Like many Paulistas, when I go for a walk in the park I usually head for Ibirapuera, which is the city’s largest and most popular green space. It is surrounded by the solidly middle-class districts of Jardins, Itaim, Moema and Vila Mariana.
The park’s respectability is further testified by the presence nearby of the state assembly building and a memorial to those who fell in the 1932 revolution.
This recalls the time when São Paulo took on the federal government of dictator Getúlio Vargas in a conflict which lasted eight months and led to hundreds of deaths.
It also features an impressive monument to the “bandeirantes” who left São Paulo in the 17th and 18th centuries to open up Brazil. These people were trail blazers, adventurers and heroes or murderers, slavers and rapists, depending on your view of history.
The park was inaugurated in 1954 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of São Paulo. It measures 1.6 million square meters and contains a small lake and lots of paths and secluded leafy spots to escape from the stress of the city.
It also hosts various cultural centers, including a couple of hideous, concrete “modern” and “contemporary” art museums. Open-air concerts are held in the mawkishly-named “Peace Square” where all kinds of music are performed by top artists from Brazil and abroad.
The park attracts hundreds of thousands at the weekend but even then you can often find a quiet corner. If you go during the week you can have whole areas to yourself. If you are ever in São Paulo take my advice and pay a visit.
A Foreign Field
However, during the recent Nossa Senhora Aparecida holiday I decided to give Ibirapuera a miss and go to one of the city’s other parks. There are many to choose from, including Burle Marx, Jardim Botânico, Ipiranga and Aclimação.
However, since I have also had a soft spot for the downtown area, where the city was founded, I headed for the Parque da Luz. This is the oldest park in São Paulo and goes back to 1825. It is in the Bom Retiro district, where the city’s Jewish community was once centered and has now been settled by many Koreans.
It lies next to the Pinacoteca museum and art gallery and is opposite the Luz railway station. This station was built by the British and, with its replica tower of Big Ben, stands out like a corner of a foreign field that is forever England.
The park is pretty small, measuring 81,000 square meters, and you cam walk round it in 10 or 15 minutes. It is more formal and old fashioned than Ibirapuera.
It has some Versailles-like ponds containing giant goldfish and classical statues posing under gigantic imperial palms, and a Japanese garden. You can imagine well-dressed couples strolling arm in arm in the good old days when São Paulo was an elegant Italian-style place.
Older residents recall those days with nostalgia and some of them blame the decline the center has undergone over the last two decades on the influx of Northeastern migrants. While one can sympathize with this view, it is too simple to accept entirely.
Practically every middle-class São Paulo family has a maid from the Northeast and the city would come to a stop without the hundreds of thousands of “nordestinos” working on construction sites and factories or as security guards, bus and taxi drivers and janitors in the high-rise buildings where most middle-class people live.
No Skateboarders Thank God
In fact, it is precisely these people who make the Parque da Luz a more interesting place to visit than Ibirapuera. Instead of hordes of middle-class joggers, skateboarders and cyclists, flaunting their latest Nikes, Walkmans and poodles, the Parque da Luz attracts Northeasterners and others outsiders.
These include Bolivians, easily recognizable by the short statures, broad chests and flat Easter Island faces, Koreans and Chinese. They also include your correspondent, easily recognizable by his kilt and bagpipes – only kidding!
Although middle-class Paulistas visit the Pinacoteca museum and art gallery, few of them end their tour with a wander around the park. It is easy to see why, since all is not light in the Park of Light.
Amongst the pick-nicking families and kids’ playgrounds, there are scores of vagrants, beggars and thieves. There are also lots of prostitutes, openly plying their trade.
Prostitutes in São Paulo are often young and extremely good looking, but those in Parque da Luz are older and have seen better days. I suspect their clients are single Northeasterners with little money to spend who cannot be choosy.
On this hot, muggy holiday there were hundreds of these lone men standing around doing nothing. Many live in horrible cramped accommodation or hostels where they have a bed and nothing more. Spending a day off in places like these is not an option.
A European or American visitor might become nervous and suspicious of these lone characters but most of them are harmless. No-one hangs around the icy streets of European cities doing nothing but in warm climates it is common, even in Italy or Spain.
Efforts have been made in recent years to try and revitalize the old center and although great progress has been made there is still much to be done.
It will be some time before the middle class abandon Ibirapuera for a walk in the Parque da Luz.
This is a pity because they are missing an opportunity to reclaim the center and mix with their own countrymen. If you are ever in São Paulo take my advice and pay a visit.
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—www.celt.com.br—which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at email@example.com.
© John Fitzpatrick 2004