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In search of the lost Tietê

A study reveals the lifestyle surrounding the main São Paulo river at the start of the 20th century

Imagine arriving close to the waters of the river Tietê, seeing its fish opening up space for the passage of a boat and children swimming whilst, in the background two rowing clubs dispute a regatta. An impossible scene to view today, but which can be glimpsed, by way of history, on the pages of a doctorate thesis entitled, The river that the city lost – the Tietê and the inhabitants of São Paulo 1890-1940, defended by James Jorge at the History Department of USP in April of this year.

A FAPESP grant holder from 1999 until 2003, Jorge confronted the challenge of carrying out work on the day to day social history that would dialogue with the studies concerning the urbanization of São Paulo and with the nascent environmental history, an inevitable formula in the face of the contemporary in-depth discussions concerning the role of the Tietê river in the life of the metropolis. “I started from the premise that it’s not possible to have an idea of the social and environmental costs of the São Paulo urbanization during the 20th century without historical research informing us, even though only partially, about that which existed before the changes”, says the researcher.
Also his personal experience counted in his choice of theme. As his family live in Vila Maria, one of the districts close to the Tietê river, Jorge had in his memory stories concerning the drastic environmental transformations surrounding the river that occurred in the simple passage of one generation to the next.

“I sought to provide a wide covering vision of the social relationships between the various São Paulo social groups and the river during that period, investigating different dimensions of social life. Consequently, the researched documentation makes it possible to have innumerable specific research projects, such as the history of fishing in São Paulo or the social impact of the major urban works on the lives of the inhabitants and the environment”, says Jorge.

Indeed, fishing was only one of the activities developed by the population studied by Jorge. “What one can see during this period is that we’re dealing with the moment in which the river was most used, due to the rapid growth of the city and the innumerable resources that it offered. At the same time, it was already on the road to the sad condition found today”, the historian says.

Proposals for the general intervention of the course of the Tietê river within the city of São Paulo gained force starting from 1890, the date that begins the period studied by Jorge. “The state government instituted a sanitary commission with the objective of mainly avoiding epidemics that threatened the economic expansion of the coffee industry”, the researcher explains. “At that time there were controversial scientific ideas concerning the origin of illnesses and it had been believed that many of them were causes by miasmas, which is formed due to excessive humidity and stagnant waters.”

“In 1893, a project for the adjustment of the river’s course was presented, but was not advanced upon due to the political and economic problems confronted by the elite of the coffee growers”, says Jorge. But the discussions as to what should be done with the river remained during the following years until, at the end of the decade of the 1930’s, the then mayor Prestes Maia gave the initiative for a process of rectification that gave origin to the form in which the Tietê finds itself today.

“In the 1920’s, the idea gained force that the margins of the river should house major highways circulating the city. And, contrary to some plans that anteceded his, that of  Prestes Maia had not contemplated leisure areas in the surroundings of the Tietê”, says Jorge. While Prestes Maia wanted the lateral sides of the river to be large highways, the Light and Power Co., the company that held the monopoly for the supply of light and transport in São Paulo, dealt with removing public power from the effective administration of the Tietê and its tributaries, as a way of avoiding competitors in the use of the water or restrictions in the manner of operating it.

Public power and the Light Company were not the only parties interested in the economic potential of the river Tietê. Alongside them, there were other agents of frenetic urbanization that had explored its basin, extracting sand and pebbles for civil construction or using the waters to transport cargo that arrived at the then evolving metropolis.

There was intense exploration of the river Tietê during the period analyzed by Jorge. And, if the Tietê was a major business for many, on the extreme opposite side, for the poor laborers, it was the location where they removed their sustenance, whether it be by way of fishing or hunting, the removal of sand and pebbles or of working in the country homes built on the banks of the river and its tributaries.

It was inevitable that such a scenario would result in all types of conflict, such as those between the country house owners and the urban real estate agents selling land plots; between the new and old bargemen; between people who overfished, plundering the fish stocks and those who condemned this attitude or those uprooted with the land appropriations necessary to carry out the civil works to be done during the rectification.

The rivers were so important to the city life that one of the figures who stood out in the urban scenario at the beginning of the 20th century was the river agent. To him were attributed various functions. From verifying and regulating the fishing rights and the extraction of sand, to providing first aid to the riverside population in the case of flooding – yes, back at that time the floods existed.

The analysis of some reports left by these agents allows for the identification of the ambiguous reality of the environmental and social conditions in the surrounding of the river Tietê. And in the words of one of them, José Joaquim de Freitas, in a letter to the mayor Antonio Prado, in 1903, with which one can have an exact dimension of how the river Tietê had already been condemned to be what it is today: “This current situation is of vital importance for the city of São Paulo. From its bed, sand and pebbles are extracted; from its margins come the material for brick and tiles; from the meadowlands, horticultural produce that feeds the market; it gives the cheapest mode of transport for all of these products. (…) The Tietê, pure, capable of transporting the garbage which is confined to it, and it is the sanitary drain, polluted, overloaded with leftovers that are going to the bottom and putrefying it (…). There is a lot that I fear with the pollution of the Tietê, and I hope for a remedy against this ailment. But it has been for some two years now that this anxiety has turned to fear, and today I feel the need to earnestly call your attention Mr. Mayor to this, so that you can complain to the competent powers for a solution to this problem of life or death for S. Paulo”.

Up until today the São Paulo citizens have been waiting for action, not only those who live on the margins of the river, but throughout all of the areas damaged each time that this river bed decided to re-appropriate itself of the space that its waters lost with the urbanization of the city.