More than just fast food: the São Paulo lunch counter (a photo essay)

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Through the lens of a new location (2 of 2)

Text by Todd Lester
Photographs by Pedro Marques

In Part I of this blog, I wrote about the making of the project in my new city in Brazil. In São Paulo, lunch counters, or lanchonetes, are as ubiquitous as bodegas in New York City and café-tabacs in Paris. These are utilitarian, convenient, open storefronts, usually with a few plastic tables and chairs spilling out on the sidewalk, where customers can sit at the counter for a quick and cheap hot meal, or buy their phone cards and lottery tickets. In dense areas of the city, there may be five lunch counters at one single intersection, with their sidewalk patrons often mixing indiscriminately. However, a person’s lanchonete of choice is determined by its location, speed of service, and perhaps the distinct flavor of its feijoada (a traditional Brazilian stew served on Wednesdays and Saturdays). It is in the lanchonete where a broad cross-section of Brazilian society literally rubs shoulders. This is especially true in the dense area of São Paulo’s Center.

At one point in the planning of, I found that I was having a hard time explaining to non-Brazilians the significance of the lanchonete. Therefore, I invited local photographer Pedro Marques to walk with me through the city and, together, capture the essence—and particularities—of the typical lanchonete … in all shapes in sizes. What follows are photos from that day.







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The view from São Paulo: Art & Urban Foodways

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Through the lens of a new location  (1 of 2)

By Todd Lester

I have just moved from Brooklyn, New York City to the Center (Centro) of São Paulo in order to realize the next stage of, a project I initiated that focuses on daily life in the city’s center and takes the form of a traditional lunch counter (or lanchonete). While the project is a lot about ‘looking’ and observing the ways people join together to claim their rights to a city, there are also the more basic reflections one has when they change their location and start to see things through the perspectives of a new city … and its citizens.

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Image of a São Paulo lanchonete by Pedro Marques

As you might imagine, I’ve been thinking about food systems a lot since starting the project in São Paolo these past years. In the same period, a steady stream of stimuli started coming my way. A friend recently told me about the international peasants’ movement La Via Campesina and its Food Sovereignty Principles. And more than a year ago, the Vera List Center for Art & Politics presented programming entitled Your Food Is On Its Way. The project focused—in part—on food delivery workers in New York City and how online aggregating services, such as Seamless, can result in longer delivery routes by offering the customer more options yet do not encourage higher tips to the delivery person. So whereas the customer perceives improved services, the delivery people, often informal, immigrant laborers, suffer lower earnings. At the end of this blog, you’ll find a list of resources related to food systems that includes many more projects, organizations, and articles that I’ve come across over the past few years.

One of my first observations from the past few weeks in São Paulo is how active citizen groups, artists, and independent journalists are on issues ranging from the future of the Presidente Costa e Silva Viaduct to the Augusta Park battle to the broad issues of urban development and rights to the city through initiatives such as Arquitetura da Gentrificação and Cidades para Pessoas (Cities for People). The scene that this article, titled Reclaiming the Jungle, attempts to capture is the community setting in which our collective project begins to materialize. is the evolving result of both my artistic practice—one that is research-based and curious about organizational form—and a process of community organizing by a group of diverse stakeholders, that includes artists yet not as a majority. This dual persona is what makes such a dynamic process, and I actually love how it doesn’t have to be understood as art by everyone who encounters it.

When I’m asked how is art by a curator, I often feel like it’s a test to see whether I’ll reference Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD, a restaurant the artist/ architect and colleagues started in lower Manhattan in the 1970s. Sometimes I start my response with what differentiates from FOOD, or share the variety of influences—from French cooperative bistros to Welsh pubs, from Fast & French in Charleston, South Carolina made by artists JEMAGWGA to the 70s Lanchonarte project by Brazilian collective Equipe 3—that inform and inspire the making of When folks from outside the art world ask the same question, I’m excited … excited to share these examples but also because the project’s personality and aspirations reach into a range of spaces and co-mingle with everyday life. While we are making the container, what happens in that space, and on the broader platform, can be authored by anyone, artist or not.

