I waited a bit to publish this blog; I wanted to be sure that it wasn’t simply newcomer’s reaction, but was actually a profound condition here.
My friend Gussie assures me that compared to the streets of El Salvador, the streets of Sao Paulo are pristine. That can’t be the best endorsement of El Salvador.
Paulistas are fastidious about their clothing and their homes, but somehow (likely due to the rapid escalation in population without a corresponding increase in public funds), that fastidiousness has not translated onto the public streets.
Garbage can be seen everywhere you look, from sidewalks to gutters to hillsides to empty lots to enormous construction bins that never seem to be emptied. It’s a city of 24 million. There’s going to be trash.
Monday and Friday nights in our neighborhood are especially awful, as every condominium and business empties its trash into the public bins in the street, waiting for the trash trucks to come by and cart away the bags and bags of garbage. While the bags sit on the street, there are people who (I must admit, do this very delicately) trawl through the bags, removing those items that appeal to them.
It strikes me that the infrastructure of the city has grown much more slowly than has the population, and the antiquated system of the past cannot keep up with the needs of the present. Many of the streets are simply not wide enough for American-style trash trucks. Here in our neighborhood, they use smaller trucks, with men hopping off to hand-toss the thousands of bagloads of trash into the back bin. One good thing is that they seem to sweep up what drops out of the bags, but not always.
Tom suspects that the trash trucks are privately owned, and that each building or neighborhood must make arrangements for pickup. That would explain why the trash problem is so much worse in the poorer neighborhoods, where there are no official streets between the buildings and where the populace certainly doesn’t have the money to pay for private pickup. No wonder so much trash is placed along the streets.
Additionally, there seems to be a mindset still that dismisses the idea that littering is bad for one’s health. Everywhere you look, there are trash bins strapped to light poles and trees. The farthest I ever walk is two blocks without a bin; but most places in the mainstream have a couple of them on every block.
Still, the ground is full of garbage, in bags placed alongside the road or at the base of trees, or just littering the sidewalk. People walk along and drop their trash, even when there’s a bin two steps away.
Every day, I look outside at the offramp just behind our condo property to see what sort of trash has been tossed the night before. One day it was office debris, complete with toner cartridges, empty boxes, and styrofoam packaging. Another day, it was old couch cushions. Today, it’s actually quite clean down there, just some construction clutter. Typically, it looks like a typhoon had swept through, depositing life’s debris along the way.
And there is a rash of dog owners in our area who simply refuse to pick up their animals’ droppings. Or, they pick them up and drop the bag right there. Honestly?
A different friend, hearing me comment on this problem of proliferating putridity, suggested that I think of Sao Paulo as a work in progress. That has helped to alter my opinion somewhat. Brazil has made great strides in the past two decades; I have to remember that.
I can’t help but think that many of those who have no jobs here would welcome the chance to make a living by keeping neighborhoods clean. In Arlington, VA, last year I saw clean-up crews in the Roslyn neighborhood who seemed to take great pride in their jobs. Sporting purple sweatshirts or bowling team-type shirts, they always smiled and chatted when I’d pass them and thank them for the job they were doing, telling them how nice it was to live in such a clutter-free neighborhood.
Here in our neighborhood now, we have two-person teams who stand at the stoplights, dropping a warning flag for cars and pedestrians when the light is red, and raising it when the light is green. (I question why we need flags when we have lights. But that’s beside the point.) If the city can pay for that, surely they can pay to have cleanup crews to support the city’s clean-up efforts. Two birds: employment and a cleaner city.
Our friend Miguel has seen changes in the two years that he’s been here, and says that when he comes back in ten years, he expects to be able to take a dinner cruise on the two rivers that run through the city, despite the fact that today they are open sewers that reek from miles away. Heck, if Paris can do it, then there’s always hope for Sao Paulo.
This could be a truly lovely city, especially with all the efforts they’re making in the posh neighborhoods. They just need to extend that vision to the public spaces, something they don’t yet do, preferring (I have it on good authority) to spend their money creating oases for private use, while allowing the city to stagnate. Perhaps that mentality will change some day soon.