The Former Workers’ Village of Vila Maria Zelia, São Paulo

A figurine on the backdrop of one of the village’s oldest houses

photography by: Omri Westmark

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While the largest city throughout the southern hemisphere, São Paulo, is notorious for its infinite concrete jungle, it is apparently also home to a couple of laid-back communities known collectively as workers’ villages. The earliest of which (built during the late 1920’s), Vila Maria Zelia, was modeled after a European townlet. As of today, this village might be a shadow of its former self, yet luckily, it still retains a great deal of rural charm, serving as a getaway from the city’s incessant hubbub.

In the early 20th century, as São Paulo was in the midst of a rapid industrialization, dozens of factories mushroomed all over the city. Among the many new manufacturing plants was Companhia Nacional de Tecidos de Juta, a facility in Belenzinho neighborhood where jute fabrics were mass produced.


What would otherwise be a yet another factory became a social utopia when its owner, businessman Jorge Street, founded a nearby town, allocated entirely for his industrious workers and their families. Constructed in 1917 alongside the jute manufactory, Vila Maria Zelia was named after Street’s daughter who died of tuberculosis a year earlier.


Modeled after workers’ villages in Europe which Street stumbled upon during his frequent visits to the old continent, the complex was designed by French architect Paul Pedraurrieux, who imbued the buildings with ornamental richness. To provide residents with their basic needs, the village was home to a pharmacy, a kindergarten, two schools (one for girls and one for boys), a sports field, a bandstand, a clinic, a ballroom and perhaps most impressively, the beautifully decorated São José Chapel.

There was a total of 198 houses whose size ranged between 74.75 m² to 110.40 m², as they were designated for different types of families. What all dwellings had in common though, was their relative high level of comfort, including amenities such as electric showers and a connection to the citywide sewage system – a luxury by that time’s standards.


Despite his initial success, Street was forced to sell his factory along with the adjacent workers’ village after accumulating a hefty amount of debt. It then changed hands a couple of times before being confiscated by the federal government. In the following decades, the village was still inhabited but due to the lack of funds, some of its public buildings were abandoned and fell into a state of disrepair.


As of today, around 600 people call Vila Maria Zelia home, with some of whom living there for more than half a century. While the village pales in comparison to what it once was, it still offers a refreshing respite from the hustle and bustle of Brazil’s most populous city.