Sampa, or "the New York of the Tropics" as some proud Paulistanos call their home, is Brazil's economic powerhouse and overwhelmingly large: eleven million inhabitants within the city limits, 20 million including the surrounding metropolitan area, 30 million if the entire metropolitan area is taken into account. It's the largest city in Brazil, the largest in the southern hemisphere, the largest in the Americas and the 6th largest in the world.
The suburbs stretch out over the former coffee highlands: in concentric rings, full of winding tendrils, with vertical tower blocks rising out of the landscape toward the horizon. Sampa is also a city of cranes, for everywhere there are imposing new buildings rising out of the ground. It's not unusual for newly completed condominiums to be sold out in one weekend – flats, offices and shops included.
São Paulo has more helicopters than any other city whizzing through its smoggy skies. No businessman will waste time walking in this city. According to traffic engineers, the local economy loses 12.5 billion pounds every year through traffic jams.
There are other parallels between NY and São Paulo. At 450 years old, it long ago became a discrete, cosmopolitan microcosm of Portuguese colonisers, black slaves and Tupi-speaking Indians. The coffee rush, around the turn of the 20th century, lured tens of thousands of labourers to the region whom Sampa was able to absorb as other industries and opportunities opened up.
The migrants – primarily Italians, Germans, Japanese, East European Jews, Lebanese, Syrians and Armenians – disembarked in Santos or Rio, and from there took the train to São Paulo. After disembarking at the train station in the Luz district they made their way to BrĂˇs where many found temporary accommodation at the hospedaria, a neoclassical palace which now houses the Memorial do Imigrante, complete with a digital database where the curious can search for relatives.
With the manual labourers also came the first business people such as Francisco Matarazzo, the Paulistano Rockefeller. While shabby workers' and factory districts grew up at the city's edge, the heart of São Paulo became an impressive business centre packed with neo-Florentine palazzi, eclectic churches and Art Deco.
For much of the 20th century, the city was engaged in a constant cycle of demolition and reconstruction and developed into a tangle of architectural styles and visions. Today, the squares and avenues in the heart of the city, planted with palm trees, have an air of energetic decadence, with people from the entire spectrum of humanity represented.
Like its smaller rival Buenos Aires, São Paulo bears strong signs of Italian flair. But Sampa is also the largest Bahian city outside the state of Bahia, the largest Portuguese city outside Portugal, the largest Lebanese city after Beirut and the largest Japanese city outside Japan. The Japanese, or Nikei as they were called, initially went to the coffee plantations. By the of the twenties, however, when the coffee industry was tottering and the crash of 1929 was looming, they settled in
their thousands in Liberdade, a district, packed with lanterns, boutiques and Sushi sellers which remains the epicentre of Japanese Sampa. The Nikeis' children, the Nisei, flourished as small traders and their offspring, the Sansei, in turn, have become doctors, lawyers and engineers.
Life is by no means straight forward in this megalopolis. Traffic is hellish, the smog makes it hard to breathe, the CracolĂ˘ndia district remains a bewildering warren populated by street children and drug users. Violence is endemic and private security firms don't want for work. TV broadcasts such as Brasil Urgente show police in helicopters chasing criminals while BAND-TV fills the mornings with live crime reporting.
Most Paulistanos are descendents of newcomers who have been swallowed up in the miscigenação, the racial mixture of which Brazil is so proud. Italian-Syrian, Polish-Asian, Afro-Portuguese and every other conceivable combination. As SPTuris, Sampa's traffic agency puts it: 'Em São Paulo cabe o mundo - the world fits into São Paulo'. Sampa is a mirror of mankind.