Given the topic of urban foodways, nature, and green spaces, I immediately think of the city’s urban sprawl and congestion, and how innovation springs from isolation. For example, Cities Without Hunger, an urban gardening initiative situated in the east part of the city, accesses available green space (under the power lines) held by the municipal electric company, EletroPaulo, in order to build stronger livelihoods among the community members. The ‘east zone’, as it is called, is a portion of the city’s periphery where unemployment rates are the highest. Given the reality and perceptions held of this area, it is not a place that many people go if they don’t have to, even if there is a lot to learn from the work of Cities Without Hunger. One of the goals of the project is to shine a light on such innovative projects and learn from them simultaneously. Over the first two years of the project, our focus is on developing strong partnerships from key sectors and populations, which we feel are foundational. Another example is GastroMotiva, which trains youth from similar backgrounds as those in the ‘east zone’ to cook and become chefs in professional kitchens.

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Image courtesy of Cities Without Hunger







Cities Without Hunger teaches households how to grow produce in urban conditions, providing both a healthy diet and income-generating opportunities. It shares a very similar ethos with GastroMotiva: to improve food preparation and dietary habits at the household level which, in turn, leads to employment opportunities and holistic betterment in families, communities, neighborhoods, business, and the city. We plan to purchase our produce from Cities Without Hunger and hire our restaurant staff from the ranks of GastroMotiva trainees.


Image courtesy of Gastromotiva

The eminent local philosopher and founder of arte/cidade Nelson Brissac Peixoto says that “São Paulo is not anymore a pedestrian city.” However, I believe that mega-cities such as São Paulo are in dialogue with cities in North America—through the human mobility flows that spread families and other relations between different places and offer many lessons from which our cities can learn and benefit.

In Part II of this blog, I’ll show some images of the typical lanchonete (lunch counter) in São Paulo.



Projects by and with Artists
- El Matam El Mish-masery (El restaurante no egipcio) (by Asunción Molinos Gordo).
- Vacant Acres Symposium (Meeting of land transformation advocates from all over the world by 596Acres)
- Taste of Freedom (by Felipe Cidade @ Art in Odd Places)
- El Internacional & Food Cultura Foundation (by Miralda)
- Acarajé + Gravura (by Thiago Goncalves)
- Doris Criolla (by Amilcar Packer)
- Foodshed (by Smack Mellon)
- Eat Art (by Daniel Spoerri)
- Urban Gardening (in Aesthetics of Protest)

Places / Place Concepts
- Bethlehem XXX (Montreal)
- White Dog Café (Philadelphia)
- Nowhere Kitchen (Berlin)
- Conflict Kitchen (Pittsburgh)
- The Sunview (New York City)
- Café Reconcile (New Orleans)

Canada Resource Guide
- Plant Adoption, a project that relocated city plants from areas with a wealth of fauna to poorer neighbourhoods that are often neglected by the city (by Golboo Amani).
- Poster-Pocket Plants, a project that integrates nature into the urban setting by creating pockets in existing posters throughout the city to create spaces for plants to grow (by Shawn Martindale in collaboration with landscape architect named Eric Cheung).
- Outside the Planter Boxes, a project that focuses on transforming crumbling city planter boxes (by Shawn Martindale).
- A Campus Food Revolution at the University of Guelph (in edible TORONTO)
- Cities Feed Cities: Unearthing three unique urban agriculture projects in Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver (in SPACING)
- Local Food Map – Guelph Wellington (

NYC Resource Guide
- Delivery City: New York and its working cyclists (film)
- Chinese Staff and Workers Association
- National Mobilization Against Sweatshops
- New York Communities for Change
- Restaurant Opportunities Center
- Fast Food Forward

Brazil Resource Guide
- Guia san Pablo
- Fechado Para Jantar
- Cidade sem Fome
- GastroMotiva
- Instituto Polis (food security policies)
- Green My Favela
- Cidades para Pessoas
- Cidades para Que(m)? discusses Parque Augusta

