Taming ‘the worm’: how the Minhoco is So Paulo’s soul

On weekdays residents who live within feet of this folly of Brazils military dictatorship must put up with pollution and a constant roar but at other times cars are banned. In a city short on public space, the people take control

I remember when our street had trees on it. It was so nice, says 91-year-old Elca Cartum as she sits in her living room, just feet away from the incessant stream of cars and trucks on the elevated highway that passes right outside her window.

Elca has been living on the third floor since 1959. First they widened the street and planted trees to make a boulevard, she recalls. Then in the late 60s Brazils military dictatorship decided So Paulo needed an elevated highway to help link the east and west of the rapidly growing city.

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  • Amaral Gurgel Street the route of the future Minhoco in 1969. Resident Elca Cartum says the street was lined with trees before construction started. Images: Douglas Nacimento/So Paulo Antiga
Minhocao 1954 showing where the road went. Images: Douglas Nacimento/So Paulo Antiga
  • Before and after: Downtown So Paulo in 1954. Click the image to see where the highway was built. Images: Douglas Nacimento/So Paulo Antiga

So began the largest construction project in South America at the time. The result was the Elevado Presidente Costa e Silva, named after a key figure in the military government. Although it has since been renamed after pre-coup president Joo Goulart, everyone knows it as the Minhoco anyway after a giant mythical worm which roams the forests of South and Central America.

As soon as they built it many of our neighbours moved away, Elca recalls, but her husband wanted to stay near his dental surgery downtown, and the children were settled at school. Once most of them had left it was too late for us. The price had fallen too far and we couldnt make up the difference if we moved anywhere else. It was a sad time.

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  • The Minhoco in the 1970s. Advertising billboards have since been banned from So Paulo. Photograph: Douglas Nascimento/So Paulo Antiga

At some points the highway passes just eight feet away from the graffitied apartment blocks and offices that surround it. It had an immediate impact on the once vibrant neighbourhood around Amaral Gurgel Street and So Joo, which used to be known as So Paulos Fifth Avenue.

Property prices plummeted and businesses closed down. Some hold the Minhoco responsible for the decline of the citys downtown, and ultimately the creation of areas such as the drug free-for-all of Cracolndia.

Yet to be published research from the Laboratory of Experimental Atmospheric Pollution at the University of So Paulo shows people living nearby are exposed to 79% more PM2.5 fine particulate air pollution than the rest of the city.

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  • Concrete city the Minhoco from Felipe Rodriguess 13th floor apartment. Photograph: Felipe SS Rodrigues

The high number of crashes and complaints of noise prompted the authorities to shut it to cars from midnight to 5am in 1976, just six years after the Minhoco opened.

Decades before New Yorks High Line, a 1987 plan by architect Pitango do Amparo to recycle it into an urban park was killed by bureaucracy says Felipe Rodrigues of the Minhoco Park Association. But from 1989 the night ban was extended to cover 9.30pm to 6am, and the following year the road was closed to motor traffic on Sundays.

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  • On Saturday afternoons and Sundays the Minhoco is closed to cars and open to people. Oscar Niemeyers Copan building can be seen on the horizon (righthand image). Photographs: Felipe SS Rodrigues

In a city sorely lacking in public space the people soon took control, and on Sundays and evenings the Minhoco becomes somewhere to meet neighbours, chat and play.

Cycling the 2.2 miles of highway last weekend I saw joggers and children playing football, people walking dogs and others smoking in the shade of buildings. There are coconut water salesmen and dance parties, theatre groups and Buda the skateboarding bulldog.

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  • The people on top at weekends at least. Photograph: Felipe SS Rodrigues

The previous mayor of So Paulo, Fernando Haddad, closed the Minhoco to cars on Saturday afternoons too. The city is currently discussing a proposal to shut it all weekend, as well as from 8pm to 7am on weekdays.

The citys latest 15-year masterplan, passed by Haddad, says the Minhoco will be deactivated closed to the 80,000 cars a day that use it but does not specify what will happen to the road. Some want to see it repurposed as an urban park; others want to see it torn down.

Current mayor Joo Doria has spoken of turning it into a green corridor, along the lines of a plan proposed by Jamie Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba. The Minhoco Park Association says Doria told them he wants to construct more vertical gardens and plant borders and flowerbeds but says he is also considering keeping the highway open to traffic on weekdays. Any works are likely to be sponsored by a private company.

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  • A swimming pool was temporarily installed on the Minhoco in 2014. Photographs: Rahel Patrasso/Xinhua/Alamy

Architect Felipe Rodrigues lives on the 13th floor of a block a few metres from the Minhoco. We cant just erase the mistakes we made in the past, he says. If they do tear it down itll just become a regular busy road because theyre not going to close all the cross roads, so I think it should be a park.

After the High Line people are worried about gentrification, but I think we can avoid that if we move little by little. These buildings from the 1950s dont have any communal space the only public space we have is the Minhoco.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/dec/01/taming-worm-minhocao-elevated-highway-sao-paulo

Author: Billy Roland

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