Occupied São Paulo – The right to the city by Claire Rigby

A text that helped me understand São Paulo. Sadly Claire Rigby passed away.


With hundreds of buildings and lots occupied all over the city, Claire Rigby explores São Paulo’s downtown squatting scene


Strange days in Anhangabaú, the valley that runs though a key part of São Paulo’s downtown region. For one thing, the area has just played host to a sudden incursion of hordes of foreign football fans, roaming the streets around the fenced-in Fan Fest, taking thumbs-up selfies with enthusiastic local fans, and making themselves at home at the tables outside Bar Guanabara, a stately café-bar on a corner of Avenida São João, for all the world as if they were on a street in Amsterdam.

The more observant among the fans may have noticed something that many of the city’s most affluent residents, who avoid downtown unless absolutely necessary, may be all but unaware of – that central São Paulo is in the throes of an explosion of building occupations, ranging from highly organised movements occupying and running immense buildings, to improvised squats and encampments by smaller groups of artists, activists and musicians.



São Paulo’s Centro has long been home to thousands of homeless people, the ‘sem-teto’ (literally ‘roofless’), who bed down day and night under scrappy blankets in the street, or in tents, cardboard boxes and improvised lean-tos. But though the organised movements behind the wave of occupations that has swept downtown São Paulo in recent years often have the words ‘sem-teto’ in their names, far from being made up of street sleepers, the groups are mostly addressing different notions of homelessness or landlessness, focusing on inequality, inadequate housing http://agencia.fapesp.br/19263 in often far-flung parts of the city, and levels of rents that make living on the minimum wage, or on low wages, a constant struggle.

At Cine Marrocos, a major occupation on Rua Conselheiro Crispiniano that once housed one of the city’s grandest cinemas, a resident, Heldir Penha Aves tells me he moved to the occupation from Vila Carão in the city’s Zona Leste (Eastern Zone), where he was paying rent in R$750. “It was more than I could afford,” he says, “but I came to live here because I support the aims – housing and education for all.” At Cine Marrocos, run by the MSTS (Movimento dos Sem-Teto do Sacomã), he pays a monthly charge of $200, which includes water, electricity and general maintenance.

With the advantage of decent transport links, proximity to workplaces and access to culture and services, Centro was once densely inhabited, says Penha Aves, but has been gradually hollowed out of many of its residents in the last decades. “People need to come back to live in Centro, otherwise the area’s commerce will be the next to go,” he says. “People need to live

here in order to keep it alive.”

Centro is home to an improbable number of disused buildings, empty for reasons that include simply waiting to be sold – or waiting in some cases, perhaps, for the gentrification and price rises coming slowly but surely to certain parts of the region. Disputes and delays over the settlement of ownership can also lead to buildings lying empty for years; and in some cases, the empty properties have been expropriated by the Prefeitura (City Hall) for non-payment of property taxes, or for the future construction of social housing or other projects.


Squatting boom

In the last 12 months, dozens of vacant buildings downtown have been identified and taken over, http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2013/09/1339043-cidade-tem-onda-de-invasoes-de-sem-teto-na-gestao-haddad.shtml joining longstanding occupations like the one at Rua Mauá, in a former hotel behind Estação da Luz, squatted since 2007.

You need only glance up as you walk the busy streets close to the baroque Theatro Municipal, or along Avenida São João or Avenida Rio Branco, and you’ll notice a proliferation of flags and banners on dozens of buildings, many of them of very substantial size, announcing their occupied status in an alphabet soup of acronyms that represent the different movements for social housing – MTST, MSTS, MSTC, FLM, MMRC, LPM. They use variations on a number of key words in their names: sem-teto (homeless), moradia (housing), Centro, trabalhador (worker), luta (struggle). The acronyms, too, appear over an over, since many of the groups run multiple occupations. The MMRC runs Ocupação Mauá in conjunction with two other groups, the MSTC and the ASTC, and also has three other occupations downtown. And aside from Cine Marrocos, which contains 475 housing units (or ‘families’, as the movements almost invariably refer to their residents), the MSTS has six other buildings under occupation in Centro.

The movements share for the most part – in their discourse, at least – aims like commitment to the struggle for social housing, the revitalisation of Centro, and the occupation of disused buildings; but in other senses, they vary wildly. The MTST is proud of its non-affiliated status, politically, although its powerful mobilisations have given it the ear of certain parts of government. The MSTS, on the other hand, recently switched its allegiance from the ruling PT party to the PT’s nemesis, the PSDB, the party of the conservative São Paulo state governor, Geraldo Alckmin, according to MSTS coordinator Dalva Silva. How is supporting a conservative political party compatible with the activities of the MSTS? “We’ve been extremely let down by the PT,” Silva tells me, avoiding the question, but explaining the MSTS’s grievance with the PT, since SP’s mayor, Haddad, had the water and electricity cut off at Cine Marrocos over Christmas, with no warning.




