Text and Photographs by Gabo Morales
Why would you want to dwell in between the walls of a faux-suburbia? And why wouldn’t you?
When I was young, my family used to take one-day trips from our small town to the bigger Sao Jose do Rio Preto, in Sao Paulo State. I remember when the Transbrasiliana highway started to cross the outskirts of that city one could see some gigantic gated communities from the road. It looked so exclusive, with French sounding names like Ville or Belvedere, luxurious cars coming and going, at street-level only the tips of big mansions visible above the edge of reinforced walls.
I’m not particularly fond of that memory. Being middle-class at that time (hyper-inflationary Brazil pre-1994) meant that one could dream of being part of such gated community but, just as well, feel deeply disconnected from all it. Who were those living inside Alphavilles? And who are them now?
Created in 1974, Alphaville, in the Sao Paulo metropolitan area, was arguably the first urban development in Brazil meant to emulate suburbia lifestyle, or an ill-advised spin-off of New Urbanism. Its initial focus was to house executives and workers that came with an industrial complex created nearby in the same city of Barueri. Proposed as a mixed-use neighborhood, it actually walled the residential areas while creating commercial thoroughfares in its close surroundings. What came as an influence of the original Alphaville is in fact the gated community, not its programme of mixed-use, as weak as it was.
Brazilian sociologist José Reis dos Santos Filho has called gated communities symbols of isolation. Today, almost any big city in the country has its walled condominiums – in Cuiabá, central Brazil, most people would answer to the question “where’s the best place to live in town” by pointing to the local Alphaville. Santos Filho writes that this urban developments were a response from the real state market to the upper middle-class desire for a better quality of life in crime-laden, jammed cities, but such oasis of tranquility could only live up to the promise in the developers brochure, as criminals used creativity and force to work within its walls and traffic jams still start as soon as one leaves the gate.
QUALITY OF LIFE
Home to more than four hundred thousand inhabitants, Sao Jose do Rio Preto saw 6.161 lots in gated communities and similar developments put to market in 2012. More than in any other metropolitan area in Sao Paulo state. From above, dozens of Alphaville-like developments can be seen scattered all over the city. In the first such condominium to be created there, Dahma 1, we get to meet Claudio Antonio Ribeiro, a 40-year old entrepreneur. “I live in a closed condominium. Here I can host my friends, enjoy day-offs. When I travel to São Paulo I get uncomfortable, looking forward to come back.” Quality of life.
At Dahma 1 Ribeiro takes us to a tour. Here, he says, one can forget the front door unlocked, enjoy a walk by the lake, play tennis. But as we drive through the streets 10 am on a sunny Friday, looks like we are the only living souls around. Apart, of course, from security personnel that drives past from time to time on their motorcycles, looking overly interested on our wanderings.
As Brazilian architect Carlos Moreira Teixeira noted, gated communities that were somewhat influenced by the mid-20th century New Urbanism movement, are commonly associated with “stylistic conservatism, political illiteracy and a general sense of intolerance, addressing only the white middle class”, leaving out those historically excluded from so-called civilized society. Brazil’s inequality as measured by the widely accepted gini index is steadily decreasing since the start of the new millenium, but we are far from seeing a family that just now is being considered middle class living in places like Alphaville.
But then, why would such a family want to dwell in between the walls of a faux-suburbia? May a generic sense of social status be a better answer than some overstated improvement in quality of life? In figures collected in 2013 by journalist Ana Magalhães, with 820.000 reais one could either buy a 67m2 apartment in downtown São Paulo or a ready to live 250m2 house in a gated community in the city’s outskirts. The hypothetical family above could buy neither one without severely compromising its finances for a long time, but which one should they choose when facing their prospects?
Urban violence in Brazil is surely higher than in developed countries, but the tendency, as happened everywhere, is to get lower and lower as the country progresses. Car-oriented cities – of which the Brazilian mode of suburbia is much owned – had never been so discussed country-wide as in the last years, when there seems to be a shift, with the urban thinking placing much more importance in collective modes of transportation than in automobiles.
A house is a lifetime investment: would you be interested in living within a symbol of isolation when your country finally makes the reason to live in such a place obsolete? The search for the optimal quality of life will never cease, but ideally it should be met without the necessity of gates and reinforced walls, without the intolerance and mutual isolation between different groups on the society.
Work originally commissioned by the Folha de S. Paulo