Sao Paulo and the street smarts of its crowd

6 01 2008

I’ve just come back from spending almost a month in São Paulo, Brazil. Every time I go there I take some time just to walk on the streets to check out new trends and enjoy the chaotic dynamic of the city. A few years ago, James Surowiecki argued in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds” that a wise crowd needs to have diverse, decentralized and independent individuals. I find that São Paulo really excels in those three areas (but this, of course, is likely a biased view):


This time around I decided to visit the local Immigration museum (Memorial do Imigrante), and was glad that I did it. Here are some pics:

Many people in North America don’t know that São Paulo was a very popular destination for immigrants in the early 20th century and is now home for about 100 ethnicities. The largest groups (including descendants) are Italians, Portuguese, Lebanese, Japanese and Jews, but you’ll find plenty of “paulistanos” with German, Armenian, Korean, Chinese, French, Spanish, Greek and Ucranian roots. And maybe even some canucks:


Sao Paulo is a really big city, the second largest in the world according to the CityMayors website (behind Seoul), and the 5th largest if you count the surrounding urban areas (behind Tokyo, Mexico City, Mumbai and New York). More than 18 million people live in its metropolitan area. Here are some pics I took from the top of the Banespa building:

São Paulo is a city made of cities. My wife was born and raised in São Paulo and she has never been to most of the places in the old downtown area until her twenties. Places like these ones:

The Banespa building and the Cathedral (Sé)

Teatro Municipal (kind of City Opera House)

Independent thinking

Here is a picture from São Paulo in the early 1900s (taken at the immigrant museum):

And this is a recent picture of the same street (from the Midia Independente website):

The provincial city from 100 years ago was gradually transformed in a city of millions of voices, tens of political parties and hundreds of urban tribes. I found amusing to see this book vending machine in the main subway station:

A close look reveals how eclectic the crowd is:

Where else would you find Linux and Excel sharing the shelf with Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Sherlock Holmes and tips on how to train your dog?

There’s a lot to learn from living in places like São Paulo. I wish I could have a rotating work assignment where I could live a couple of years each in large urban centres like Tokyo, Mumbai, Seoul, Mexico City, Beijing, Istanbul, Moscow and, why not?, New York. Those are all like living organisms, showing that, at a very close range, the world is anything but flat.




12 responses

7 01 2008

Aaron, great to see your blog! And such good material, too! Good stuff!

7 01 2008

Thanks Bernie! Wow, you were quick. You must be the guy who fixes all the vandalism in Wikipedia.

7 01 2008

Great pictures Aaron. I have to confess, Sao Paulo looks much more modern/cleaner that I expected. The pictures could be any city in the US. I see much similarities to pics of New York, Boston. In usual canadian print media, Sao Paulo is always talked about in the same sentence with ‘slum’. So after a while, that’s all people can conjure up for an image. Actually this slum association is prevalent in writings about Mexico city as well. Now that I have seen your pictures, it looks nothing like I had imagined. In fact I have seen much worse in detroit and new orleans.

The part about the book vending machine is funny. It is said you know you are in Tokyo when you see ‘paperback book exchange shelves in Hibiya, Hongo Sanchome and several other subway stations”.

Good to see you had a long break. btw, my email to seji bounced. Donno if he still works there.

8 01 2008

Hey Aaron, welcome on WordPress where I actually host my own private blog in English language ( I have another one in German language on blogger ).
Nice posting about this amazing city – and lots of nice shots as well. The comparison between this historic drawing of this one street versus a photo from nowadays is interesting – somehow the street looks more narrow nowadays.
I believe cities as well as cultures become more and more similiar in this world.
Regarding the selection in these book selling machines – I guess this is simply the “left side” of their “long tail” they have determined.
Keep up writing here – I’ll definitely add it to my blogroller since I know from some of your other blogs that you always having interesting things in your mind to write about – and a good language available to express it.

8 01 2008

@Li: True. Probably all large urban centres have their own version of slums. I’m puzzled on how you found this blog! I was waiting till I had a few entries to start promoting it with family and friends. I also would like to add you blog in my blogroll but I’m not sure if you want links pointing to it. I did a lookup on Seiji’s name and didn’t get anything. I don’t recall getting a farewell message, but my inbox is far from clean after a month of vacation.

@Axel: Thanks for your visit. You reminded me to start a blogroll here, and I already added your blog. I wonder how you guys are able to keep multiple blogs going, I hope I can post at least twice a week here. I also noticed that the street looks narrower. I believe the actual street starts wide and narrows down after a few blocks so the pictures must be from different segments. Next time I go I’ll try to take a picture myself.

8 01 2008
Mary Ann

Great blog! Your commentary on Sao Paulo is eye opening and informative. What is the best time to visit and see the sites?

8 01 2008

Hi Mary Ann,

I like Sao Paulo in the fall (April to June). Weather is nice, and specially in June the sunlight is good for pictures. January and July tend to be good to get around as there are less cars in the street (school is off). Avoid the weeks before Christmas time: traffic is a nightmare. But in general, as this is not a beach or mountain destination, you’ll find things to see and do anytime of the year. The good side of having 18 million people living in the city is that the city never stops.

9 01 2008

Great pix, Aaron! I’d be interested in seeing more. I was in São Paulo for a month too last May. I went with my then girlfriend who spent the first 28 years of her life there so she knew all the good spots to show me. Did you see the kids bathing in the praça of the Igreja da Sé? and the trinket sellers escaping from the police only to return a second later? Across from Bovespa is the refurbished Salve Jorge restaurant, great place to chow down and have a brew. I also spent 2 weeks in São Sebastião which I highly recommend.

As for the Immigrant Museum, I don’t remember hearing about it but I did go to the Estação da Luz for the Portuguese Language Museum. Very interesting place, especially the second level. I’ll have to check out the Immigrant Museum next time as immigrant groups that settled in Brazil is something that intrigues me. Check my blog for my story on Italians in Brazil.


– Adam

24 04 2008

stumbled upon your site while searching for information about sao paulo. thanks for posting so many pictures with your entry, it really helps paint the picture–especially like the book vending machine!

25 04 2008

@tudobeleza: Hey Adam, sorry for never replying to your comment. I need to take better care of this blog. I saw both the street kids and the street vendors, but at that point I was not quite sure if I should take my camera out. I saw the Salve Jorge restaurant but did not get it. I’ll try it next time.

I used to go to São Sebastião during my University years (I had several Marine Biology courses there), but haven’t been back since. Great place indeed, and Ilha Bela, is also a good choice for those who prefer to stay in more remote places.

I checked your blog ( Very cool, I added it to my blogroll.

@kalavinka: I did not realize my site would show in any search for São Paulo. Check the brasisblog also, as Adam has several posts that may interest you.

11 08 2012
Sarah Siegel (@SarahSiegel)

Helpful. Thanks Aaron. On Friday, going there for work for the first time. My fave part of your post was the part about the book automats in the subways.

11 08 2012

Hey, Sarah,

I hope you enjoy your stay there!

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