whole, which we had begun to make our own.  What seemed like unfathomable chaos in our first days was now slightly more comprehensible, visible and even familiar.  We knew where to buy our daily shot of caffeine, what candidates were represented in the omnipresent political pamphlets on the streets, and the few words we managed to grasp in Portuguese were spoken with hints of a  Paulista accent.  There are vast tracts of the city that are still completely foreign to us, just as there will always be people and ideas which we cannot grasp in our role as transient outsiders, but as we fly to our next city our baggage is not only heavier with accumulated souvenirs, but also with knowledge.  We are taking the concepts and experiences we assembled in Sao Paulo with us as we continue our journey into Cape Town, where we will compare these two cities across continents. 

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Credits: 16

Duration: Fall, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
New York, NY, USA; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Hanoi, Vietnam.

Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

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