It seems like a utopian arrangement, especially in a time when talking about taxes to create social change gets you labelled as a communist or as a conspirator against your country. But it has been working successfully in Brazil for more than 60 years: commerce, services and tourism businesses pay a 1.5 percent payroll tax which goes to a non-profit private institution called SESC (Portuguese acronym for Social Service of Commerce), which administers the money to support centers that provide education, health, leisure and culture services to the community at little or no cost.
Founded in 1946, the organization acts in all 27 Brazilian states and its social aid benefits near 5 million people, according to a 2006 figure.
If it sounds like work that should fall under the umbrella of a public office it's because it is, but the fact that SESC is private and autonomous ensures a better quality of the services it provides (especially in Latin America, when too many times the end of a term means a 180° turn in policies).
SESC Pompeia is one of the city of Sao Paulo's 15 centers, and functions in what used to be a barrels factory built in 1938. The project to restore the building was undertaken by Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi at the end of the 1970s. She saw that the inner streets of the abandoned factory were already being used by families and children during the weekends, and sought to maintain that.
"Nobody transformed anything. We found a factory with a beautiful structure, architecturally important, original, nobody interfered… The design for the center began with the desire to build another reality. We just installed a few things: a little water, a heater," wrote Bo Bardi about the project.
Organized around that inner street, the warehouses spaces were kept open, equipped with modular installations that articulate the different activities. The most beautiful is perhaps the 4700 sq. meters community space, which has a library and reading tables with three different levels of privacy, a playground, exhibition area and seating (hidden wheels behind the square sofas denote the flexibility of the arrangements) around an artificial indoor lake.
The following spaces host a restaurant which turns into a bar at night, an alternative theater (the traditional opera setting is replaced by a stage with seating rows to its front and back, and 760 wooden seats which are 'uncomfortable' to challenge the audience), more exhibition rooms and workshops. At the end, two towers were built to host sporting facilities including a pool, dancing studios and soccer courts.
With a focus on Brazilian culture, when I visited the SESC Pompeia there was an interesting exhibition of artisan textile works from native communities. Its street was buzzing with people having a bite, buying tickets for a play, and the wooden decks at the back with some sunbathing. With Sao Paulo's massive scale and a car culture that seems at times aggressive, the place was also a friendly refugee, of human scale.
Because the SESC model is based on payroll taxes, as the workforce grows in Brazil (people informally employed or poor are becoming part of the system with the country's class mobility) the organization has seen its budget increase by 10 percent annually (amounting to $600 million a year).
The institution is not only designating the funds to local artists: it is financing a tour of the French group Théâtre du Soleil through Brazil, sponsoring a jazz festival in conjunction with New York record label Nublu, and has presented work by David Byrne.
In a recent article, the director of the institution told the New York Times: "Our fundamental guiding principle is to use culture as a tool for education and transformation, to improve people’s lives."
Taxing rich companies to benefit people through culture and social aid? Those damn communists, they just want to ruin the country.