Misc / Projects / Organizations / Initiatives / Articles
- Sustainable Food Systems (Topos Partnership)
- Street Vendor Project (Urban Justice Center)
- Pesticide Action Network of North America
- Sustainable Development Institute (Liberia)
- World Botanical Research Associates
- Politics of Food (by Delfina Foundation)
- Organic Consumer’s Association
- SEED: The Untold Story (film)
- Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance
- Hudson Valley Seed Library
- Seed Savers Exchange
- Center for Food Safety
- Iroquois Valley Farm
- Inspiration Kitchens
- Change Food
- Slow Food

Todd Lanier Lester is an artist and cultural producer. He has worked in leadership, advocacy and strategic planning roles at Global Arts Corps, Reporters sans frontiers, and Astraea Lesbian Justice Foundation. He founded freeDimensional and—a new project focused on daily life in the center of São Paulo. Todd is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute; a co-curator for the Arts & Society Team of Cities for People in Canada; and serves on the board of arts, rights and literary organizations in India, Mexico, Brazil and the US.

Rearview Mirror ~ Artist Roundtable: GUELPH + SenseLabs: LETHBRIDGE

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by Todd Lester


Has it really been a month? Hey clock, slow down. On September 11th, we piloted (or as my colleagues emphasize, piloted the pilot) of a new model for bridging artistic and scientific methods … with artists at the center. The new process, produced locally by Musagetes for Cities for People, is called simply Artist Roundtable (or A.RT). Here we’re making a playful reference to Robert Rauschenberg’s Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), but also other experiments in embedding artists – e.g. Artist Placement Group – into other sectors and atypical spaces that defy the default to vocational territorialism.

This inauagural roundtable featured Mark Prier, a Mississauga-based multimedia artist in discussion with an entomologist, historian, and museum director. His ongoing project, Grey County Pastoral: Proton Township Exclosure, is a living installation that attempts the restoration of a historically-documented forest in southern Ontario on one acre of land. He creates miniature, nearly virtual versions of the history of our natural environment, letting us experience what our region was like before settlers colonized the land. Prier has a particular interest in forest ecologies and the dynamic between native and invasive species in Ontario.

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Grey County Pastoral: Proton Township Exclosure, 2012-present Mark Prier

















Taking its cue from from the UN Climate Summit that happened shortly after on September 23 in New York City, the roundtable discussion focused on aspects of climate change, an interest of Mark Prier and the three respondents:

John English is an historian, author, former politician, and expert on international affairs. He recently published Ice and Water, a history of the Arctic Council.

Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate is an entomologist and biocontrol scientist based in Lethbridge, Alberta.

Gordon Knox is the director of the Arizona State University Art Museum, former director of the Stanford Humanities Lab, and an expert on artist residencies internationally.

The event was moderated by Jeanne Wikler, an artist coach and expert on cultural diplomacy.

The essence of the Artist Roundtable concept is building and strengthening connections in a way that adds value to artists’ and other professionals’ work (on the same theme, topic, issue). On the morning of September 12th, all the roundtable participants, including the moderator, artist, organizers and representatives of Musagetes and Cities for People met to evaluate proceedings from the previous night. Our goal is to make sure that the concept is clear enough to be communicated and flexible and open enough to be replicable in a variety of contexts.

The spirit of the idea is that it can be modified for different types of places – urban, rural, university setting, festival setting, organizational setting, thematic, etc. The concept borrows from many projects and events by other conveners as well as widely accepted practices such as university seminars, crits and master classes; studio visits; portfolio reviews; and charrettes (from the urban planning vernacular). The process is careful not to defer to or preference norms of bigger cities or dominant cultures in the process of being tailor made for a location; however if the artist participants are interested in connections with nonprofit organizations working on a particular issue (on one side) or certain attributes of the art market (on the other), it may be necessary to invite representatives from those – typically urban – initiatives as well as local and regional experts and peers. Ultimately, the composition of a roundtable can be organized around project, theme, person, and/or goal.

