Over 1,000-armed guards patrol its grounds and helicopters are a common sight.
A military fort comes to mind, but the inhabitants of this guarded complex are in fact middle and upper-class families. Helicopter traffic peaks when businessmen take their daily 14-mile commute to work. Welcome to Alphaville—a gated community of over 20,000 residences in the suburbs of São Paulo.
Over 2,300 businesses and 11 schools currently call Alphaville home. Modern sports clubs, entertainment venues, and restaurants glisten in the hot Brazilian sun, all behind tightly guarded security walls. The community also has an independent infrastructure, including a water treatment facility and telephone lines. Alphaville represents a safe zone for affluent residents in São Paulo—a way to avoid the crime and poverty that plagues many neighboring areas.
The company that built Alphaville—known as Alphaville Urbanismo—has recently built similar developments in other parts of Brazil, most of which are located around São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Yet these gated communities are a relatively new phenomenon—an idea that has its roots in the evolving crime, government policies, and social classes of Brazil.
As late as the 1930s, the city centers of Brazil were a seamless blend of poor tenements and luxurious housing—as government policies prevented the formation of favelas. Yet overcrowding created a housing crisis in the 1940s and the urban poor were forced to erect shantytowns (the birth of favelas) in the city center. While the urban poor were marginalized and received little government assistance, they initially maintained direct access to employment and public transportation in the urban core.
The following decades saw favelas in urban Brazil succumb to cholera and other diseases. The government responded with a sum clearance program that was partly responsible for pushing the poor into peripheral areas. White immigration from Europe created an increased demand for city housing along the water, which further stimulated the exodus of poor residents from downtown areas.
By the 1960s, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was fully cooperating with Brazil’s National Housing Bank (BNH)—in the form of loan support for resettlement programs. In the initial period of the BNH, from 1965-97, approximately 66.5% of the annual budget was devoted to low-income housing. The favelas of Rio de Janeiro were effectively moved to the northern and western suburbs.
Instead of providing vast housing projects for the relocated urban poor, the resettlement program stimulated middle and upper-class residential housing construction in the newly vacated areas. By 1975, only 3% of BNH’s investment budget was allocated towards low-income housing, which constituted 80% of the country’s population. The BNH was entrusted with the ultimate goal of developing low-income housing, while in reality the program opened up more areas for investors and construction projects.
These policies in Brazil stimulated a separation of social classes that was a direct result of government intervention. By the 1980s, a large majority of the lower class—who were previously allowed to construct favelas in the urban core—had been forced out of the downtown areas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Yet many areas still open to poor residents were close to the newly constructed high-rise office developments in the city centers. To make matters worse, the industrial boom in Brazil drew many poor rural Brazilians into a life of urban misery in the crowded slums of both major cities. Social problems and crime—centered on the lower class—increased in urban Brazil as the contrasts between the rich and poor grew more evident and population densities continued to surge. The favelas of Brazil became hotbeds for gangs dealing in drugs and arms.
Around the turn of the millennium, Brazil’s richest 10 percent controlled more than 50 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 10 percent controlled less than 1 percent. In a country full of social inequity and poverty, the murder rates of São Paulo (69 per 100,000 people in 1999) and Rio de Janeiro (63 per 100,000 people in 2002) peaked at levels that were much worse than New York City had ever recorded. The United Nations ranked Jardim Angela—a district in São Paulo—as the most violent neighborhood in the world.
The most alarming increase in crime was the abductions of affluent businessmen or their families, with ransom notes that often included dismembered body parts and eventual death. The cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro lived in fear. During this time the number of residents living in gated communities doubled to over 1 million. Ironically, affluent residents chose to relocate next to their poorer counterparts in the suburbs, albeit with security fences and armed guards.
A gun buyback program and stricter weapon laws implemented in 2003 took over 500,000 weapons off of the street. In the following year, Brazil’s overall murder rate decreased noticeably. By 2007, the murder rates in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro had dropped to 17.4 and 35.7 per 100,000 people, respectively. While still high by global standards, much of Brazil’s violence has shifted to less populated areas in the remote northeastern regions.
Regardless of the decreased murder rate, the gated communities of suburban Brazil are here to stay. The security industry in Brazil is now a staggering $2 billion a year enterprise. In 2008 alone, more than 7,000 vehicles were armored for civilian use. While murder rates are down significantly, the threat of kidnapping and armed robbery remains high. Affluent families are choosing a sequestered lifestyle in suburbia, within sight of poor favelas—but in reality light years away in terms of social status and mobility.
Back in Alphaville, visitors are recorded by cameras at a security checkpoint. “TV Alphaville” records maids going home for the evening, but not before they are patted down and searched for stolen items and contraband. A popular Brazilian soap opera advertises Alphaville, painting a life of safety and freedom that closely resembles idyllic suburban communities in the United States.
Those with views over the security walls—especially during a helicopter commute—can see poor favelas stretching for miles into the distance. The land of the haves and have-nots located side by side in suburban Brazil.