Written by Staff Writer at CNN

There are now fewer than 9 million people living in the city center of Sao Paulo, down from more than 11 million a decade ago.

Since 2000, more than 870,000 people have left the city, mostly for suburbs such as Rio de Janeiro, the capital of neighboring state Espirito Santo and the state of Minas Gerais.

But what is most noticeable is the absence of people -- or groups of people -- on the city's landscape. The large buildings you see in Brazil's biggest city are now empty.

Here's why.

Ghost buildings

Tourists have the chance to drive a mile around the financial district of Sao Paulo. Image: Photo: Arito y Guerra

Banks, shopping malls, office blocks, many residential towers and even seaports have been deserted in what is now the city's financial district. In 2009, CNN Brazil tracked how empty most of the building at the neighborhood of Henrique do Sal had become -- almost no one even lived there.

One building, formerly occupied by the Banco Itau, stands empty. Looking out over one of the busiest streets in the city, it seems that the company's employees relocated elsewhere.


The area of downtown Sao Paulo that includes the financial district is now virtually empty, almost no one lives there. Image: Reuters

Though its heart may be still there, its soul seems lost. The offices that house Federal Bank have been empty for more than 10 years. In another office building, a group of people sit around in a group chat, perhaps reflecting on life in a city that is losing its businesses -- some 1,200 people have left the city during the past six years.

"There's a lack of people and projects," says Garcia Filho, who works for the opposition senator in Brazil's Congress. "There is also the feeling that the city can only be big in theory -- they need to make it big -- but it's empty in real life."

Empty spaces

A Brazilian man looks out over a crowd of taxis outside one of the abandoned offices in Sao Paulo's financial district. Image: Reuters

The streets are empty, but there is no lack of taxis: There are many taxi stands in the empty city center, a point often cited as proof of how successful former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was during his time in office. Lula, a left-wing economist, was Brazil's most popular politician, responsible for free health care and education.

All across Sao Paulo -- where office blocks went up but apartment blocks, residential buildings and even parks all remain empty -- the former president is blamed for the city's situation.

'Fading ambition'

Brazil's state government continues to receive all the money, but very little is spent -- in fact money is taken out. Image: Arito y Guerra

On Sao Paulo's outskirts, state government offices are still well stocked, despite less than 1% of residents paying taxes. Many maintain their presence in spite of falling revenue, demonstrating what many believe to be a rise in the city's decline.

"The failure of the city to meet its obligations is to blame," says an employee at a state government office. "It seems as if the city has become less and less ambitious in the face of financial difficulty."


A woman stands in front of an empty office building in downtown Sao Paulo. Image: Getty Images

Despite this lack of interest, however, things may be changing. In recent months, the Brazilian government has begun imposing business charges. This, along with new taxes on alcohol and its promotion of public holidays have seen businesses resume their presence in downtown Sao Paulo.

"In its final form, the tax proposal is intended to dampen what many consider the city's growing monopoly over commerce," says Michael Moran of the Economist Intelligence Unit. "That, along with the less-than-sizable evictions of businesses and temporary closures of buildings, suggests that the interest being shown by companies, especially those responsible for large and structural investment, may have already been the prerequisite for a normalization of the city's capital. This is consistent with other attempts to support the return of companies to Sao Paulo."

But it remains to be seen whether the city's decline has truly "normalized" itself, a point that even Guerrero admits is difficult to judge.

"I don't know," he says. "I was born here -- this is my home, my heart. I know it is feeling empty today. But, a lot of lives have been fulfilled during these years. Sometimes it takes years for something to reach normalcy. I hope now that it will once again feel normal."