Sao Paulo’s elevated highway known as the ‘Big Worm’ must go, urban planners say

October 15, 2011

It’s called the Big Worm — a 2.2 mile-long elevated highway that wiggles through the center of South America’s largest city, curving beside bedroom windows of once-elegant art deco buildings and carrying 80,000 noisy vehicles through a wide swath of cityscape each day.

Urban planners say that the 40-year-old concrete monster has no place in Sao Paulo and that flattening it should be on the city’s to-do list if this sprawling metropolis is to modernize. This city, Brazil’s economic heart, has to revamp the kind of out-of-date infrastructure embodied by the Worm, those planners say, if Brazil is to maintain the strong growth that has transformed the economy into one of the world’s most vibrant.

“Demolish it!” said Pedro Taddei Neto, an architect and urban planning expert from the University of Sao Paulo. “The developed world is demolishing structures like this. We have to follow their lead.”

At a recent conference on Sao Paulo’s future, urban planners from New York, Singapore, Barcelona and China told their Brazilian counterparts that the city needs a makeover. That means expanding the subway, carving out underground highways, adding parks, revamping airports and razing elevated highways such as the Worm.

“There is a great urban diamond to discover, to develop,” said Alfonso Vegara, among the designers of modern Barcelona. But he cautioned: Such a complex and expensive undertaking would not be easy in a metropolitan area of 3,000 square miles.

The only way to succeed, said Robert Yaro of New York’s Regional Plan Association, is to think big and stay the course, for decades if needed. “This is not for the impatient,” he counseled.

Sao Paulo planners nodded in agreement — and it is easy to see why.

This may be a cosmopolitan, vibrant, rich city, as demonstrated by its thousands of skyscrapers and the helicopters ferrying executives across town. But it is also a mess. A thousand new cars are introduced to traffic-choked streets each day. The subway system has roughly 60 stations and 50 miles of track; New York’s has 468 stations and more than 800 miles of track. Business travelers rate Sao Paulo’s international airport the worst on the continent.

A race to build big

Like mega-cities the world over, Sao Paulo became a victim of poor planning and its own success. Its population has soared from barely 2 million in 1950 to nearly 11 million today, as the city and its industrial suburbs became the manufacturing center of a largely urbanized country. About 20 million people live in the metropolitan area.

In a race to build big and build fast, Sao Paulo paved over parks and built highways now considered poorly conceived. That included the Presidente Artur da Costa e Silva elevated highway, which soon became known as the Minhocao, a giant mythical worm that was said to inhabit the jungle and swallow up whatever it came across.

The Worm immediately provided an important corridor for traffic once it was completed in 1971. It also carved across venerable Avenida Sao Joao, a once-stylish thoroughfare that had been lined with parks, cafes and landmark apartment houses.

“In the '30s, it was like belle epoque,” said Paulo Pastorelo, 32, who, with Maira Buhler and Joao Sodre, directed a documentary about the Worm.

In the film, called “Elevado 3.5,” a reference to the expressway’s length in kilometers, the filmmakers use vintage footage to show what had once been a vibrant residential neighborhood. Those clips are juxtaposed with today’s reality, a gritty stretch of secondhand shops and dingy diners. Many of those who live nearby are elderly struggling pensioners. At night, prostitutes, crack dealers and the homeless gather under the Worm.

“This was a garden, a garden that you could stroll through,” said Luiz Solazzi, who has sold eyeglasses and clocks from the same storefront since 1960. “After the Worm, it got a lot worse.”

A love-hate relationship

Anne Marie Sumner, an architect and urban planner who has proposed ambitious projects to Sao Paulo officials, said elevated expressways are a thing of the past.

“You can’t face-lift the Worm. There are certain things there is no face-lifting to it,” Sumner said. “You have to pull it down.”

Sumner and a group of architects have proposed remaking Avenida Sao Joao into a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare, one open to the sun. “You can’t have someone living at three meters [10 feet] of chockablock traffic, fumes,” Sumner said. “I mean, you can’t. That’s not reasonable.”

The city’s secretary of urban development, Miguel Luiz Bucalem, said the Worm cannot go unless other major transportation routes, such as a proposed underground expressway, have been built to replace it.

“What we feel very strongly,” Bucalem said, “is that the Elevado has had a very bad impact in its vicinity for so many years.”

Few would agree more than Roberto Silva, 59, whose only window is just 10 yards from traffic whizzing by at 50 mph.

“The noise is hellish,” Silva said, adding that after a day of traffic, his room is covered in dust.

Silva’s home was once a bathroom. Now it is a 3-by-7-foot studio, barely big enough to hold his bed. It is a sign of the hard lives of those along the Worm, he said.

Still, after 40 years, many of the Worm’s neighbors have something of a love-hate relationship with the omnipresent expressway.

“People hate it, because it’s noisy and dirty and they can’t keep their window opened,” said Buhler, the documentary director. “But at the same time, they love it, because it’s their place in the city, the place where they raise their families, they spread their values, they buy their food.”

Every day, Neide Batochio, 72, opens her window facing the Worm and sits at a century-old Singer to sew, passing the time singing Italian ballads and watching the traffic.

“For me, this is part of my life; it does not bother me, really,” said Batochio, who has lived in her home for 50 years. For her, the din symbolizes all she loves about the vitality of Sao Paulo.

“Without the Elevado,” she said, “the quality of life would be very bad.”

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