We are developing a flexible and modifiable approach for artists to share their ideas and innovations beyond the art world, to build a comfort zone in which artists can talk to policymakers, politicians, community organizers, social movement leaders and vice versa. The approach consists of a suite of activities – including preparatory coaching, a public roundtable discussion, documentation and tailored follow-up engagement based on the proceedings of the roundtable – geared to enhance dialogue with representatives from a range of sectors that both need the ideas and solutions that artists generate and yet do not regularly/systematically engage artists working on common issues or have not developed ways to interface with professional artists that do not have a history of working with a specific sector but hold current insights and actionable solutions from a discreet project or period of investigation.


Right after the Roundtable, I traveled to Lethbridge with one of our participants Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate, Musagetes director Shawn Van Sluys, and a guest artist from Montreal, Jean-François Prost for the beginning of SenseLabs. It doesn’t take much to relate the intentions of this project in Lethbridge with those of Artist Roundtables – somehow cut from the same cloth – SenseLabs are a series of four intensive labs for a group of participants over the course of several months. In June the SenseLabs began at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG) in Lethbridge; they conclude in November. The labs are designed to be challenging for both the participants, facilitator, (Shawn), and artist (Jean-François), deeply engaging sense-making skills like making, listening, debating, and observing.


SenseLabs, Lethbridge, Alberta











I also really loved getting to know about The Field Notes Collective, a collective of art professionals and scientists working in the Southern Alberta area who are bound by a shared set of social, environmental and cultural concerns. The mandate of the Collective is to foster dialogue and action through the staging of cross-disciplinary events, engaging with matters of local and regional interest. Here’s a radio programme that discusses the September stage of SenseLabs and its collaboration with The Field Notes Collective, a project led by SenseLab participant, Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate.


After all, one of the benefits of being located outside of Canada – where most of the Cities for People work happens – is that I get to visit places, like Guelph and Lethbridge, and experience them for the first times while implementing dynamic projects … and big ideas with local folks. What a pleasure! It’s nice to see a sign, like that for Guelph Neighborhood Support Coalition, and ask ‘what’s that’ to learn that they are involved locally in all manner of citizen (neighbor) –level empowerment, such as participatory budgeting. And to be able to make corollaries in their work and initiatives in my own backyard, such as the Flux Factory and its role in participatory budgeting for Long Island City or the Brooklyn Solidarity Network.

Not to lay on excuses for time getting away from me, but these last weeks were sorta busy with erecting and watching melt, a three ton ice sculpture spelling out The Future – an intervention by artists LigoranoReese – in New York City for the Peoples’ Climate March and UN Climate Summit. Thanks to everyone who tuned in to the live stream!!!


Lead image: SenseLabs, Lethbridge, Alberta


Liaising with colleagues in the United States @ Americans for the Arts

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By Todd Lester


June 2014—Nashville, Tennessee

Big conferences.  There are often too many exciting sessions to fully attend and I find myself winded as I try to get a taste of two concurrent panels that are happening at opposite ends of the convention center. Chock full of new and compelling ideas and people to meet, the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention in Nashville, Tennessee was no exception.  One of the best things about going to a big conference is seeing old friends.  I met Matthew Mazzotta several years ago in Boston.  It was nice to see him in Nashville and to witness all of the positive feedback that his 2013 Open House project in York, Alabama garnered (from a Public Art Award to individual conference-goers stopping him to chat).  We got to talk about making works in public and how to get paid as an artist; Matthew turned me onto a database for sharing pay rates called Who Pays Artists? … which reminds me of another forum, called ArtLeaks, in which artist compensation and other critical topics are discussed.  I also got to catch up with some Facebook friends like Favianna Rodriguez, a California-based artist and activist, and Roberto Bedoya, the Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council.  I loved hearing Roberto talk about a counter-narrative to creative placemaking called ‘place keeping’, which comes from some of his colleagues in Detroit … makes sense, right? Roberto co-authored this important report called People, Land, Arts, Culture, and Engagement: Taking Stock of the PLACE Initiative that is published by the Tucson Pima Arts Council.  There was a robust discussion on the pros and cons of cultural plans by cities.  Some people felt that plans by the creative industries are empowering and others felt that creativity and culture should be included in the overall city (organizational) plans so as not to be sidelined.  And an audience member added poignantly, “Culture plans are expensive”.














