One of the things that most fascinates me about favelas are the wandering, uneven, narrow staircases that hold the buildings together, like twisted spines winding up the hillsides. Reminiscent, in use, of the front stoops of Chicago’s Brownstones or the steps of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, they are a place to gather, to gossip, a place for kids to play, stadium seating for street games and barbecues.
The staircases of favelas are a part of the street, a part of street life. Often, when someone opens their front or side door to yell for a neighbor they are yelling across a set of steps. Abundant in supply they are a collective space that is disappearing in the formal city.
In our high rise apartments the stairs are tucked away, formalized, a place for circulation in case of fire. Like so many planned spaces their function is predetermined and singular. There is no room for appropriation, for creativity, for inhabitance or for multiple and changing uses. The stairs of favelas are a living history, carved into space. If you ask long term residents about particular stairways they can often tell you who built them, how slick the former earth steps were when it rained, what the weather was like the day they were built, who has fallen down them, and the difference they have made in their particular location.
Like all stairs, those of favelas are built first because of the obvious necessity to ascend a steep incline. But this utilitarianism quickly becomes poetry as cloths lines are mounted and benches are squeezed in. It is this expansion, this local control and authority over collective space, this undefined and decidedly multiuse space that I most miss in our strictly defined business|commerce|residential districts.
Living in São Paulo, a city filled with contradictions, I spend just as much time in the highly formalized new business districts as in peripheral neighborhoods. For three hours between classes, with a book and a packed lunch, I wander the neat sidewalks of the “mixed” residential|business district of Itam Bibi. Where are the steps? I just want to read in public without having to pay R$5.00 for a coffee. This discontent and discomfort with gated glass high-rises, sidewalks without benches, and a looming sense that I am a place that is nowhere or perhaps everywhere is heightened by my time spent in favelas. This notion of steps (or lack their of) is a simple metaphor for how we understand and live in our cities. Where do opportunities to collectively intervene exist? What does an un-planned collective space look like when compared to a planned one? What are the values of spontaneity? Where is the poetry in public space?