On a Tuesday, a regular day, it is virtually impossible to walk along 25 de
Março (25th of March) and its neighboring streets. Pedestrians are the ones who
run over cars, and not the other way around, such is the amount of people.
Street vendors compete for the loudest screams, and shopkeepers put all of their
employees on the streets to attract people.
There is garbage everywhere. The police arrive. People run. In doubt, some customers run too. Those who are already used to it do not even bother, they just continue shopping.
This is a calm day on 25 de Março. And although it does not seem a very inviting scenario, the region was elected the third wonder of the southeastern Brazilian city of São Paulo, losing only to the Ibirapuera park, and the Paulista avenue.
The election was held by radio station BandNews FM, which specializes in newscasts, in partnership with the UOL Website, Brazil’s most read.
The respectable third place in the ballot is justified. Despite the fact that shopping there is almost an adventure, the region is a landmark to the city and the country. The main attractions are the amazing variety of products and the price range. Those who go to the 25 de Março buy from costumes to electronics, from lingerie to toys.
Almost one third of trade is comprised of costume jewelry and its inputs. And everything is sold for prices up to 50% lower than in other regions and malls.
“I come here at least twice a month,” says Maria Vander de Freitas, 40 years old. She is the official organizer of her family’s birthdays, and the 25 de Março is where she buys her party items.
“I come here alone, I look at everything, and I buy some items. Then I come back by car with my husband to take everything home,” she says.
In fact, 25 de Março is much more than a single street. There are actually 21 streets. It is a complex of streets located where the waters of the Tamanduateí River once flowed. The Porto Geral (General Port) hill street bears its name because it was once a real port. The setting was already favorable for trade, as the goods went up and down the river. That was in the 1850s.
Nowadays, there is a river of people: 400,000 people on a calm day. It is as if the entire population of Sorocaba (a city in the interior of the state of São Paulo) passed through the region everyday. And the figure surpasses one million on the eve of Mothers’ Day, Christmas, and other commercial dates.
At a time in which not even the city of São Paulo amounted to 400,000 citizens, Arab immigrants started arriving and settling in the region. The Syrian-Lebanese community, with its natural vocation for trade, established the first stores. They were shops, dry goods stores, and whatever else was on demand.
In the early 20th century, some families established businesses that exist until this day, such as Casa da Bóia, on Florêncio de Abreu Street, inaugurated by the Syrian Rizkallah Jorge Tahan, who started his business in 1909. The street was home to the community. Presently, it is known as the “tool street”.
Another family that made history in the region were the Chohfis, whose patriarch, the also Syrian Ragueb Chohfi, established the textile mill Companhia Têxtil Ragueb Chofhi. Nowadays, it is estimated that approximately 30% of the region is still comprised of storeowners of Arab origin.
“Many gave up being shopkeepers, and remained just as the owners of the real estate,” says Miguel Giorgi Júnior, president of Univinco, the Union of Shopkeepers at 25th of March and surroundings. The Brazilian Arab colony is the world’s largest: it is estimated that 7% of the country’s population (190 million) is Arab. Most of them are in the city of São Paulo.
Present and Future
The region’s 21 streets harbor more than 3,000 enterprises, including companies, stores, and services. They generate annual revenues of 16 billion Brazilian reais (US$ 8.4 billion). According to the Univinco, of the multitudes that walk those streets every month, 58% belong in the higher income groups (called A and B in Brazil), contradicting the notion that the region only attracts people in the lower income groups, 44% are members of lower income families – 35% in the C group, and 9%, in the D group.
In a survey about customer behavior commissioned by the organization, shopkeepers discovered, for instance, that 79% of buyers go there to buy items for themselves, and that buses are the main means of access to the region.
They also learned that 27% of the people buy readymade costume jewellery, and 22% seek toys. When asked about the advantages offered by the street, the vast majority cited low prices and product variety. The most mentioned disadvantages were overcrowding and lack of safety.
With regard to safety, according to Miguel Giorgi, the Univinco can only request for the public administration to provide a solution. The Military Police are present in the region, along with the Metropolitan Civil Guard. Nevertheless, an initiative of the organization ended up helping to solve the issue.
A little more than one month ago, four cameras were installed in the region’s most crowded points. The project forecasts the installation of a dozen other cameras. Entitled BBB25, the project has more of an institutional approach to it, aimed at promoting the region, since anyone can watch as people come and go through website www.bbb25.com.br.
