Friday, 19 August 2011

City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo

This is an extraordinary treatment of a difficult problem. . . . Much more than a conventional comparative study, ”City of Walls is a genuinely transcultural, transnational work—the first of its kind that I have read."—George E. Marcus, author of "Ethnography Through Thick & Thin

"Caldeira's work is wonderfully ambitious-theoretically bold, ethnographically rich, historically specific. Anyone who cares about the condition and future of cities, of democracy, of human rights should read this book."—Thomas Bender, Director of the Project on Cities and Urban Knowledges

""City of Walls is a brilliant analysis of the dynamics of urban fear. The sophistication of Caldeira's arguments should stimulate new discussion of cities and urban life. Its significance goes far beyond the borders of Brazil."—Margaret Crawford, Professor of Urban Planning and Design Theory, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University

"Caldeira's insight illuminates the geography of the city as well as the boundaries—or the lack of boundaries—of violence."—Paul Chevigny, author of “Edge of the Knife: Police Violence in the Americas

”An extraordinary account of violence in the city. . . . Caldeira brings to this task a rare depth of knowledge and understanding."—Saskia Sassen, author of “Globalization and Its Discontents

”An outstanding contribution to understanding authoritarian continuity under political reform. Caldeira has written a brilliant and bleak analysis on the many challenges and obstacles which government and civil society face in new democracies."—Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Director of the Center for the Study of Violence, University of Sao Paulo and Member of the United Nations Sub-Commissionfor the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights
This is an extraordinary treatment of a difficult problem.... Much more than a conventional comparative study, City of Walls is a genuinely transcultural, transnational work.” - George Marcus, author of Ethnography Through Thick and Thin “Caldeira's work is wonderfully ambitious - theoretically bold, ethnographically rich, historically specific. Anyone who cares about the condition and future of cities, of democracy, of human rights, should read this book.” - Thomas Bender, Director of the Project on Cities and Urban Knowledges 

“City of Walls is a brilliant analysis of the dynamics of urban fear. The sophistication of Caldeira's arguments should stimulate new discussion of cities and urban life. Its significance goes far beyond the borders of Brazil.” - Margaret Crawford, Harvard University"

City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo, Teresa P. R. Caldeira. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2000. 487 pp., illustrations, maps,index. $24.95.

Reviewed by James P. Freeman, University of California at Berkeley in Urban Geography

“We live in ‘fortress cities’ brutally divided between ‘fortified cells’ of affluent society and places of terror where the police battle the criminalized poor,” writes Mike Davis in a description of contemporary Los Angeles (Davis 1992, 224). Teresa Caldeira, in her book City of Walls, tells us that the same can be said for São Paulo, except that it is even more descriptive. While planners and architects in Los Angeles have perfected the more or less subtle art of making the street an inhospitable place for anyone who has to do more than drive down it, the elite of Brazil’s largest city went further. They constructed “fortified enclaves”—residential, leisure and workspaces that are isolated from the city, using some of the same techniques described by Davis: walls, gates, surveillance cameras and private security guards. 

But in São Paulo the level of fear is much higher, and the insulation consequently more complete. In São Paulo the upper and middle classes all but abandoned the detached house, the dominant housing form in Los Angeles, for secure apartment complexes in the center and gated communities on the periphery. The newer gated communities, or condominios fechados, are often also high-rise and include office, retail and sports facilities so that occupants rarely need to venture out into the public space. When they do go outside the walls, the very rich do so in helicopters and bulletproofed cars with armed bodyguards and specially trained drivers. The middle classes largely shun walking on the streets or taking public transportation, and have gotten into the habit of not stopping their cars at red lights to avoid being attacked. 

And while the LAPD can be rough in enforcing class boundaries, São Paulo’s police routinely torture and execute suspected criminals with broad support from the population. Caldeira offers an interdisciplinary study of the physical and social structures that enable this sort of separation in São Paulo. She argues that ironically the building of walls has been in part a response to the democratization process following Brazil’s military dictatorship. In Brazil’s “disjunctive democracy”  citizenship rights have expanded in the political realm, but the public sphere of the street has contracted, as has respect for human rights. Caldeira first documents what she calls the “talk of crime,” through interviews with São Paulo residents from a range of neighborhoods.