It’s all quite a blur really and I’m still processing the business cards and site-specific references, such as How the Arts Transformed Starksboro, Vermont; the Portland Art Tax; a pilot project for the National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response in Southern California; and how the Dodge Foundation Gives $5.2 Million Boost to Arts Groups in order to mitigate the impact of state budget cuts in its home state of New Jersey.  There were some concrete takeaways that refer back to the topic of my first post on the role of the intermediary—such as the talk by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, on the document Living Theory of Change, which explains the guiding principles of the Life is Living festival.  I think that the information in Artists Engaging in Social Change: A Continuum of Impact by the Animating Democracy unit of Americans for the Arts is very useful.  And Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy, a publication by The Culture Group (of which Favianna Rodriguez is a member), is also worth a read and easy to download.  Let’s see … what else:  I learned something new from Jason Das who told me about the global movement of Urban Sketchers; was encouraged to meet Michael Rohd, the founder of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice; met some artists from Canada who made it all the way to Nashville for the conference; and heard a whisper of a possible collaboration between ArtPlace (US) and Artscape (Canada) in the future.  Good stuff, all in all … thanks for reading!

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On Joining The Arts & Society Team of Cities for People

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by Todd Lester

Hi, my name is Todd Lester and while I come from Tennessee and—somehow—live between New York City and São Paulo, I’ve been working with Canadian partners to build and strengthen multilateral projects for the last ten years. For nearly the same length of time, I have co-hosted yearly conferences dealing with pertinent issues in art and society on Wasan Island in the beautiful Muskoka Lakes of Ontario. These summer meetings are organized under the aegis of freeDimensional, an organization I founded that helps artists- and activists-in-distress by providing safe havens in the form of artist residencies. The participants of these meetings on Wasan are artists who are passionate about social issues and who focus on those concerns in their art practices. Many of the participating artists are stakeholders of freeDimensional (which means that they have accessed our distress services); these are artists who live in repressive countries under harsh conditions or who are in the process of fleeing to a new location in order to avert danger. While I no longer work daily at freeDimensional, I recently helped design a series of Culture Worker Safety Workshops, which have recently been piloted in Mexico City and Tegucigalpa. By taking part in the organization’s evolution, I am reminded that its most essential function is (and has always been) to serve as an intermediary, connecting artists to resources during critical—if not dangerous—moments of their practice.













At the same time, artists in North America and Europe grapple with the same societal issues and themes in their work yet experience different setbacks—for instance rather than fear for personal safety, they may struggle with distance, lack of professional infrastructure and financial resources, or information asymmetry. These barriers can isolate them from other artists who are working on the same issues. Such obstacles can also sap precious time and limited resources; scarce assets that once spent may mean that an artist can no longer afford to focus on a pressing issue that they care deeply about. freeDimensional has identified and fills a gap in civil society by recognizing and supporting the arts and artists as important agents of social change. However, artists—the world over—do not always see themselves as activists. Thus, they may not have immediate access to activist resources when they are confronted by emergency situations. Providing artists with such resources ensures that they have the endurance and continuity that is essential to the work that they are trying to achieve.


As I move forward in my own career, I can see that I have been preoccupied with an intermediary role in most of my work—as I built the ResSupport project of ResArtis, co-conceived the Rockwood Leadership Institute’s Fellowship for Leaders in Arts and Culture, directed the Global Arts Corps, and helped the president of the World Policy Institute to shift the organizational culture of a 50-year old think tank in order to incubate collaborations between artists and policymakers. Fast-forward to my present role in Cities for People through the Arts & Society Team: I hope to acknowledge—and demystify—the intermediary function of art workers in society.

Todd Lester is an artist and cultural producer. He has worked in leadership, advocacy and strategic planning roles at Global Arts Corps, Reporters sans frontiers, and Astraea Lesbian Justice Foundation. He founded freeDimensional and Lanchonete.orga new project focused on the center of São Pauloand serves on the board of arts, rights and literary organizations in India, Mexico, Brazil and the US as well as the Arts & Society Team of Cities for People in Canada.