“But it ends up helping with safety too, of course, because it inhibits the action of many robbers,” says Miguel, who explains that BBB25 means “High Quality, Good Looking, and Cheap on the 25th” (free translation from the Portuguese ‘Bom, Bonito e Barato na 25’).
Enthused about the idea of turning the 25 de Março into a wonder even more worthy of the title, Giorgi has many plans for the region, as the president of the organization. The first of them, an old project of Univinco, is coming to fruition right at this moment.
It is the “25th Card,” a credit cart for customer fidelity. “With the card, for the first time in the history of the 25 de Março, people will be able to make purchases in up to six instalments without interest,” Giorgi claims. Up until now, 300 stores are already enrolled in the card project, which will be granted free of cost.
Another novelty is the fact that the 25th is now riding the “fashion show wave” and promoted, last August, the Bijoux Fashion, focussing, as the name implies, on costume jewellery.
The 25 de Março also wants to be green. According to Giorgi, there are recycling projects aimed at correctly disposing of the (bulky) garbage produced in the region, and planting trees in a roundabout located between the Barão Duprat, Cantareira, and Cavalheiro Basílio Jafet streets.
Apart from that, Univinco should soon release its “returnable bags” made of cloth, to avoid the use and abuse of plastic bags by shopkeepers. “We will sell them really cheap, to encourage their use by customers,” he says.
Finally, Giorgi believes that the name “25th of March” – a tribute to the day Emperor Pedro I (the first emperor of Brazil and the man who declared the country’s independence in 1822) promulgated the first Brazilian constitution, in 1824 – is already so strong, that it is about to become a brand.
“We can establish new commercial centers named ’25th of March’ in other regions of Brazil,” he believes. That is what wonders are like. They must honor their title.
The Arab Italian
Miguel Giorgi Júnior was born on the 25 de Março street, he grew up there, rode down Porto Geral hill on his soap car and saw his mother run her own business on the street. But different from most of his childhood friends, he is not of Arab, but Italian, origin.
“I grew up among the Arabs, I am practically a ‘little Turk’,” he says, in a loving way, using the term given to Syrian and Lebanese immigrants for many years in Brazil, in reference to the Turk-Ottoman passports they had when initial immigration to Brazil began, in the 19th century.
“And most of all, I have an Arab face and name,” jokes the current president of the Univinco, the association of shopkeepers in the region.
His gratitude to his Arab neighbors is enormous. Were it not for them, he might not now be running the Gaivota Artesanato shop, which started out as a small workshop created by his mother, a daughter of Italian immigrants, and is already almost 50 years old.
“Imagine a woman, Italian, among a mostly Arab colony. There were all the necessary ingredients for it not to work out. But the opposite happened, she was very well received. In fact, when she underwent enormous difficulties, one family most of all helped us very much, the Chohfis, to whom I am eternally thankful.”
Running the shop, which is on Basílio Jafet street and is a reference to those working in handicraft, and the association that represents around 300 retailers in the neighborhood, the businessman and president of Univinco is, above all, a person in love with the 25 de Março. “It is my homeland,” he summarizes.
Brás and Bom Retiro
25 de Março Street is not the only one that attracts multitudes due to its low prices. Neighborhoods and textile paradises Bom Retiro and Brás are too. Together, those three commercial hubs in the capital of the state of São Paulo attract over 650,000 people per day. There are more than 10,000 stores, and joint annual revenues stand at 50 billion Brazilian reais (US$ 26.2 billion).
Combined, the three regions comprise Brazil’s leading shopping area. Now, organizations based in each region are willing to actually unify them. Nowadays, the buyer who goes to 25 de Março has to venture into the chaotic public transport system of São Paulo to go to Brás. Or else he ends up taking a taxi.
To make life easier for customers, especially those who come from outside São Paulo, the three regions are requesting from the state and municipal governments some measures aimed at improving the logistics between them.
“We want a minimum of infrastructure for the three regions to be interconnected,” explains Giorgi Júnior.”The customers who come over to Bom Retiro are the same ones that go to the 25 de Março and Brás, therefore it would be much simpler if there was an integrated transport system,” says Kelly Cristina Lopes, executive secretary at the Chamber of Shopkeepers of Bom Retiro (CDL Bom Retiro).
According to Miguel and Kelly, the idea is to create a huge parking lot somewhere in the city, near the commercial hubs, and to have vans depart from there and run between the areas. Currently, the three hubs receive around 400 buses per day. On Christmas Eve, the total amounts to 800.
