“Asphalt Has Today Covered Our Ground”: Planning Racial Infrastructures in São Paulo, 1960s–70s

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 11:10 AM
Flatiron (Sheraton New York)
Andrew Britt, University of North Carolina School of the Arts
By the early 1980s the popular perception of São Paulo as an ethnically-immigrant, nonblack metropolis had achieved an unparalleled material reality. In the preceding decade, local business owners had partnered with municipal officials to remake two center-city neighborhoods, Liberdade and Bexiga, into recognizably “Japanese” and “Italian” places. Their projects to transform the local built environment included cherry blossom lanterns, Samurai-themed sidewalks, and lampposts shrouded in the Italian flag. Most locals explain the racialized/ethnicized identities of these places (long categorized in academic literature as “ethnic enclaves”) by pointing to the settlement of immigrants and their descendants. At no point in the twentieth century, however, did Italian- or Japanese-descendants constitute a majority of these neighborhoods’ populations. Through the mid-twentieth century, in fact, Liberdade and Bexiga had exceptionally-high concentrations of nonwhite populations and uniquely-sacred spaces linked to slavery, abolition, and black self-determination. An ambitious mid-century redevelopment project centered on asphalted avenues literally and figuratively paved the way for the remaking of Liberdade and Bexiga as material spaces and racialized/ethnicized place-based identities.

In this paper I foreground the pivotal role played by asphalt in the planning and production of three of São Paulo’s most prominent racialized/ethnicized neighborhoods. An array of individuals imbued this seemingly-mundane material with meanings far beyond its practical utility. The composer of the lyric in the samba from the title, for instance, represented asphalt as the substance by which Bexiga was simultaneously whitened and made “Italian.” The racialized/ethnicized significance of paved streets, I show, extended to other multiethnic, racially-stratified urban contexts, where the substance has served to undergird social and spatial difference in what I term a city’s racial infrastructure.

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