Morality in the Materiality of an Informal Fair: Negotiating the Legitimacy of Space, Economic Activities and Agents amid the Construction of the Night Fair in Sao Paulo

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
258 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Andre Vereta-Nahoum, Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning, University of Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil
This paper shares initial results of a research conducted at a vast marketplace comprising hundreds of stalls, the Feira da Madrugada (Night Fair) and its surrounding streets in Brás/Pari, a neighbourhood in central Sao Paulo and a consolidated area of popular commerce for inexpensive textiles. The research aims at reconstructing the assemblage that constitutes the fair and the permanent negotiations over the regulation of activities, goods and the space where the transactions take place. Within this broader scope, this paper aims at analyzing how traders and government mobilize material devices to shape representations and values, qualifying objects, agents and the area, as well as legitimating activities by defining who are the proper agents, forms of transactions and uses of space. In other words, it attempts to show the double moral nature of materiality in the Night Fair: material aspects such as the spatial distribution of stalls, safety features, qualities of goods and formalization of traders shape the moral views over transactions, and are permanently mobilized to create the moral order of the fair, defining the legitimate goods and agents, their rights, obligations and relationships of cooperation and competition.

In order to do so, it maps the spatial, temporal and regulatory devices that give materiality to this market and the controversies in which they are mobilized. It uses a combination of document analysis of political debates and decisions on the legislative and executive arenas, as well as media coverage about activities and conflicts, shaping the representations surrounding the marketplace, its agents and goods, interviews with selected government officials and traders, and fieldwork to gain insight into dynamic attempts to qualify, regulate and legitimize the fair and its transactions.

In the early 2000s, informal street traders of inexpensive mass-produced clothes and accessories started gathering nightly on a commercial street of Central São Paulo. The fair built on the popularity of the area among consumers seeking inexpensive goods and took advantage of the absence of law enforcers regulating the use of urban land and transactions during the night. Economic growth and the increase in consumption by the Brazilian poor also fostered its growth, attracting an increasing number of consumers and travelling salespersons who used the nights to travel and buy goods they sell in smaller towns.

Conflicts with daytime traders over space and the local government led these traders to migrate to a new area a mile away: they squatted a large abandoned railroad depot owned by the bankrupt national railways, initially replicating the time limitations, but progressively extending the activities during the day, in direct competition with the established shops of wholesale clothes in the region. At first, stalls were negotiated by organizations formed by traders, which also organized the space, its activities and services, regulating qualified agents and forms of trade, often with conflicts over the ability to negotiate stalls. The material organization of the fair and routine interactions with customers produced forms of distribution of information about the quality and value of traded goods.

Local law enforcement agents closed the fair several times, apprehending traders and confiscating goods. Traders were also extorted by officers in exchange for the neglect of irregularities. Amid accusations and media coverage about corruption from municipal officers, and invoking the illegality of the use of the area and the non-compliance with safety regulations (notably fire prevention structures), which rendered the area unsuitable and dangerous to the thousands of passers-by, the fair was closed in 2013 by a recently-elected mayor.

The new local government, gaining the right to use the area by the Federal Government, vowed to create new facilities in the area, complying with safety regulations, and to legally distribute stalls. In fact, this was part of a larger strategy to regenerate the main areas of street commerce in Central Sao Paulo, with the stated aims of creating better connections among them, safer facilities and better services for users, regulating traders and their use of land. In order to gain control and reorganize the fair, the local government used two legal arrangements: land use permissions (LUP), a municipal concession of street use for commercial activities, and draws, to distribute stalls, and the requirement that all applicants to a stall be a registered Individual Microentrepreneur (IME), a legal form used to formalize informal traders and subject them to a lump-sum tax. The area has reopened with new facilities and recently its administration was leased to a consortium of private firms, among which some traders. Many traders that did not obtain LUPs lost stalls in the process and the previous traders-led organization is still fighting to control and regulate activities. As a result, there are multiple loci and levels of decision-making on the morality and materiality of the fair. The materiality and morality of transactions are still debated at the local government level and in everyday interactions among traders.

The contested use of space, varied origins of traders and buyers, as well as the opacity about the provenance of goods still cast stigmas and generate moral disputes over the fair and its activities. There is a permanent dispute for the imaginary surrounding this market, between the shadow of their activities and the space in which they are performed, on the one side, and the celebration of entrepreneurship and consumption of the poor, on the other.

These disputes mobilize material aspects of the fair, namely the infrastructure, the qualities of goods, transactions and agents and the nature of activities, to advance different moral views. These material aspects have also a moral dimension in the sense that they comprise the moral regime of the market, defining appropriate agents, appropriate transactions, appropriate forms of cooperation and competition, obligations and values. These are specially related to the spatial and temporal configurations of this marketplace. Therefore, the construction and controversies over the Night Fair seem an apt case to explore how material aspects shape the moral views on economic activities, and the ways in which material dimensions of markets are re-appropriated by agents for new moral purposes.