By Jon Martin Cullell
Sao Paulo, Jun 23 (EFE).- Sao Paulo’s Cathedral Square, located in the heart of the largest metropolis in Brazil and all of South America, had been a part of the city most tried to avoid until very recently.
Unsafe, dirty, and a place where narcotics were bought and sold, people who needed to pass through that area did so swiftly and watchfully, with their hands in their pockets.
Sao Paulo’s local government is now looking to revitalize the city center and has made that emblematic plaza the first target of its efforts, although civil society organizations caution that the plan could worsen the situation for the homeless population living there.
Daily renovation work at the Praça da Se (Cathedral Square) is well under way by 9 am, with orange-jacketed laborers installing the last low walls of the small park, a washer truck cleaning the sidewalk and three police vehicles standing guard in front of the stairs of the cathedral, a neo-gothic, green-domed building.
Since April, the city government has arranged for more daily cleaning rounds and is now removing 1.3 tons of garbage from the plaza per day.
It also is now using stronger light bulbs in street lamps to improve visibility at night and has increased the police presence there 10-fold.
As a result, the cathedral district registered only 303 police investigations for different crimes in the year’s first four months, the lowest level since 2019.
The ultimate goal of the plan, which includes using tax exemptions to bolster real-estate investment, is to attract 200,000 new residents to downtown Sao Paulo.
Just steps away from the police contingent, 70-year-old Junia Galvao smiles as she poses for a photo in front of the cathedral. She lives in a nearby city and goes to the Praça da Se every year to pray an Our Father.
She told Efe she is pleasantly surprised at the improvements made thus far. “You couldn’t take a stroll. It had a really bad appearance, one of neglect,” she said of her previous visit.
The deputy mayor responsible for that area of Sao Paulo, Alvaro Batista Camilo, told Efe the plaza had the city’s highest level of street crime, including robberies and drug dealing, adding that thanks to the revitalization effort “you’re starting to see a greater movement of people who wouldn’t have come around before.”
Nevertheless, the fences that have been installed around gardened areas and the police deployment are seen by some social organizations as a strategy to expel homeless people, a population that has spiked in Sao Paulo since the start of the pandemic and now totals some 32,000 city-wide, according to municipal government figures.
In February, the revitalization plan was momentarily halted by court order after activists filed a complaint against the removal of homeless tents, including ones erected in portions of the Cathedral Plaza.
Jose Fernandes, a 45-year-old homeless man, complained to Efe about the hostility of some municipal cops.
“You can be sitting there eating on the sidewalk and they tell you to get up,” he said, making a kicking gesture. “Since the fences were put up, they feel emboldened.”
Camilo, for his part, says the fences are temporary and denies that homeless people are being expelled from the plaza.
However, he acknowledged that they are being asked to fold up their tents during the day so the cleaning crews can do their work and pedestrians can move about freely.
Evaldo dos Santos, a 55-year-old owner of a small restaurant in the square, said the municipal government’s actions have still not provided any boost to his business.
“There aren’t any drug dealers anymore, but there aren’t any customers either,” he said. At midday the pot of sweet coffee he prepares every morning is still full, and lately he is serving only around 10 lunches per day, compared to roughly 100 a few years ago.