This set of discourses serves to rework the experience of being a victim or potential victim of violent crime—an increasingly common experience—while at the same time reinforcing social barriers and enabling the extreme rejection of the public space. Then she uses statistics and secondary literature to show that public attitudes toward crime and criminals are in part a response to a dramatic rise in violent crime since the early 1980s and to the incompetence of the police and the criminal justice system. 

The third section of the book speaks most directly to urban geography. Here Caldeira documents a new pattern of segregation in São Paulo. Since the early 1980s the working classes have increasingly moved into the traditionally elite central  neighborhoods to live in tenements, while the wealthy have been moving to closed condominiums built in peripheral areas often adjacent to slums. Thus rich and poor are no longer entirely separated by distance, but instead are increasingly separated by high walls and elaborate security systems. Caldeira sees this arrangement as part of a larger trend in cities around the world. Historically the public space of the modern 
city was idealized as anonymous, open and egalitarian space where differences could be ignored, thus reinforcing the concept of citizenship. Today public space emphasizes boundaries and differences. 

The final section of the book explores a cultural dimension to the contradictions of Brazil’s disjunctive democracy. Caldeira argues that the building of walls and the lack of respect for certain kinds of citizenship rights” particularly individual human rights” may be related to a particular Brazilian conception of the body. For Caldeira the Brazilian body is an unbounded body that is constantly subject to intervention. This can be seen in the self-manipulation of the body, for example in plastic surgery, but also in the exercise of discipline and power. For the São Paulo residents Caldeira spoke to, physical punishment—particularly the infliction of pain—is the appropriate response to crime. She found wide support for the death penalty, which is illegal in Brazil, and for summary executions of suspects by the police. She also documents a strong anti human rights movement. People she spoke to saw the humane treatment of criminal suspects and of prison inmates as “privileges for bandits.” She sees the development of respect for individual rights as the next step in Brazil’s democratization process.

City of Walls will be a provocative read for urban geographers who have been looking for patterns of change across contemporary cities, particularly for those of us who have been trying to reconcile global city arguments with the experiences of cities beyond North America and Europe.

Caldeira makes a specific comparison between São Paulo and Los Angeles, possibility the most studied place in contemporary urban geography, and concludes that São Paulo can tell Los Angeles a lot about itself. São Paulo has borrowed certain urban forms from Los Angeles and taken them in a direction that may be the future of Los Angeles. But the comparison with Los Angeles also points up a weakness of the book. Most Los Angeles school urban geography is firmly grounded in a political economy analysis. Cultural and morphological changes in the city must be understood in the context of structural changes in the economy and policy decisions at various scales. Caldeira makes a nod in this direction, noting that the changes in São Paulo coincided with a decline in the industrial sector, a rise in tertiary activities and possibly the development of more flexible types of production like in Los Angeles “and other socalled global cities” (p. 250). But she leaves it there, without clarifying the role of global economic restructuring in conditioning the developments she observes. To her credit she seems to give more weight to the borrowing and adapting of urban forms, rather than to some automatic economic mechanism. Still, a comparison with Los Angeles in the context of the global cities literature should 
explicitly address economic causality. 

In general, causality is a bit slippery in this book. The author’s tendency is to downplay the role of material causality and emphasize the role of discourse, so that she comes close to arguing that the talk of crime causes crime rather than the other way around. Clearly the talk exacerbates the conflict and functions to restrict citizenship for the poor, but crime itself has deeper material roots than Caldeira lets on. And the building of physical and social walls is not an entirely irrational response 
to the very real dangers of São Paulo. Nevertheless this is an entertaining and stimulating book that takes on big questions about the city while at the same time providing rich detail about everyday life in one of Latin America’s most important cities. 


Davis, M., 1992, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York, NY: Vintage.