On a Friday evening last December, my wife and I arrived at one of São Paulo’s major train stations, the Estação da Luz, during rush hour. Several metropolitan lines connect with regional transit to the suburbs there, and it was thronged with tired commuters. We elbowed our way past them and through the station’s labyrinthine passageways looking for an exit. Despite the mass of people changing trains, we were among the very few to leave the station.
We walked out into the surrounding neighborhood of Luz. We were the only white people on the street. In a Bolivian bar, celebrations were underway to mark the beginning of Christmas vacation; next door, a Forró party, with music from Northern Brazil, was in full swing. Across the street, groups of crack addicts lay on the curb or on worn-out sofas and seats they had removed from cars, smoking cigarettes. It was not a place that people like us—middle-class, privileged by destiny—would normally visit. But that night we were on our way to a classical concert, and had no choice.
Until the middle of the 20th century, Luz was the center of São Paulo and its gateway to the rest of Brazil. The neighborhood possessed two mighty train stations—Luz and Júlio Prestes—that acted as transportation hubs for the metropolis and served as symbols of the city’s progress. Coffee from faraway provinces passed through on its way to the port of Santos, where it was shipped all over the world; immigrants from Japan or Europe arrived in Luz to begin their new lives. Coffee barons, with their newfound wealth, ruled the neighborhoods surrounding the train stations. In the Estação da Luz, a gigantic clock tower marked the seconds, minutes, and hours of a new era.
Soon after, the neighborhood met with rapid, continuous decline. New technology made the transportation of goods by railroad less essential, and the coffee barons moved on. The area was ravaged by the whims of the market and left behind like an old shoe. “What’s being built / is already ruins,” sings Caetano Veloso, in “Fora da Ordem” (“Out of Order”). The neighborhood’s cortiços verticais, decaying skyscrapers originally meant for the wealthy, began to attract a milieu that had once been more at home in São Paulo’s red-light districts. They were joined by the homeless, followed by immigrants from Brazil’s poorer northern provinces, and finally, in the 1990s, by the city’s crack addicts. Brazil was a global hotspot of crack consumption; people spoke of an epidemic. Luz became known colloquially as Cracolândia. Crack Land is now an outdoor drug bazaar—a rock of crack costs five reais there, or about $1.30.
Since the 1980s, various city development programs with an array of political and ideological approaches have attempted to “revitalize” the center of São Paulo. Squatters in houses, such as the Prestes Maia, long one of the largest communities of its kind in South America, were resettled; the street-level drug trade was reigned in and police presence increased; housing programs for the disadvantaged were introduced. As in so many places, there was a very fine line between improving the neighborhood and simply pushing out its previous inhabitants. What for some seems like a gutted wasteland is often, for others, valuable space for living and and running small, informal businesses.
One strategy city administration attempted was the construction of cultural outposts that were to serve as metaphorical “lighthouses” in Luz. The offices of the Estação da Luz were rebuilt in 2006 to make space for the Museu da Língua Portuguesa, recently damaged in a fire; a “sculpture park” was opened in the Jardim da Luz; the adjacent art gallery was renovated; and the old Júlio Prestes train station was remade as the Sala São Paulo, a concert hall with 1,500 seats. In 1999, the hall was made the permanent home of the Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado de São Paulo (OSESP). That evening in December was the last concert of the season, led by the American conductor Marin Aslop, who was appointed music director in 2012.
The Sala São Paulo is two streets from the Estação de Luz. This short walk brought us past a large building in the Rua Mauá; once the Hotel Santos Dumont, it’s now one of the area’s largest squatter homes. (Two years ago, the building was the subject of an excellent yet depressing documentary exploring the lives of its residents in detail.)
Leva, a documentary by Juliana Vicente and Luiza Marques, on the inhabitants of the Hotel Santos Dumont and their struggle for adequate living space.
In Luz, everything about us made us stand out from the addicts around us: the clothes we were wearing, the language we were speaking, the meal we were still digesting, the place we were going, the place we were coming from. Maybe we, in our shame and self-consciousness, imagined that the addicts were watching us, or maybe they really were. In any case, our worlds collided only briefly. We were simply passing through; the odds are that they will stay there. Every third person dies within five years of his or her arrival in Cracolândia.
Continuing, we walked past a unit of mounted police officers. Several cars full of Polícia Militar were parked in front of the Sala São Paulo’s entrance. This was a classical concert under a heavily armed guard. Most concertgoers were dropped off by cab right in front of the entrance or parked their own cars in the underground garage. From inside, stairs led them directly up into the building. They barely seemed to register the police presence.
We entered the hall and another, more familiar world. The floor was parquet and the building decorated with Christmas ornaments and poinsettias. The recycling container showed clearly what went where: yellow for metal, blue for paper, red for plastic, green for compost.
Two compositions by Arvo Pärt—perhaps the Paulo Coelho of classical music—were performed before intermission. I have no memory of what the pieces sounded like; they served only as backing tracks for the drama of my own thoughts. I felt as if I’d flown in on a UFO. Reality, encountered outside, permeated my musings in this hall, with its Corinthian columns, adjustable ceiling and air-conditioned atmosphere. Sala São Paulo could have arrived, prefabricated, from another universe: Vienna, Copenhagen, Cincinnati, or Shanghai. It had recently made a Guardian list of the best concert halls in the world.
During intermission, the catering service set up what seemed like an obstacle course for food. It was a bit chaotic, but also very appealing, like a faraway food market full of exotic stalls. We bought tokens that could be exchanged for Feijoada, freshly made sushi, crepes, empanadas, soup, or ice cream at the little stands.
What does the “B-Minor Mass” sound like when it’s played in Mombasa? Is the “Pastoral” a different symphony in Djibouti, “A Survivor from Warsaw” more affecting in Buenos Aires? Simon Rattle was once asked why he programmed Orff’s “Carmina Burana” so often. His answer: “We’ll often need it for a New Year’s concert, since there are very few celebratory pieces that work in front of a massive audience and on TV.” But in Cracolândia, it didn’t sound celebratory—instead it was sneering and repugnant, stewing in the vulgarity of its pseudo-Medieval folklore. Stravinsky once called this style the “Neo-Neanderthal School” of composition, which is exactly the way it sounded that night.
After the concert, we went outside. It was raining buckets. There weren’t enough taxis, so a long line of concertgoers formed in the square in front of the hall. Around us, scrawny figures wrapped themselves in thin, dirty blankets, seeking shelter under the roof of the old train station. A loud fight broke out between two homeless men; policemen eyed them suspiciously. We stood mutely in the rain, waiting for a cab. Finally our turn came, and the taxi took us out into the night. ¶