Brasília is not like any other city I’ve ever visited, let alone lived in. It was designed and built from scratch relatively recently (1960). From above, it looks a little like an airplane, and it’s often referred to that way. There’s a ‘fuselage’ and a northern and southern wing. The fuselage is the seat of government as well as the location of several other symbolic and cultural buildings. The wings are more residential, but also include other ‘sectors’. Each wing is home to some commercial areas as well as sectors devoted to cultural and educational institutions. Foreign embassies, for example, also occupy particular parts of the north and south wings. Each wing has long axis roads, really more like highways, with on and off ramps that lead from and to the residential blocks and shopping streets.
A little bit more about the neighborhoods: I live in a superquadra toward the far end of the south wing of the city. Each superquadra consists of several large apartment buildings (labeled A, B, C, etc.), which each have easy access to at least one commercial street with shops, restaurants, pharmacies, grocery stores, etc. These streets are located between superquadras. Some other things that each superquadra has access to are parks, playgrounds and elementary schools, which make them quite livable. Many blocks also have communal outdoor exercise equipment. I keep referring to blocks, but Brasília is not a grid like you’d find in Philadelphia. The streets are more circuitous. Traffic is meant to flow, so there aren’t many traffic lights (adding to the aforementioned difficulties for pedestrians). Also, there aren’t really street names.
A note on addresses: superquadras are referred to by a number, each part of which gives you some information. Take 416 (not my address): 4 is even, so it’s on the east side of the wing, but it’s higher than 2, which is closer to the middle of the wing. On the other side, you’ve got the 100’s and 300’s, 3 being located in the west, farther from the center. The number 16 in 416 tells you that it’s 16 superquadras away from the fuselage. Got that? It does make sense; it just takes a little getting used to.
While all of the superquadras and shopping streets that I’ve seen are similar – structurally, nearly identical – they’re not clones of one another. There are plenty of traditionally Brazilian restaurants and shops, but there is also a lot of international cuisine mixed in, as one might expect in a national capital. Yesterday, I went a German bakery/restaurant near where I live, and I’m pretty sure it’s unique in Brasília. (The Brezel I had, by the way, was almost, almost like a German one; the texture was perfect, but it was missing some flavor.)
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been letting my new city send me signals. I’ve walked around quite a bit and discovered that Brasília is walkable – except when it’s not. In most parts of the south wing of the city, there are spacious sidewalks (and even bike paths) linking the neighborhood blocks. This would be great if there were also more crosswalks and/or underpasses. Brasilienses (residents of Brasília) seem to do fine without crosswalks though. They just cross the axis highways wherever they choose and seem completely relaxed as they mosey across 4 or 6 lanes of traffic. Personally, I’ve been seeking out the underpasses and crosswalks, but I’ve also taken the highways at a brisk clip (I’m not good at moseying). While pedestrians face challenges, there seems to be plenty of parking… Generally, I feel quite safe. In addition to improving my Frogger game, I’ve been paying attention to other signals, like who walks around alone after dark; it seems like plenty of people do, and they feel safe, too.
This isn’t my first stint abroad, so I’ve found myself making comparisons to all the other places I’ve lived as well. Everything reminds me of something. The apartment where I’m staying, for example, reminds me a lot of the apartment I stayed at when I studied abroad in Madrid, particularly the breezy laundry room and pantry just off the kitchen. (Because the weather allows for it, there are aerating holes in the wall that are not windows.) The rectangular breakfast table with the plastic stools, however, is exactly like the setup at one of my homes in Indonesia. The men going from block to block hawking their wares – food and other items – remind me of Indonesia, too, not to mention the weather and the flora. Crossing busy streets should remind me of Indonesia; all over the archipelago, I felt perfectly confident walking out into oncoming traffic. The flow and types of traffic here, as well as the infrastructure, make Brasília different though.
What I’ve described here applies primarily to the southern wing of Brasília. I haven’t been to the northern wing yet, nor have I been to the surrounding towns. Brasília is only one city in the Distrito Federal. From what I’ve heard and read, the other parts of DF were not designed with such forethought – or any forethought. Many towns sprang up more or less organically as poorer Brazilians came to the area looking for work. The problematic lack of infrastructure and safety in these economically disadvantaged areas isn’t completely ignored, but neither does it seem to be a top priority of the government. While I’m here, I hope to learn more about DF. Stay tuned as I get to know the rest of the city and the area.