São Paulo is a symbol of inequality. The wealthy enjoy incredible luxury while the poor are neglected. São Paulo is a dystopia. Society here has failed miserably in making a dignified life possible for everyone. The resulting dissonance has produced a radical form of dehumanization. It is estimated that almost half of the people in the São Paulo metropolitan region live in precarious conditions. Millions aren't connected to the sewage system.
With more than 22 million inhabitants, São Paulo is the largest metropolis in the southern hemisphere and the wealthiest city in South America. At the end of the 19th century, São Paulo was a city of 200,000 residents, full of picturesque, colonial-style homes. By the 1950s, it was already home to 2 million people, and in the 1960s and 1970s, it began growing like a tumor – rapidly, uncontrolled and exponentially. Today, large parts of it are a concrete desert of high-rises, stinking rivers and multilane, raised highways known as viaducts. They spread throughout the city like the tentacles of a giant octopus, yet there is no coherent connection between them, a situation that results in daily traffic chaos. In São Paulo, people rarely ever honk, even in the worst traffic jams, out of fear that they might get shot. São Paulo has some of the worst air pollution in the world, and the environmental degradation is so advanced that even the wealthy, who try to isolate themselves in their penthouses can’t escape it.
It is also one of the most unequal cities in the world. There is hardly any other place on the planet where squalor and luxury exist in such monstrous proximity to each other – where the desperation of the poor and the hubris of the wealthy clash so brutally.
Helicopters take off in São Paulo by the minute. The city is said to be home to the largest fleet of private choppers in the world, reserved for those important people who have to quickly get from A to B. Michelin-rated restaurants are located next to the leafy neighborhoods full of mansions, where the streets are called Alemanha, Luxemburgo and Áustria and Bentleys and Rolls-Royces are a common sight.
The life expectancy in the rich, white neighborhood of Pinheiros is more than 80 years, while in the poorest black quarters, it is just 58.
"There has never been consistent city development in São Paulo," says Barbara. "Instead, it has been a continuous state-of-emergency, where improvements are only made where things are especially bad." She walks across a bridge toward the historic market hall, beneath her is a canal filled with polluted, brownish water full of trash. "But the greatest hurdle standing in the way of São Paulo’s transformation is the extreme inequality," Barbara says. If the problems on the periphery aren’t solved, she says, the city can never become healthy and livable – for anyone.