With hundreds of buildings and lots occupied in central São Paulo, Claire Rigby explores the city's downtown squatting scene
text – Claire Rigby
photos – Claire Rigby & Aline Biz
18 JULY 2014 – These are strange days in Anhangabaú, the valley that runs though part of São Paulo’s busy downtown. 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 FIFA Fan Fest, taking thumbs-up selfies with friendly 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 foreign 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 poverty, inequality and inadequate housing in often far-flung parts of the city, and on levels of rents that make living on the minimum wage, or on low wages, a constant struggle.
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 that are 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 the IPTU property tax, or for the future construction of social housing or other projects.
At Cine Marrocos, a major occupation on Rua Conselheiro Crispiniano which once housed one of the city’s grandest cinemas, with a large office block on top, a resident, Heldir Penha Aves says he moved to the occupation from Vila Carão in the city’s Zona Leste (Eastern Zone), where his rent was R$750. “It was more than I could afford,” he says. “But I came to live in the occupation because I support its 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.”
Over the last 12 months, dozens of vacant buildings downtown have been identified and taken over. 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 combinations of a number of key words in their names: sem-teto (homeless), moradia (housing), Centro, trabalhador (worker), luta (struggle). The acronyms formed by the words appear over and over, too, since many of the groups run multiple occupations. As well as 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 MMRC, meanwhile, which runs Pamplona 935 (see below), also runs Ocupação Mauá, a former hotel behind Estação da Luz, squatted since 2007, together with two other groups, the MSTC and the ASTC, and has three other occupations downtown.
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 heavily disappointed by the PT,” Silva tells me, avoiding the question, but explaining the MSTS’s grievance with the PT. The movement blames SP’s mayor, Haddad, for having 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 (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, 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.
Vale do Anhangabaú
But Centro’s occupations are not exclusively the territory of the multitudinous, highly organized sem-teto movements. Camped outdoors in the valley of Anhangabaú for a month between 18 June and 17 July, just metres from the official FIFA Fan Fest that took over a large part of the valley in the same period, the Laboratório Compartilhado TM13 was 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 was 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 previously 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. The same was true of the subsequent open-air encampment, where it was very easy to observe the way local street people gravitated to the relaxed, grungy, streetwise crew manning the occupation.
Speaking to Fluxo during the occupation, Wanessa Sabbath of the collective Anhangabaroots, the driving force behind the occupation explained: “This is a totally open space, with no segregation. From the outside, people see it as a space for crazy people. But this is quilombola culture,” she said, referring to the communities originally established by escaped slaves.
“It’s Brazilian anarchism in action. Anhangabaú has had Indians, it has had quilombos, and now it has us.” Anhangabaroots has been working in the valley for ten years, says 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 know every single person here, ” she says. “Anyone can come and share this space. It’s public, it’s free, no prejudice.”
On 17 July, following an agreement with the Prefeitura – specifically, with Alcides Amazonas, subprefeito da Sé – the group voluntarily broke camp and left the valley, on the understanding that that the Prefeitura would provide a space for the group to continue its work with the city’s street-dwelling population.
On the morning of 18 July, with the collective’s possessions already safely removed, members of the group watched as a cleaning and refuse removal squad cleared the area. “We’ve agreed on a timescale of 30-60 days for them to provide a new, self-managed space for us,” said Alex Assunção. “We have a good relationship with the subprefeito, and always have. We’re trusting them to keep their word and to continue the dialogue with us to find a solution. If the solution isn’t provided, we’ll take direct action again."
Just a few hundred metres along the valley, where it curves off towards the neighbourhood of Liberdade, Ouvidor 63 is another occupation working along artistic lines. (Another is the Casa Amarela, 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. The building had previously been occupied between 1997-2005 by the sem-teto movement MMC, and was one of the oldest occupations in São Paulo.
When the new occupants entered the building this year, the floors were buried under a carpet of dust, a centimetre thick from years of disuse. With all thirteen floors now scrubbed down and back in use, the building is also being used as a space for artist’s studios, rehearsal rooms for music and theatre, and even a film club, 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.”
The occupation at Ouvidor was served with a repossession order on 17 July, and the Pamplona occupation some two weeks earlier.
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.”
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.
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 really 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 be here.”