The coffee boom that led to the dismantling of São Paulo’s colonial buildings provided little in terms of lasting replacements. In the city’s first industrial suburbs, towering brick chimneys are still to be seen, but generally the areas are now dominated by small workshops and low-income housing, and even in the city centre there are very few buildings of note, most of the area being given over to unremarkable shops and offices.
About 1km to the northeast of São Bento, at Rua da Cantareira 306, you’ll find the Mercado Municipal, an imposing, vaguely German neo-Gothic hall, completed in 1933. Apart from the phenomenal display of Brazilian and imported fruit, vegetables, cheese and other produce, the market is most noted for its enormous stained-glass windows depicting scenes of cattle raising, market gardening and coffee and banana plantations. Traditionally, Brazilians eat pastel de bacalhau – a salt fish and potato pie – here. If that doesn’t sound very appetizing, then head up to the mezzanine, where a range of patio restaurants make up a food court that is considerably more colourful and authentic than the kind you find in shopping malls.
Memorial do Imigrante
Memorial do Imigrante
East of the Mercado Municipal, the run-down neighbourhood of Brás would have little to offer if it wasn’t for the superb Memorial do Imigrante at Rua Visconde de Paraíba 1316. The hostel buildings house an immigration research centre, a basic café and one of the best museums in São Paulo.
The museum has a permanent collection of period furniture, documents and photographs, and regularly mounts temporary exhibits relating to individual immigrant nationalities. The main building itself is the most interesting feature of the complex, however, with vast dormitories and its own rail siding and platform that were used for unloading immigrants and their baggage. Near the entrance, a separate building contained the rooms where new arrivals met their prospective employers; the government provided interpreters to help the immigrants make sense of work contracts. Designed to hold four thousand people, the hostel housed as many as ten thousand at times, with immigrants being treated little better than cattle. In its early years, the place was a virtual prison. The exit ticket was securing a contract of employment and control of potential plantation-workers was considered necessary, since few people actually wanted to work in the fields and there was a large labour leakage to the city of São Paulo itself. The last immigrants were processed here in 1978.
Although the museum is only a five-minute walk from Brás metrô station, it is next door to a hostel for homeless men and you may feel uncomfortable walking in the area. As taxis are rarely available outside the metrô station, try to reassure yourself any dangers are more imagined than real. On weekends and holidays you have more interesting transport options: either a wonderful nineteenth-century train that connects the complex with Brás and Moóca stations or a tram that runs between the front entrance and Bresser metrô station (both R$5).