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At what cost gentrification? São Paulo expels drug users and razes buildings to ‘revitalise Crackland’

Brutal police raids on São Paulo’s so-called ‘Crackland’ have shocked the city and paved the way for redevelopment of this prime piece of real estate. Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

At what cost gentrification? São Paulo expels drug users and razes buildings to ‘revitalise Crackland’

This article, originally published on June 16 2017, has been updated to reflect the latest developments in São Paulo’s Cracolândia.


It was a rainy Sunday morning when São Paulo’s “Crackland” was destroyed.

On May 21, 500 civil and military police descended on the downtown neighbourhood where, since the late 1990s, hundreds to thousands of crack-cocaine users and drug dealers have congregated (hence its dubious appellation Cracolândia).

Throwing gas grenades and weilding barking dogs, the police raided the area with a brutality that shocked the city.

Tear gas, sound bombs and rubber bullets were unleashed in a “scatter” model, sending residents running. Canvas tents and shacks that provide shelter for dozens of homeless people were ripped down, razed and burned.

According to Mayor João Doria, the operation was meant to arrest traffickers, who operate openly in the area, seize weapons and stop crack-cocaine users from gathering there. Some 50 people were arrested, and residents of buildings facing Cracolândia‘s streets were evicted.

Police destroying Sao Paulo’s so-called Cracolandia.

“Open arms” no more

Far from being the lawless desperate place of Doria’s imagination, Cracolândia was, until recently, home to one of Latin America’s most innovative social inclusion initiatives. Launched in 2014 by the progressive former mayor Fernando Haddad, Programa de Braços Abertos (Open Arms Programme) offered housing, meals, part-time work, social services and health care to the area’s homeless drug users.

On the 2016 campaign trail, Doria committed to shutting the program down, which (despite contradictory scientific and human evidence, he called “not a good programme for the city”.

With the now-terminated Open Arms Programme, people in ‘Cracolândia’ had access to social workers, health care, jobs, training and other city services. Sebastian Liste/Noor for the Open Society Foundations

On May 21, he partially fulfilled that promise. Armed with maps and photos of the facades, city officials emptied out and demolished local “hotels” and pensions, evicting entire families, offering no alternative housing or childcare.

Hours later, the mayor took to the airwaves to declare the “end of Cracolândia”.

Then, on June 26, his administration released its plan for what comes next: Project Redemption, an abstinence-based programme co-administered with São Paulo State that, while still short on details, seems to focus on involuntary detox of drug users in so-called “therapeutic communities”.

The proposal of forced hospitalisation has been dubbed “barbarism” by the Federal Council of Psychology and repudiated by the State Council of Medicine and National Association of Judges.

The courts step in

The city’s main aim seems to be not support for the city’s most marginalised residents but clearing them out so that this prime downtown swath of São Paulo can be redeveloped.

The newly issued Project Redemption guidelines include a prominent “revitalisation” section, which promises to “promote urban recuperation in the region”, including rehabbing old buildings and increasing population density.

Some 600 homeless drug users remain in the area, the mayor’s office recently announced, while the other 1,200 have simply scattered across São Paulo.

Those who have reconvened at Princess Isabel Square, two blocks away, have been subject to yet further police operations, in which officer poured cold water on people and burned down their shacks.

Doria’s social assistance secretary says he even paid a bus ticket for a homeless man to go back to his home state of Maranhão, 3,000 km away, out of his own pocket.

In Brazil, the Constitution, as well as federal, state and municipal laws, include strong housing protections, and the São Paulo Public Defender’s and Public Prosecutor’s offices have questioned whether such actions violate residents’ rights.

Drug users arguing with police during the June 11 raid. Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

Undeterred, the city has continued to eradicate the area’s hotels, cafeterias, and pensions. At least three buildings were demolished and many others emptied and locked; residents of a neighbouring structure were wounded when it collapsed.

For now, the courts have imposed a moratorium on compulsory evictions and demolitions in Cracolândia, asserting that by law households must be previously notified, registered and provided shelter.

Renewal for whom?

Since the 1990s, numerous city and state leaders have sought the right formula for “revitalising” Cracolândia.

Strategies have ranged from turning a former railway station into a concert hall to, in 2012, advancing the ambitious Nova Luz redevelopment project, which would have overhauled nearly 40 hectares of a formerly elite residential area.

Since the 1950s, the elegant 19th-century centre city neighbourhoods of Luz and Santa Efigênia have become working class, with commerce in electronics and the auto parts trade as well as few abandoned buildings now occupied by squatters from Brazil’s powerful housing movement. The area is also home to poor families who’ve lived there for decades, small businesses, cheap hotels, tenements, decrepit pensions and, of course, Cracolândia.

Squatters have reclaimed many vacant buildings in Luz, once an elegant residential area. Patricia Samora, Author provided

After the yellow line of the metro opened in May 2010, connecting Luz to the commercial and financial centre of Faria Lima Avenue, property values in the neighbourhood appreciated markedly.

But even in São Paulo’s hot real estate market, developers did not jump at the opportunity to replace the centuries-old degraded buildings with modern highrises, as they had in other urban frontiers. Many of the most coveted blocks present costly and time-consuming legal barriers to redevelopment.

In 2011, Mayor Gilberto Kassab almost succeeded issuing a concession to a private developer to evict residents, demolish buildings and oust merchants from some 40 blocks, claiming them for public use (akin to what American law calls eminent domain).

Small buildings slated for demolition. Patricia Samora

Accompanying that revitalisation effort was Operation Smother, a series of violent police crackdowns on Cracolândia. The strategy, then as now, was to detain drug users, force them into treatment, demolish and rebuild.

By early 2013, the courts had stepped in, and Mayor Fernando Haddad abandoned the inherited project. In its place, he launched the pioneering Open Arms Programme.

Today, with renewed energy from Mayor Doria, redevelopment is again top priority. The plan to raze at least two blocks of Luz to implement a mixed-use housing and commerce development looks similar to Nova Luz. But it includes more affordable housing units developed through public-private partnerships, which urban planners caution will spur gentrification.

Doria used a different legal tool this time, too. “Administrative requisition” allows properties that present “imminent public danger” to be seized and destroyed.

Homeless drug users did not just disappear after the raids, they simply relocated. Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

The courts have now suspended this process, with the Prosecutor’s Office insisting that the mayor adhere to the São Paulo master plan’s requirement that residents and merchants sign off on all projects that impact them.

Doria, a multi-millionare political outsider, ran for mayor promising to shake things up in São Paulo. That much he has done. Isr displacing thousands to appease the unrelenting forces of real estate what voters had in mind?