Some of the occupations are expected to face eviction once the World Cup comes to a close, and indeed, at least 15, according to the MMRC https://www.facebook.com/passelivresp/posts/700211543368433 (Movimento de Moradia da Região Central – Movement for Housing in Centro), have already been served with repossession order, including an MMRC occupation at Rua Libero Badaró. But in other cases, expropriation of the buildings by City Hall may even lead to the residents’ permanent occupation. On 7 June, the office of the mayor, Fernando Haddad, announced a plan to expropriate 41 buildings, http://sao-paulo.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,haddad-vai-desapropriar-41-predios-para-habitacao-popular,1507460 many of which are currently occupied, for the creation of social housing in the city. In some cases, the groups occupying the expropriated buildings will go on to run the newly acquired property. Speaking about the decision, the municipal secretary for housing José Floriano praised the work of the occupations in question, saying, “There are some highly organized movements that play a significant role in accommodating low-income people with nowhere to live.”

The occupied buildings set to be included in the newly announced plan include Ocupação Mauá and Ocupação Prestes Maia, a massive building close to Mauá. But there are already precedents for the expropriation of occupied property in this way, with at least ten buildings in the process of being expropriated before the announcement in June. Here on Rua Capitão Salomão, just up the road from Fluxo, an occupation by the MMPT (Movimento de Moradia para Todos – ‘Housing For All’), has shed its red flags and banners, and is in the process of being formally expropriated (purchased) by the Prefeitura for social housing.


The People’s Cup

The plans for compulsory property purchases encompass land as well as buildings. In a vote that took place at the City Council on 30 June, on the same day as the new Plano Diretor, São Paulo’s master plan, which sets the urban planning agenda for the next 16 years, a proposal to secure the use of ‘underused’ buildings in the city for low-cost housing also included an amendment to formally include the ‘Copa do Povo’ (‘the People’s Cup’) – a large land occupation by the MTST in Itaquera, just 3km from the Arena Corinthians stadium, where the World Cup kicked off on 12 June. The movement, which had occupied the 150,000 m2 plot of land on 3 May with some 1,600 families, and which massed 15,000 people to march on the new stadium just days before the Cup, in a show of strength and ability to make its point politically, won the right to construct affordable social housing units there as part of the ‘Minha Casa Minha Vida’ (‘My House My Life’) state social housing programme. The MSTS, which has several other large land occupations in the city including Nova Palestina (‘New Palestine’) in M’Boi Mrim, and Faixa de Gaza (‘Gaza Strip’), in Paraisópolis, also won the right to carry out

the construction work itself.


Vale do Anhangabaú

But Centro’s occupations are not exclusively the territory of the multitudinous, highly organized sem-teto movements. Just metres from the official FIFA Fan Fest that took over a large part of the valley of Anhangabaú in June and July, the Laboratório Compartilhado TM13 is an improvised encampment of around 15 tents, pitched close together under a set of tarpaulins strung between trees in Praça Ramos de Azevedo, opposite the Theatro Municipal, in one of the prettiest parts of Centro. Populated by a tight-knit tribe of rastas, musicians, jugglers and allied free spirits, the open-air camp is a result of the group’s eviction, on 18 June, from the building it had occupied for 45 days, underneath the Viaduto do Chá bridge only metres from the current camp.

The building, hidden away under the historic bridge that spans the valley, had been the home of the Theatro Municipal’s ballet school from 1943 until it moved to new quarters inside Praça das Artes at the end of 2013. The short-lived squat set up inside the building was, say members of the Laboratório Compartilhado TM13, a space for grassroots cultural activities and an important resource for the area’s many street dwellers, who were welcome inside for art and theatre workshops, which now take place in the open air.

It’s easy to observe the way local street people gravitate to the relaxed, grungy, streetwise crew manning the occupation. Wanessa Sabbath of the collective AnhangabaROOTS, the driving force behind the occupation explains: “This is a totally open space, with no segregation. From the outside, people see it as a space for crazy people. But this is quilombera culture,” she says, referring to the communities established by escaped slaves in the 1900s. “It’s Brazilian anarchism in action. Anyone can come and share this space. It’s public, it’s free, no prejudice.”

At the camp, Alex Araújo tells me he had all his drawing materials stolen one day while sketching portraits in the street, and found himself unable to pay for the place where he was staying. “They’re a close-knit group here, like brothers and sisters,” says Araújo. “But they welcomed me in and they’ve let me stick around. I’ve been giving drawing classes.” Squatted on the ground beside us, three people are cutting plastic bottles into shapes in an ad hoc crafts workshop. “What are you making?” “Ashtrays, to hang in the trees.”

AnhangabaROOTS has been working in the valley for ten years, says Wanessa Sabbath, winning praise from the Prefeitura for its work with the local homeless community, which includes showing free films and holding saraús (spoken poetry events). “We’ve been in Anhangabaú for a long time,” says Sabbath. “We know every single person here. Anhangabaú has had Indians, it has had quilombos, and now it has us.”


