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Finding Relief in the World's Most Congested City: A Sunday Afternoon on São Paulo's Minhocão

Scenes from a highway reclaimed by the city's pedestrians and cyclists.

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Sam Wolson

São Paulo's population is the largest of any city in Brazil, the Americas, and the Southern Hemisphere; there are more people living in São Paulo than in New York City, Mexico City, or Lagos. It will thus not come as a surprise that São Paulo has been named the most congested city in the world and that Paulistas, the 20 million people living in São Paulo's metropolitan area, give in to the worst traffic jams on the planet, every single day. But there is one place in the city where, once a week, cars are strictly prohibited, a place reclaimed every Sunday by the city's pedestrians, cyclists and soccer kids: the elevated highway in the city center, known as Minhocão.

Upon its completion in 1970, the highway was officially named Via Elevada Presidente Artur da Costa e Silva after the second president of Brazil, who was in power during the military regime in the 1960s. But among Paulistas, the highway is only known as Minhocão, meaning "earthworm" in Portuguese. The Minhocão, an 80-feet long, Loch Ness-like creature, has been said to slither through the forests of South America since the 19th century. According to legend, its shimmery black body digs through forest soil until, when hungry, the tentacle-decorated head emerges to devour whatever it finds, animal or human.

In the same way that the forest creature supposedly causes houses and entire roads to collapse when its massive body digs by, São Paulo's Minhocão destroyed beautiful structures in the city's center during its construction. In the 1960s, São Paulo was a modest city of two to three million inhabitants, but traffic was an issue even then. Then-mayor Paulo Maluf suggested a corridor of traffic that would literally lift the problem: an elevated highway. In 1969, it was the biggest project of reinforced concrete in all of Latin America.

Since the very day of its inauguration, however, São Paulo's urban development experts have been contemplating taking the structure down. During the week, with a daily load of over 80,000 vehicles, the highway presents a perfect example of the city's outdated infrastructure—massive, old and harmful to its surroundings. But when you come on a Sunday, this 2.2-miles long concrete structure winding through forgotten boulevards and pixações-sprinkled apartment buildings (including the infamous wavy Edificio Copan) becomes a rare public space in an overcrowded city. 

The Minhocão has been closing off to motor vehicles on Sundays and holidays since 1976, and Paulistas know how to take advantage of this valuable urban space available to them every now and then. Whether soccer player, weekend cyclist, enthusiastic jogger, ambitious musician, urban dweller or lounging youngster, the Minhocão is the place to be on a Sunday. It is the kind of place where you ride your public bike from one of the UseBike stops across the city to meet some friends, people-watch and have a picnic on top of the concrete divide between two highway lanes.

As you munch on some olives, you observe a family of three walk by, the father holding a kite far too long for their 5-year old son. When the kite flies high above the buildings, father, mother, son stand on the edge of the highway, holding on to the railing, and observe its elegant dives. The highway is framed by high rise buildings with fresh laundry or a Brazilian flag occasionally dangling out of a Plexiglas window. Patches of old grass infested with cigarette buds peek through the concrete road, and graffitied lamp posts lead the way from one end of the Minhocão to the other.

Dogs are the secret protagonists on a Minhocão Sunday. One merrily bounces towards a homeless woman who snoozes in the shade of an awkwardly bent lamp post. The dog's owner is slow to follow. Before she knows it, the dog licks the sleeping woman's big toe. The owner, shocked and embarrassed, chastens her dog. But the sleeping woman simply awakes and pets the dog. Other dogs handsomely jog along with their owners, while still others stretch out full-length on the warm concrete, entirely oblivious to the highway's true week-day purpose.

The Minhocão also has its regulars. Among them, a bare-chested twenty-something year old with a huge afro who wanders for hours, shifting his glance from one person to the next. Ice-cream and coconut water sellers readily replenish exhausted kids who either try to or have already mastered all there is to soccer balls, bikes, and tricks.

As dusk starts settling, and the last drops of sweet, colored Popsicle water have run down children's fingers and dripped onto the asphalt below them, the jungle of buildings is drowned in the pink sky of the city's indigested pollution. A TV light flickers through a window and the rubbish bins are filled to the rim. 

An architectural mess (maybe) and a sound pollutant (absolutely), the Minhocão each Sunday transforms into a public space in the true sense of its definition: a social space—accessible, free of charge and open to all.

All photos by Sam Wolson

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