Spin City

Always the bridesmaid, São Paulo now wants to shine, but it will take more than just good PR, says John Rumsey

Overshadowed by its more glamorous neighbour, São Paulo has often struggled to assert an image. Rio, with its iconic Christ the Redeemer and in spite of its notorious crime rate, has long been the centre of international attention, especially for tourists. However, São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and the heart of the region’s largest economy, has been working on its reputation, and the cognoscenti know that today it is the most dynamic and cosmopolitan city in Latin America.

The problem is getting that out to a wider audience. São Paulo has an image problem or, more accurately, operates in an image vacuum. “The image of Brazil is still focused on beaches, carnival, football, and Rio. São Paulo is virtually unknown by the rest of the world. There has never even been a major international film set in São Paulo. We need to get the image of the city out,” says Alfredo Cotait Neto, head of international affairs at São Paulo’s city hall. 


Neto and other city officials have been beating the drum by attending trade shows worldwide and pushing the city as an events and business hub and as an attractive location for investors. They are working with the ultimate aim of the city hosting the Universal Expo in 2020. This initiative has borne fruit and the city already hosts more than 70,000 events per year.


But for foreigners who haven’t attended a fair or visited the city, perhaps the only notion they have is of the sheer, bewildering size of São Paulo. Greater São Paulo now has a population of some 22,000,000 and covers 1,530km2. The city has the third largest Italian population in the world and the biggest Japanese population of any city outside of Japan. 


What may surprise non-Brazilians more is that São Paulo also boasts pockets of fabulous wealth that translate into world-beating spending power. According to LLA Investimentos, the city boasted the highest number of private jets in the world in 2008 (830), ahead of New York, as well as the largest fleet of helicopters; more Ferraris are sold there than in any other world city (LA is second); it is the only city in the world with four Tiffany stores or three Bulgari emporia and was home to Louis Vuitton’s most profitable store worldwide in 2007; and it is the biggest market for Mont Blanc pens outside Switzerland. The list goes on. 


“São Paulo is cosmopolitan. It’s the only city in Brazil that has the facilities of a really big city and is not far behind places like New York,” says André Rebello, chief economist of the Federation of Industries of the state of São Paulo. Entertainment and shopping have become much more sophisticated and are well beyond those of other Brazilian cities such as Rio or Brasilia, he notes. Indeed, close to 80% of all the luxury goods sold in Brazil are bought in São Paulo. “Where else can you take a yachting class at 10 in the evening?” says one New York-based Latin headhunter. “Not even in New York.”


Despite that, part of the problem for São Paulo’s image is that it has long worn the mantle of an industrial city and the worthy-but-dull sobriquet that goes with it. Within Brazil, the city is the butt of jokes as a dreary, sexless place peopled by humourless workaholics. Dramatist Nelson Rodrigues, who found greater affinity with Rio, went so far as to quip: “The worst form of solitude is the company of a Paulista [a native of the state].” 


Paulistas would shrug that criticism off as sheer jealousy and are generally proud of where they live. And anyway the city is now changing. It is managing the difficult process of moving from an industrial city — which is being naturally pushed out by higher real estate prices — to one that revolves around services, says Rebello. 


In many areas, the city is doing well in that transformation. It has long been the centre of banking and already boasts centres of excellence, including medical services and science and technology, Rebello says. There are skills that are hard to find elsewhere in the country, such as engineering, design and financial advice, which gives it a dominance over any other Brazilian city. Indeed, 62% of foreign companies have their headquarters there, he points out.


But everyone also recognises that São Paulo is also a city with giant headaches. Economic growth has far outpaced the ability of infrastructure to keep up and the city is facing severe transit, social and environmental issues. Last year it slipped down the Mercer Quality of Living survey to 119th position, five places below Rio.


Solutions seem far off. The media relishes the daily tailbacks that can exceed 200km across the city and post reporters at toll booths to interview despondent motorists. The city is working on long-term projects to develop metro lines, complete a ring road and modernise the suburban train system, says Neto. Parts of the metro are being developed with a mix of public and private money and one major new line is underway. But investment spending has fallen as low as 2%–3% compared to former rates of 8%, notes Rebello. 


The city’s needs are great elsewhere, too. It is trying to grapple with improvement of degraded urban areas, of which it has a shocking number. It has 18 projects in this field, including in the deprived eastern part of the city and downtown. There have been some successes, such as the ongoing transformation of the area around Luz train station, once dubbed Cracolândia thanks to its drug problem. Until recently, the area was best avoided; today, while not exactly salubrious, it’s possible to walk there and it has a clutch of cafés. 


At the same time, the city is moving slowly to deal with the chronic pollution, for example, of its two rivers, the Tietê and the Pinheiros. “We’re working harder than just about any other city on the environment,” says Neto. São Paulo even has two landfill sites that generate methane gas for the grid, he notes. 


However, despite its infrastructural and environmental problems, São Paulo has excellent resources in science, business, technology and banking and the kind of pulse and dynamism that you would expect from being at the apex of Brazil’s growth. Such qualities surely leave it well positioned to tackle the challenges associated with a growing global city, but tackling its image problem within and without Brazil is a different task altogether.

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