Teenagers in black jeans and hoodies sit sipping vodka on the sidewalk. At a venue down a few blocks of graffiti-covered walls, a man in a shark costume belts out rock songs. Outside a dance club, well-paid fashion designers mingle with street punks and transvestite prostitutes.
It’s far from the tropical sun, sex and samba image of Brazil that looms large in the mind of tourists.
Rapid change is gripping Brazil, especially Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America and the most expensive in the Western Hemisphere. A red-hot economy fueled by commodities trade with China and decades of stable government have made many Brazilians more prosperous. New youth movements have sprung from Sao Paulo’s gritty urban mix.
“When we set up here in 2006, all the shop fronts were empty, and skinheads were roaming the streets picking fights,” says Ale Yousseff, former youth coordinator in the mayor’s office, who now owns Studio SP, the beer-soaked live music spot that played host to the singing shark.
The five years since have transformed this five-block length of Rua Augusta into a cultural blast furnace. In a society still marked by extreme inequality, it is one place where people of different classes, races and tastes mix freely.
“What we’re seeing on Augusta today is the result of a kind of anthropological eruption,” says Andre Pollak, 27, an art director who lives and acts as a disc jockey on Rua Augusta. “All kinds of urban tribes and people from different cultural niches coexist peacefully.”
“It might be something unique in our history, seeing these people hanging out with each other until 10 in the morning,” he says.
Augusta, only two miles long, runs northeast from Rua Estados Unidos in the high-priced Jardins residential neighborhood. It crosses Avenida Paulista, the city’s main drag and headquarters of Latin America’s largest banks, and then makes its way into the dilapidated historical city center.
On the posher side of town, Rua Augusta is a relaxed haven for bookstores, cafes and vintage shops among a jumble of overpriced retailers.
Along a short stretch of the “lower Augusta” strip, there are more than 70 bars and clubs, including at least 10 for live music. On most nights, crowds make it difficult for pedestrians to pass through without stepping off the sidewalk. And almost without exception, in none of the establishments will you find traditional Brazilian music. The scenes are dominated by local takes on punk, hip-hop, metal, indie rock and dance music.
Yousseff compared the street’s transformation to that of East London or Brooklyn in past decades, but the most apt comparison may be to Sunset Boulevard in its mythical days. Live music is key.
The change on the Augusta strip is not the gentrification familiar to North Americans, during which a run-down section of town is taken over by a more prosperous, and ostensibly hip, group of people.
Wealthy Brazil is here too. Glitzy television programs throw parties on the street. When international buzz bands come through, they usually play on Augusta. Yousseff says the price of a ticket is often five times more than what it would be in the U.S.
A worldwide cost-of-living survey by the Mercer consulting group this year found Sao Paulo to be the 10th-most-expensive city in the world, by far the priciest in the Americas. London was 17th, and New York didn’t make the top 20.
If the fashion and media set is not out on the street in Augusta, you’ll find it behind the velvet ropes at clubs with cover charges starting at about $60.
It’s not that Sao Paulo has changed entirely. In other parts of the city, some skinheads are still on the streets, fighting anti-fascist punks and darker-skinned immigrants. And regardless of what part of the city you’re in, it feels intensely and chaotically urban.
Sao Paulo is an endless sea of off-white concrete skyscrapers that stretches in every direction, with almost no open space. As a result, there’s often little to do except work and party. It’s not uncommon for Paulistanos, as its residents are known, to stay in the office as late as 10 p.m., and few parties or nightclubs close their doors before the sun rises.
“Paulistanos don’t have a loving relationship with their city like people elsewhere often do,” said Facundo Guerra, one of the men behind Lions’ Club, an upscale destination in the rejuvenated city center, as well as Vegas, one of Augusta’s original dance clubs.
“Sao Paulo is not a tourist city, and gringos tend to catch on to that quickly,” he said. “Increasingly, I am taking visitors that do come up and down Augusta. It’s a microcosm of the current cultural moment.”
Though most Brazilian popular music acts are content to aim at the country’s 200 million residents, a few — such as Cansei de Ser Sexy, or CSS, and Emicida — have broken internationally, and they paid their dues at Studio SP or other sweaty venues on Augusta.
The hip-hop lyricist Emicida spent time on the street on his way from the poor outskirts of Sao Paulo to the stage at this year’s Coachella festival.
He named a recent song after Rua Augusta, dedicated not to the partyers, but to the prostitutes working on its corners closer to the city center.
“I’m not on Augusta as much I used to be,” says Diego Ferreira, a video jockey and television presenter known in the country simply as Didi. “But everyone involved in music or culture here has spent time there and knows what Rua Augusta means for South America.”
Bevins is a special correspondent.