Monday, August 13, 2012

what providence?

In a New York Times Op-Ed, Theresa Williamson, of, and Maurício Hora,  of Favelarte, document how Rio de Janeiro's Olympic plans involve the destruction of most of the first favela, Morro do Providência.

Here's a frightening detail: "at the very top of the hill, some 70 percent of homes are marked for eviction — an area supposedly set to benefit from the transportation investments being made. But the luxury cable car will transport 1,000 to 3,000 people per hour during the Olympics. It’s not residents who will benefit, but investors."

Their proposal is inclusion:  "Rio is becoming a playground for the rich, and inequality breeds instability. It would be much more cost-effective to invest in urban improvements that communities help shape through a participatory democratic process. This would ultimately strengthen Rio’s economy and improve its infrastructure while also reducing inequality and empowering the city’s still marginalized Afro-Brazilian population"

Seems like a gold medal solution--but Rio seems determined to pave Providência and put up a parking lot.


Ruth said...

Dear Mr. Neuwirth,

I am studying at the University of Cape Town in South Africa for the semester and am from the United States. I am writing a review on "Shadow Cities" for my Third World Politics course. It is very interesting and I have learned so much about squatter communities. Could you explain to me you main thesis of the book? Your response would be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much!

rn said...

Ah, Ruth, it seems to me I have failed if you can't articulate the main thesis of the book.

Please give it a try. What do you think the book is arguing. Then I'll be glad to respond. Thanks.

Ruth said...

I believe the book is arguing that everyone has a right to a home, especially one where they can feel secure. Squatters are regular people with only a different picture of their household. Most do not have title deeds, but that does not mean they are not entitled to equality and respect by the media, other citizens, government, law enforcement, public works, and UN-HABITAT. "Shadow Cities" is proving that there are stories behind each squatter, that they do not live in filthy "slums," and that they are just trying to live normal lives and support their families.

rn said...

Perfect! What do you need me for? My only quarrel would be with the phrase "with only a different picture of their homes." I'd say squatters have a very similar image of their homes and neighborhoods that most people do. It's we non-squatters who promulgate that different image--through the word 'slum,' for instance.

What more would you like to know?

Ruth said...

Thank you very much! Can you recommend three or four well-written articles or short works which also touch on the controversial issues related to squatting (specifically whether or not they are criminals and the matter of title deeds)? Or the best informational works on squatting (maybe from UN-HABITAT)? If it is too much of a burden, do not worry about it. I just wanted to get your perspective and experience. On another different note, what is your take on the recent use of squatting as a social movement (as seen in the Occupy movement)? Thanks again!

rn said...

Hey Ruth:

I don't know about short things, but here are few suggestions.

UN Habitat's annual reports on the state of the world's cities are full of amazing statistics. Don't only look at the summaries, though, because they are often massaged to make it look as if the UN is making great progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals. And remember, all of the statistics are, in some sense, made up: that is, they are extrapolations from sample data, not exact numbers.

There have been lots of scholarly papers on the results of the land titling program in Peru. Just google Peru and 'land titling' and you can find a number of them. They suggest that the title deed of course gives squatters security, which allows them to invest more in their homes. But it does not yield in increased mortgage lending or access to credit, which is at the heart of Hernando de Soto's argument about legalization liberating the 'dead capital' inherent in these communities. The point, I think, is that there's no 'one size fits all' answer. Private property titles may make sense in one setting, and may not work at all in another.

In South Africa, I would recommend any of the speeches and writings of S'bu Zikode, head of Durban's Abahlali baseMjondolo. Both Abahlali ( and Slum Dwellers International ( have links to papers and articles on their web sites.

As I say in Shadow Cities, there is no mud hut utopia. I don't want to romanticize conditions in these communities. But people are not their material conditions--and outsiders tend to concentrate purely on deprivation without taking into account the economic and political reasons these communities exist, the social bonds people have created, and the economic energy embedded there.

A few other thoughts:

For inspiration, check out two novels: Berji Krisin, Tales from the Garbage Hills, by Latife Tekin, a magical book inspired by Istanbul's gecekondu. And Texaco, by Patrick Chamouiseau, which seems formed from the mud of the squatter settlements of Martinique.

John F.C. Turner's books Housing by People and Freedom to Build are date back a few decades, but the principles in them are still relevant. The anthropologist Lisa Peattie understood squatter communities long before many others. And sociologist Janice Perlman continues to put out groundbreaking work on the favelas of Brazil.

Alan Mayne's book The Imagined Slum documents how property developers, wealthy do-gooders, and newspapers invented the idea of the slum in the Victorian era.

An obviously incomplete and chaotic list....but I hope it helps.

rn said...

PS -- typo alert: Berji Kristin (not Krisin)