Atlas Obscura has a fascinating look at the Torre de David in Caracas. This is a 45-story skyscraper that was originally intended to be finance industry office space, but construction was abandoned in 1994. Squatters moved in and today it’s the world’s tallest slum. Here’s the documentary:
Rest assured, a copy of that book is now making its way from Switzerland to the Southland. Shipping is free, so it only cost 45 euros (whatever the hell that is). If the current going price for City of Darkness on Amazon is any indication, maybe you should pick up a couple extra copies as an investment.
I bring up City of Darkness because the Kowloon Walled City came to mind as an obvious comparison, as another “vertical slum”. If you read City of Darkness, you’ll notice a striking similarity in the way that residents describe their community and the way that the establishment (governments, architects, urban planners) does.
To hear the authorities tell the tale, these places are overrun with crime and unsafe, the residents helpless victims. In the documentary, the establishment role is played by Guillermo Barrios, a professor of architecture and urbanism, who says that Torre de David is violent, not a good reuse of the structure, an example of “anti-housing” on which the government has turned its back. The Kowloon Walled City, due to arcane details of international relations, was similarly lightly-governed – a tiny island of People’s Republic of China territory surrounded by British Hong Kong.
Ask the people who live there to tell you their stories, and a much more detailed picture emerges. There is crime, like anywhere, but many residents say they feel safe and that nothing has happened to them. The young couple moving into and renovating an apartment are optimistic about getting a home for such a low price, and knowing where they’re going to spend the night. Another resident says the conversion of the tower is just the “nature of life” – people who had nowhere to go when it rains made a place to live. Read City of Darkness and you will hear many similar stories – people who, despite hardship, had escaped worse conditions in the PRC, built homes and businesses, and created a community.
Places that don’t follow the normal rules of development, like Torre de David and the Kowloon Walled City, live in a precarious position. The Kowloon Walled City initially received beneficial intervention from the outside, in the form of sewer lines, safe drinking water spigots, and legitimate power lines that weren’t a serious fire hazard. (Side note: score one for the engineers.) But eventually, its illegal slum apartments and businesses were deemed to be an embarrassment to the British and the Chinese, who both wanted to come out looking good from the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese control, and it was demolished in 1994. This despite the persistence of legal, but just as crappy, cage apartments in the rest of Hong Kong.
The establishment’s position on Torre de David is the same. It is revealing, though perhaps unintentional, that Barrios calls Torre de David a “symbol” of the failure of Venezuela’s cities. Symbolic failures can be solved with symbolic successes. Thus, demolishing a low-rise slum to build Pruitt-Igoe is a success, and demolishing Pruitt-Igoe when it becomes a symbol of urban failure is also a success. Barrios concludes that the people in the tower need to be relocated to “adequate residences, adequately planned around a vision of habitat, of housing with integrated public services”.
Realistically, the physical form of Torre de David has little to do with any social problems, just like physical form had little to do with the problems of pre-WW2 US slums demolished during urban renewal. Social problems are us, and you can’t build new housing to escape yourself. Crime, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, unsafe water, electrical, and sewer service – all of these problems are just as solvable in Torre de David as they would be in some theoretically-planned housing project, if not more, because in Torre de David you can capitalize on existing social networks. But solving symbolic problems is much easier than solving real problems.
Now, this post might seem awfully libertarian to you (I’m surprising myself a little), and you might think I don’t care about people in poor living conditions (not true at all). But that last quote should have sent a chill down your back, because it’s the exact same logic that planners used when they wiped swaths of American cities off the map back in the urban renewal era. My critique isn’t based on Murray Rothbard, it’s straight out of Jane Jacobs.
The stories you hear from residents of Torre de David today were being told by residents of the Kowloon Walled City in 1989, and they could have been told by residents of Boston’s West End in 1955. In every case, residents are saying, look, we want to work with the government to make our community better. And the response of policy thinkers makes it clear they have little interest in that – in actually understanding how the neighborhood works, which Jacobs flagged as one of the biggest problems in urban planning. It makes me really wonder just how much we’ve learned about cities in the last 60 years.