Ouvidor 63

A few hundred metres along the valley, where it curves off towards Liberdade, Ouvidor 63 is another occupation working along artistic lines. (Another is the Casa Amarela, https://www.facebook.com/culturaamarela a beautiful old house on Rua da Consolação, which was occupied in February, and holds exhibitions, performances and workshops, and other art-based events.)

Around 40 people currently live or work inside Ouvidor 63, an arty, bohemian 13-story squat overlooking the Terminal Bandeira bus terminal and Red Bull Station. The building, taken on May Day, is home to a group of young artists, musicians and activists, many from the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. It’s also as a space for artist’s studios, rehearsal rooms for music and theatre, and even a cineclub, Cineclube Inferno, which screens classic rock films as well as films by occupations residents and friends. Ouvidor’s steady stream of events make it one of the most approachable occupations for interested visitors, and some of its resident bands can also be spotted busking downtown at spots like the square opposite Galeria do Rock, at Largo do Paissandú.

It was at the Ouvidor occupation that Talitha Bewlay and Andy Marshall, Ouvidor founders and residents, met Guilherme Land, a young organizer with the MMRC (Movimento de Moradia da Região Central – Movement for Housing in the Central Region). The MMRC invited the Ouvidor crew to take part in a new occupation it was planning, this time in the swish neighbourhood of Jardins just two blocks from Avenida Paulista, at Rua Pamplona 935. The occupation took place on 12 June, when the building was taken over by a mix of MMRC and Ouvidor activists, taking advantage of the World Cup opening match to pose as a boisterous group of football fans, entering the building quickly and easily as Brasil prepared to play its first match, against Croatia.

“This is the first instance of an MMRC occupation that combines artistic aims with the struggle for housing,” says Guilherme Land, referring to the space set aside within the occupation for workshops and performance, which the group hopes residents from other occupations might also make use of. “This occupation is intended to be a transformational space, as well as being part of the struggle for housing and urban reform,” says Marshall, who moved from Ouvidor with Bewlay to take part in the first days and weeks of the Rua Pamplona occupation. “It’s about securing a place to live, but that doesn’t have to mean chasing after a matchbox home in a project on the outskirts of the city, getting a job and then settling down to pay rent for the rest of your life.”


Working poor

Many of the occupations have signs outside, like the one on a huge occupation on Avenida Duque de Caxias run by the LPM, that reads, ‘Você, trabalhador que paga aluguel caro, junte-se a nossa luta’ – ‘You, workers paying expensive rent, join our struggle’. It’s an intentional

reminder of the varied circumstances of those who constitute the so-called ‘sem-teto’ – literally the ‘roofless’, who might be living in unsafe, crowded, prohibitively expensive or otherwise precarious conditions. Many of the residents at Pamplona and other occupations have jobs, says Andy Marshall, but are unable to meet the cost of rent; or live far out in the sprawling metropolis, making reaching work, as well as essential and cultural services, extremely difficult. “We’ve talked to a lot of people who work in the area, in shops and restaurants,” says Talitha Bewlay, “and we’ve heard dozens of stories about people facing quite serious housing and financial problems.”

During one of my visits to Pamplona, a building porter working in a nearby building came to the door, asking to be considered for a place inside the occupation along with his family. The group welcomes potential residents, inviting them in for an interview in a process calculated as much as it is to gather information on individual cases, skills, levels of rent and the location and condition of their current housing, as it is to warn potential residents of what it means to live inside an occupied building.

“You need to understand that this is an occupation of private property in a building that has been empty for five years, ” Marshall tells the porter. “There will almost certainly be judicial proceedings, and we don’t know how long we’ll be here. You don’t ‘get’ an apartment here – you’re joining a movement. If you want to live here, you can’t just shut yourself away in your apartment – you have to pay attention to your neighbours and take part.” Another of MMRC’s occupations, at Rua Líbero Badaró, had received notice that it was to be evicted in August, after the World Cup – “When that happens,” Marshall explains, “you’ll be expected to come and help occupy a new building with everyone else.” Looking a bit queasy, the building porter assents.


Not in my back yard

At a large, attractive wine merchants shop next door to the Rua Pamplona occupation, I ask the shop assistants if they are worried about having an occupation right next door. “I’m not,” says Alessandra Bessa. “I’ve seen people going in and out of there, and they don’t look like troublemakers. It’s not for us to judge why they do what they do.” Her colleague Simone Araújo had spoken to a local resident, a neighbour who was furious to see the occupation in the normally staid neighbourhood. “She was very upset. She said ‘We pay the most expensive property taxes [IPTU] in the city here.’”

“Personally, I think everyone has the right to a place to live and food to eat,” says Bessa. “But it’s impossible for a lot of people – they work hard, but they never get anywhere.” Does she think local residents will accept their new neighbours? “I’m not sure. People like them are supposed to stay isolated in the perifería, and not turn up living close to Paulista. The people who live round here don’t want to have to see them. They’re not supposed to b

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