São Paulo is a city of things unnoticed (apologies to Gay Talese).
Much of what went unnoticed, covered up by oversized billboards and signs, is now exposed. A law that went into effect earlier this year has forced property owners to remove large ads from buildings.
It's part of a larger effort to turn this urban ugly duckling into a swan.
"How cool they are," coos Regina Monteiro, pointing to a refurbished art deco apartment building. "Look at those beautiful open balconies. [That building] probably dates from the 1940s but there [were signs] covering it."
Ms. Monteiro is enthusiastic about the Clean City project and with good reason. As the city's director of environment and urban landscape, it is her job to coordinate the second phase of the program – refurbishing – and coax or coerce property owners into complying with the regulations that went into force on April 1.
The first phase of the program, dubbed the Clean City law, was designed to rid South America's biggest metropolis of its ubiquitous advertising. Owners of apartment complexes rented space on the sides of their buildings to companies hawking underwear with 150-foot-high posters. Shops plastered their name in mega letters above the door. And drivers sped along highways lined with signs for everything from TV programs to cold meats to universities.
Ad executives said the billboards created jobs and helped fuel the city's economy – and brought a splash of color to the overwhelmingly gray panorama.
But city officials argued it had gone too far, creating "visual pollution." The strict new code is backed with minimum fines of 10,000 reais ($5,000) for noncompliance.
Under the new law, all oversized ads must come down. Signage standards are shrinking, too. Stores with a shop front exceeding 100 meters (328 feet) in length are allowed two signs, but each smaller than 10 square meters (33 square feet). Smaller stores can have one sign no bigger than 4 meters (13 feet) square.
Although many of Brazil's laws are ignored, compliance here has been high and the effect has been dramatic. Nowhere is the change more evident than in the once grand downtown area, a confused commercial district where the narrow streets are choked with cars and the sidewalks are overrun by vendors.
This is where São Paulo began to grow at the start of the 20th century as the coffee boom brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants into the city. Today, thanks to the Clean City law many of the beautiful art deco, neoclassical, and art nouveau architecture that early wealth spawned is now reappearing. Intricate stonework, engraved or stained glass windows, and wrought iron balconies are visible.
"A whole golden era has come to light again," Monteiro says.
The period architecture, while remarkable, needed a makeover, And many of the large signs that were erected served to hide damp patches, and pipes, ducts, broken windows, and grubby air conditioning units.
In Phase 2 of the makeover, business owners have, to varying degrees, started cleaning up their facades and between 25 and 30 percent, according to Monteiro's estimate, have restored their properties and repainted them. Almost all have put up smaller signs. Even McDonald's removed its iconic golden arches.
Locals agree the streets look better for it but they are not happy with the government's lack of assistance. "It cost us 750 reais ($390) to get the signs changed," says Taty Kanarek, the joint owner of a store selling industrial pumps. "I think it's a good thing what they are doing, the visual pollution was terrible.... But the mayor's office didn't help at all. All they want to do is levy fines on those who don't comply."
A bill pending before the city assembly would offer tax breaks to those investing in restoration work. The government has also promised to work with commercial associations to help coordinate the clean up and avoid more of the lime green, orange, and purple paint jobs that have appeared.
But the initial signs are promising.
"It's fantastic," says Mario Roberto Rizkallah, the owner of a stunning art nouveau building that was built by his grandfather in 1909 and today houses a store that sells copper wire.
"The large amount of signs meant that there was one sign on top of another and it meant you couldn't see anything. I think that you do more business by being subtle," he says.