Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth

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Posted 2005-09-13

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

Robert Neuwirth sojourned two years in slums on four continents and observed poverty, despair, and political corruption, but he also experienced a great deal of human spirit. Indomitable in his tone of hope, Neuwirth portrays squatters as entrepreneurs who cope by staying outside of "the asphalt world" as some squatters term the streets and political system of the legal city.

The strength of this book is in its mix of direct experience and reflection on history that brings into relief these stark assertions:

Rio de Janeiro slums show how housing and free enterprise thrive where residents have a sense of control and some assurance their efforts will not be arbitrarily destroyed. Neuwirth introduces the Rocinha area through the story of Pizza Lit, a pizza restaurant that operates outside of tax and regulation concerns. He describes the modular, incremental, and "organic" (p. 55) building construction techniques which transition through materials: cardboard to wood, wood to brick, brick to reinforced concrete. This allows people to build their dwellings piece by piece, as they can afford it, without going into debt, and as their family needs change. The precarious legal basis of the residents rests on historic precedents of occupation and use as conferring legitimacy. Neuwirth observes a man, Jorge, issuing papers that are "title deeds that weren't title deeds" that assign possession of a property from one person to another. These documents are filed with residents' associations, and apparently are recognized through the same socially-constructed view of property rights that fuels the growth of the slum itself.

In the Nairobi slums, Neuwirth observes a somewhat more precarious situation. Government corruption, thievery, and endless exploitation means that the slum dwellers don't feel secure, so their building materials and their resources don't advance. Getting water is a tremendous problem, so its control is a source of power for those who exploit the residents. A World Bank effort layed some pipes for water, but years went by with the pipes still dry, and then the pipes were sold for scrap (p. 83). What draws people to the slum, as one resident explains is affordability: "Well, I can afford life, the rent is low, and food is cheap" (p. 83). Ironically, the miserable conditions of the slum support its accessibility, and the feedback system of corruption keeps misery in place.

Mumbai slums show a class structure resulting from the estimated 6 million squatters in the city of 12 million. People find ingenious ways to build over undesirable land and to improve dwellings. Small businesses "need the unregulated, illegal space to maintain their modest profit margins" (p. 127). Women create savings programs to give residents some sense of control as well as establish support networks. Neuwirth underscores the scale of Mumbai's slums at the end of this chapter: the slums are the city--the legal areas are the small enclaves.

Istanbul slums show a process whereby squatters gain legitimacy through traditions viewing that anything built overnight could not be destroyed without judicial review (p. 164) as well as a process whereby settlements can apply for legal status once they reach a certain size. The chapter ends with Neuwirth relating $1,000/month average rents in New York. In response, the residents laugh, and one advises the author "You come and build [in the slum] ... you will be free" (p. 173).

Neuwirth ends the book with sections covering historic slums and current issues. Essentially, humans have been squatters in a variety of environments throughout human history. In ancient Greece and Rome, people went to cities and set up shelters in public spaces and established sections of squatter areas in labyrinths of alleyways (p. 181). In 19th century North America, shanties and slums grew up in booming areas (San Francisco during the gold rush) or in immigrant enclaves (New York City). Real-estate claims and evolving urban political machines alternately ignored, exploited, rallied against, courted for votes, or destroyed squatter settlements (eventually slums would be institutionalized as public housing for many of the same purposes).

Neuwirth's final section focuses on squatter settlements as political pawns in corrupt schemes put forth by national governments or "nonprofits" that exploit the plight of squatters and repeatedly propose, talk about, and spend money on plans, ideas, consultants, and many things not related to the squatters' lives. Notable for its failure is the United Nations Habitat program which Neuwirth examines, considers, and labels a "fantasy."

What is striking about this book is its perhaps unintended theme of the intransigent system of the slums. Their formation and growth stems from their misery--lack of water, sanitation, building codes, security--serving as a kind of protective coating ensuring affordability and a certain amount of invisibility and control for its new and established residents. This does not come without cost. Although Neuwirth obsessively declares the slums he encounters should be not be characterized in terms of crime, he is shocked (shocked!) that journalists covering his stay in Mumbai seem to twist his statements to serve their agenda of portraying the slums as crime-filled. (His wry humor here seems to tell me he acknowledges that the portrayal of the slums shifts easily based on the agenda of the person describing them.) However, Neuwrith catalogs crimes on page after page, ranging from drug-dealing, robbery, murder, piracy, fraud, bribery, intimidation, assault, theft of electricity, water, cable service, etc, etc, in addition to the serious dangers residents face that should be considered moral crimes in terms of disease, health, safety, and random, whimsical exploitation by thugs and/or government representatives. Indeed, the slums are based on a system that operates outside the rule of law precisely because the system in which the "rule of law" operates is so full of political corruption and other burdens. In the slums, a vibrant, free-market economy of small businesses operates under a protective (illegal) coating under the radar of regulations, laws, and taxes, and the scale of the economy of the slums (very low costs of housing, business space, food, etc) matches the needs of the businesses and people.

I do not see slum dwellers as a romantic vanguard proving any particular ideology. Slum dwellers face debilitating indignities daily that threaten their health and lives. Slums serve as a setting for large-scale organized crime that affects people worldwide. The significance of Neurwirth's account may be its documentation of human survival strategies that on the surface may seem very primitive and anti-social, but perhaps may be a complex and actually very sophisticated reaction to corrupt political systems.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©