“And only Brás has the necessary structure to receive those vehicles,” says Kelly. Univinco and the CDL have joined forces with the AloBrás (Association of Shopkeepers of Brás) to request a special transport system for the regions – which would also help reduce the flow of vehicles in those streets, already saturated.
The interconnection by means of vans would also serve another purpose: it would help increase tourism in São Paulo. This is so because the people who come to the city just to shop would be able to better organize themselves, and stay in the capital for longer periods of time.
“Nowadays, many come in the very early morning and return to their cities in the early afternoon,” Kelly explains.
According to Giorgi, of the Univinco, the three organizations want to establish partnerships with travel agencies, hotels, theaters, and movie halls for buyers to arrive in the city during the weekend, and enjoy the cultural side that the metropolis has to offer.
The project, according to Kelly, is in keeping with the plans that São Paulo Tourism, the tourist sector arm of the city hall, has for the region.
In addition to the project for vans and to encouraging tourism, the three organizations also call for more safety in the three areas of the city, which, due to crowding, are prone to theft and robbery.
Finally, says Kelly, the shopkeepers want more initiative from city hall with regard to inspection against street vendors, who take over the pavements and render transit in the regions even more difficult.
“We want the same thing that is already taking place in Brás: ostensive inspection, so that only those with permits remain, street vendors registered in the city hall,” she explains.
“The problem resides in the fact that inspecting just one of the three hubs is useless, because they will migrate up here, to Bom Retiro, or to the 25th. It has to happen in the three places at the same time.”
The three organizations had a meeting with the secretary of Development of the State of São Paulo, Alberto Goldman, in August, to whom they delivered a document listing all of their requests. To the president at Univinco, Giorgi, a significant amount of this integration project should be implemented in the first half of 2008.
From Stage to Counter
Tony Mouzayek arrived from Syria as a child, in the 1970s. His family settled in the southeastern Brazilian city of São Paulo, where other relatives already lived. One of his uncles owned a business on Comendador Abdo Chain Street, a store that sold from pistachio nuts to books.
Then, 22 years ago, Tony, who even lived in the region for a while, bought the store from his uncle, and became another Arab merchant in the region. At his store, Casa Árabe (Arab House), he sells from narghiles and its smokes to musical instruments and belly dance costumes.
But Tony is not known for being a merchant, he is known as a singer and producer of belly dance performances. He has released more than 40 CDs of Arab music, performs on a weekly basis in a concert hall in São Paulo alongside belly dancers, is constantly invited for gigs abroad, especially in Egypt – he never returned to Syria – and it was he who sang many of the songs that Jade, the main character in the soap opera O Clone (‘The Clone’), danced to. His vast résumé also includes performances with the band Mouzayek. Of the ten musicians, six are family members.
Tony does not spend much time at Casa Árabe, which is run by a nephew of his. Casa is a reference point for belly dancers, most of all. “We manufacture clothes here, but we also bring lots of stuff from Egypt,” he says.
The Syrian-Lebanese speaks regretfully about 25 de Março Street. “I don’t like it here anymore. There are too many street vendors, too much garbage, too many people. It is difficult to walk,” he says, recalling the good times when life there was much simpler.
Wednesday morning. The street is already packed. In a building on Cavalheiro Basílio Jafet street, around ten people are completely alien to the coming and going of the multitudes in the 25 de Março street. The small, faithful group follows the last words of the mass celebrated by Monsignor Dimitrios.
The scene takes place in the Antiochian Orthodox Parish of Annunciation of the Mary, founded in 1902 by the Syrian-Lebanese colony (more Syrian than Lebanese), which was then settling down in the region. In 1904, the bell was put in place. And 1905 saw the official inauguration.
In March this year (on the 25th), the church was re-inaugurated after having been redone. But, according to Monsignor Dimitrios, the church still needs work, such as the restoring of the typical orthodox images cast in iron plates. The images were donated in the first decades of the 20th century by the families that helped build the church (Jafet, Yasbek, among other pioneers).
“The Syrian-Lebanese colony brought the orthodox church to Brazil because those immigrants were the first orthodox that came here,” explains Dimitrios, who is a son of Lebanese. The Monsignor explains that the mass was transferred to Wednesday because on Sundays the region is completely abandoned.
Anba – www.anba.com.br