Lucio Kowarick (1938-2020) – II

Image: Adir Sodré


Commentary on the book by sociologist Lúcio Kowarick

live at risk is dedicated to describing and analyzing the vulnerabilities of the poor population of the largest Brazilian city. The result of a long trajectory of research and reflection, it constitutes a precious source of information, but also of questions that arise in each chapter, in which concepts and theoretical matrices are anchored that can and should be questioned, submitted to counterpoints, to the scrutiny of processes and the observed dynamics. They are frameworks of issues related to the heterogeneity of urban poverty, the vulnerable population, named and closely observed through situations of precarious housing – slums in the central area, self-built peripheries and slums.

Lúcio Kowarick, as is well known, has a unique place due to his long and fertile career in research and in the elucidation of Brazilian urban enigmas. It is not too much to remember, among other titles, São Paulo – 1975 growth and poverty; the urban dispossession ou urban writings, in which issues present in live at risk were already sketched. live at risk, however, brings a new panorama, resulting from ethnographic incursions whose findings are analyzed from approaches that allow a historical anchoring and a sociological vision built, including, from secondary statistical information. The three urban situations are scrutinized from different perspectives that, when intersected, allow the reader to build, with the help of Antonio Sagese's photographs, a very precise picture of what it means to “live at risk” in São Paulo today.

The book replaces two major readings of urban poverty and its vulnerabilities, after the end of wage societies constituted or imagined as a horizon to be achieved: the American discussion guided by individualization and the perspective of “blaming” the victims, more or less modulated by the debate between conservatives and liberals and, on the other hand, the French discussion around the responsibility of the State for the forms of “exclusion” and for its fight against what is identified as social fracture or disaffiliation.

Brazilian and São Paulo vulnerability, analyzed in the second chapter, is not closely linked to the North American or French matrix. It is framed by the effort to overcome a deficit of political democracy and by the long and persistent persistence of a deficit of civil and social rights.

Kowarick, seeking to characterize our specificity, traces the Brazilian debate back to the issue of “marginality” and its developments and articulations with the dependency theory, passing through criticisms and questions around the issues of the so-called “dependent development”, forms of exclusion and perverse and functional, unstable and precarious inclusion. A quote sets the tone for recovering these theoretical frameworks and their updates: “…if socialism has left the horizon of ideals and utopias and if, moreover, the idea of ​​revolution has lost its mobilizing force because, among other reasons such as Saturn, it has devoured its children, remains the vast gap that characterizes the apartheid society of our cities.”

Between the “defeat experiences” and the extermination mentality, the “avoidance” strategies, distrust and fear as structuring elements of sociability, Kowarick poses a question that draws dialogues and clashes: “what discourses and actions give content to the questions social issues of our urban reality around the issue of inequality and injustice?” Dissatisfied with the versions that explain this actuality from a kind of curse of origin essentialized in a ethos of sadness, cordiality, miscegenation and conciliation, it seeks answers and new challenges that bring to the forefront the ways of life of the population in situations of urban vulnerability, between permanence and transformations.

The first bundle of questions, itineraries and characters is drawn from the center of the city of São Paulo and its tenements. Urban nomads, wanderers from place to place, from job to job, from slum to slum, together with migrants who started families and settled a little more stably in tenement houses, the question of proximity which is the great characteristic of the living in the center is gaining clarity. Potentialities and vulnerabilities, urban policies shaped by different conceptions – which sometimes emphasize participation, sometimes delegation – and the photographs that capture flows and situations in the city allow the experience of its residents, captured in its history, in its sociological and ethnographic dimensions to take on body.

The outskirts are the subject of the following chapter, their constitution as a moment in the city's history and as a territorial conformation is accompanied by its double – the self-built home and its meanings. To taste and in a way as a necessity of the narrative structure and analysis, the chapter ends with a question – is it worth building? – and many complex, difficult, variable answers “… but, in the opinion of those who entered into this despoiling process, at the end of the day, for various reasons, a favorable opinion is reached: despite all the regrets”.

Chapter 5 discusses the most recent form of popular housing in the city – the favelas. It should be noted that favelas and peripheries are places of some reciprocal estrangement, even though they are increasingly approaching, both territorially and as modes of urban insertion. Favelas are the form of housing for about 8,7% of the city's population. Between urbanization and removals, between having and not having rights, having and not having land ownership, this rather heterogeneous population balances itself, sometimes settling down, sometimes – when possible – wanting to move.

In the three chapters on housing and vulnerability, an issue is present, crossing practices, discourses and forms of knowledge that are born in the soil of these experiences. These are the dimensions of violence, often aggravated by the imposition of silence, which modulate relationships and ways of life from the point of view of their growth. In the perception of vulnerabilities and violence, in the experience of humiliation and denial of recognition and rights, the heterogeneities, advantages and disadvantages of housing situations and insertion in the city of those who live at risk, who live on a tightrope, take shape. in the largest and richest Brazilian city.

A final reference gives concreteness to the title of the book. In all research situations (allotments, favelas and tenements) “the interviewees know where the bandits are (…) they had close relatives murdered, they saw people killed in the streets and everyone knows where the drug dealers are located (…) they are workers who avoid and fear the presence of criminals, as they know the danger of being hit by bullets or being confused by the arbitrary police action: the feeling of “living at risk” is something ingrained in people’s daily lives, especially in remote, poorly lit places , where politics only comes after crime”.

*Cibele Saliba Rizek is a professor in the graduate program in architecture and urbanism at the São Carlos School of Engineering at USP and organizer of The age of indeterminacy (Boitempo).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews, No. May 9, 2010


Lucio Kowarick. live at risk. São Paulo, Editora 34, 320 pages.


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