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Bright Lights, Dark City

Sao Paulo sunset
photo by David Dennis

At 10 p.m. on a weeknight, the lights of Sao Paulo’s Vila Olimpia shopping mall are blindingly bright.

I was there two months ago with my colleagues Shomari Hearn and ReKeithen Miller. We spent a week in Brazil on one of our periodic visits to see clients and contacts in the Southern Hemisphere’s largest metropolis and in the surrounding Sao Paulo state.

On previous trips we had stayed in the city’s financial district along the Avenida Paulista and in the old-money Jardims (Gardens) district nearby, where most of the global luxury hotel brands are concentrated. But this excursion brought us to Vila Olimpia, an up-and-coming neighborhood of brand-new office towers, all of which come with helipads to spare Brazil’s business elite the traffic nightmares and security risks on the streets below. After an afternoon of watching choppers flit among the high-rises, my companions and I decided to check out the shops and restaurants at the glitzy mall.

Brazilians operate on a different schedule than we Americans are used to. At home I am usually finished with dinner by 8 p.m., and that is because I am typically at my office until 7. In Brazil I find myself having my after-dinner coffee around 10 or 11 o’clock, which is just about the time most restaurants begin to get busy. The street-level cafes in Sao Paulo are packed well past midnight every night. But the Vila Olimpia shopping center closes at the ridiculously early hour (by local restaurant standards) of 11 p.m., so our early-bird special did not immediately brand the three of us as foreigners. (My limited Portuguese vocabulary, atrocious grammar and brutal pronunciation took care of that.)

The mall was full of high-end local and international luxury shops. It had a state-of-the-art cinema and, interestingly, a long line of people outside an exhibit hall waiting to enter a traveling fair for HBO’s hit fantasy series, “Game of Thrones.” We ate dinner at a French restaurant. You can get any kind of cuisine in Sao Paulo. The restaurant fare is almost unvaryingly good - and unvaryingly expensive.

But what sticks out in my mind is the light. It seemed as if the mall’s designers decided that nothing less than 10 million candlepower would do. The brilliance was all the more striking because, in Sao Paulo as elsewhere in Brazil, the nights are dark. Very dark. Much darker than the nights in North America.

Night is night, of course, but in Brazil most of the houses and streets seem to have very little light. The next evening, as our taxi crept through traffic for more than two hours to get us to the airport, we passed through poor and working-class neighborhoods where the apartment windows were only dimly lit by a few bulbs. The street lamps in those areas are sparse and feeble; the small local laundromats and grocery stores operate on just a few undernourished fluorescents. On other trips, I have traversed rural towns that appear almost uninhabited when seen after dark - but I know people live there, because during afternoon drives in the opposite direction I have observed the residents on the streets or sitting near the windows of their tiny houses.

I was surprised when massive demonstrations broke out across Brazil earlier this month. Nearly everyone was surprised, including the organizers of the demonstrations - which began over a small increase in bus fares - and the administration of President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist activist herself. After a heavy-handed initial police response, the protests quickly morphed into a rebellion against official violence, government corruption, decrepit public services and promiscuous spending on prestige projects such as the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.

At first blush, it seems hard to reconcile the patient, optimistic, non-materialistic Brazilian character with the protesters’ amorphous demands. Brazilians are typically proud of their country and proud of its emergence as an important economic power, a vastly productive source of things everyone wants and needs, from sugar to iron to paper. Or so we thought. Just a few years ago, there were street celebrations when Brazil was awarded the World Cup and the Olympics. Now people are protesting. Why the change of heart?

My guess is that it has a lot to do with expectations. Some 40 million Brazilians have moved from poverty to at least the lower rungs of the middle class in the past decade. Unemployment is low. Consumer credit has expanded, allowing millions to buy their first washing machines, their first cars. (Stores serving less-affluent clientele in particular are still apt to offer payments spread over 12 months, interest-free, because patrons often lack credit elsewhere.)

But the streets remain dark. The quality of health care and education is often poor. Anything imported costs a fortune. Taxes, when paid, are exorbitant, but enforcement is uneven. Crime festers on a scale unknown here in the States. Here, we have the rare home invasion; in Brazil, invaders have been known to take over entire apartment buildings, going door to door to rob dozens of occupants.

Rising prosperity has enabled many Brazilians to travel abroad. They marvel at how residents of New York or Miami Beach leave their homes late at night, unconcerned about getting back safely. Even Brazilians who have never left their country can see how the rest of the affluent world lives, on television and online.

Expectations have risen, and rising expectations tend to breed discontent when they are not met quickly. We have seen it here. U.S. cities exploded in riots in the 1960s and ‘70s, after the civil rights movement brought political reforms without substantially changing the way people actually lived.

I imagine it is maddening to sit in Sao Paulo’s worst-in-the-West traffic day after day, looking up at tycoons and politicians soaring overhead in their helicopters while fares rise for a ride on an overloaded bus.

It is hard to pin down exactly what Brazil’s demonstrators want. They want a lot of things, many of which cannot be delivered quickly. Yet I suspect that, for many, it might be soothing just to have somebody in authority care enough to install a few lights.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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