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Can Brazil's Planned City Find Room for Samba?

It's Sunday afternoon in this capital city of broad, unchoked avenues and famous outdoor sculptures. And like any weekend when the bureaucrats desert Brasilia, the planned government city is lifeless, except on Street 3, where something very Brazilian but very un-Brasilia is happening.

Under saggy tarps held aloft by spindly poles, eight musicians are playing and singing the samba nonstop, keeping the four-dozen dancers around them moving to their irresistible beat.

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It's a warm, exuberant scene, right down to the pebble-filled soda cans that serve as maracas. But Brasilia, the post-war era's ultimate planned city, was designed with neither samba nor spontaneity in mind. Dancers' cars are parked every which way on narrow streets. That, plus the noise and the litter, make many neighbors understandably irate.

What is so striking about this happy gathering is that something so Brazilian could feel so utterly out of place.

Carving a new frontier

When this jetliner-shaped capital city was branded on Brazil's interior jungle in 1960, it was supposed to embody the nation's spirit. Like President Kennedy's challenge to the United States to reach the moon in a decade, President Juscelino Kubitschek challenged his fellow Brazilians in 1956 to build a new capital in the frontier. Braslia has shaken this vast country from its seaboard foundation and gradually refocused it on a rich, and still largely untapped, interior.

But for all the planning, the city is reputed to have the highest divorce and suicide rates in Brazil. And in a country the World Bank gives first prize for the world's worst income distribution, Brasilia has the widest gap between rich and poor of any city.

When the Brazilian magazine Exame recently named the country's top 10 livable cities, Braslia was not among them. "This is not a happy city: there's no community, people live apart," says Osmar Alves de Lima, a financial adviser who works in Braslia but lives in Corituba, one of the cities that did make Exame's Top 10. Echoing his words, a young taxi driver says, "People don't connect here. There aren't many opportunities to meet."

Urban living a la Disney

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Driving around Braslia can feel eerily like taking a spin on Disneyland's Autopia automobile ride. And why shouldn't it? Both were designed in the 1950s, when the ultimate of urban planning was the the driver never meeting another human being.

It's not that Brasilia wasn't designed with people in mind. But the socialist thinking of 1950s Brazil designed a city for collective man. It left little place for the individual.

Banks were grouped in banking sectors, hotels in hotel sectors, churches in a "spiritual sector," and of course government in the showcase government sector. "The story is told of a boy who travels outside Brasilia for the first time," says Alexandre Barros, a political analyst here. "When he comes back he tells his friends, 'Things are really strange [in other cities]; they mix everything up.' "

Brasilia is especially misunderstood by visitors who are put off by its design, Mr. Barros says. But after 16 years here, he says he couldn't imagine living anywhere else. There's little traffic, little air pollution, little (but rising) crime. And where basic human needs weren't planned for, he adds, enterprising citizens are sidestepping the plan to make their mark. "You see a lot of informality and unplannedness settling," he says.

Barros points to an informal crafts market that has sprung up around Brasilia's central observation tower. Another example is the towns that have mushroomed around the city. Brasilia's population hovers near the 500,000 residents planners envisioned. But more than a dozen satellite cities with more than a million people have sprung up all around.

It is there that Brasilia's poor are concentrated. But it also there that the area's new economic base, focused on small clothing manufacturers and other small businesses, is sprouting.

Some urban historians predict that Brasilia will become a museum of postwar 20th-century urban planning, ringed by 21st-century urban reality. But Barros finds this view a little extreme. "I prefer to think it will be a pleasant old town surrounded by a dynamic ring," he says.

Besides, the happy sounds wafting in from Street 3 are doing their best to keep the city's heart beating.

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