Bom Retiro

Bad Health in a Good Retreat: Life and Death in the “Worst” neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil


Bom Retiro Health Clinic

“Bad Health in a Good Retreat” focuses on the relationship between “Public Health” (as a project of institutions) and “The Public’s Health” (as understood by the population) by examining the history of one working-class/poor block in Bom Retiro (the “good retreat” of the title) neighborhood over a period of about 130 years. The neighborhood is a multicultural one with Catholic immigrants from Southern Europe predominating in the nineteenth century, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settling prior to World War II, and more recently immigrants of various faiths from Korea, China, Bolivia, and Paraguay. I, along with students and colleagues from Emory, the Federal University of São Paulo, and the University of São Paulo have been working with a Brazilian health system medical team in addition to conducting archival research as we explore long-term continuities in the relationship between health professionals and the public.  

Members of the team carrying vaccines

I have chosen the micro approach for a number of reasons.  First, my observation of the medical team allows me access to buildings and inhabitants, including sweatshops, unregulated multi-family housing settlements, and formal and informal businesses. Bom Retiro also contains two important institutions related to public health and the public’s health.  One is the Central Disenfectory, built in 1893 built over Brazil’s first immigrant hostel (think Ellis Island), is today operated by the São Paulo Secretary of Health as a museum/archive and as a medical warehouse. Across the street, the Public Health Clinic sits on a lot that has housed a leprosy treatment center, a pro-natalist education site for expectant mothers, and a sexual health inspectory.

Members of the Lesser Research Team

“Bad Health in a Good Retreat” is funded by the University of São Paulo’s Institute for Advanced Study, the São Paulo State Research Foundation (FAPESP), the Emory University Research Council, and the Emory College of Arts and Sciences Interdisciplinary Faculty Fellowship.

Dr. Uriel Kitron and I recently published an article [in English and Portuguese] on the “Social Geography of Zika in Brazil” that uses many of the multi-disciplinary approaches the Lesser Research Collective uses in Bom Retiro.


The S. Daniel Abraham Center for International and Regional Studies, Tel Aviv University (January 2019)