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Book Review: Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World

By Molly A. Daniels-Ramanujan
The Epoch Times
Apr 10, 2005

SHADOW CITIES: Investigative reporter Robert Neuwirth’s book Shadow Cities takes an in-depth look at squatter communities that have sprung up around major cities of the world.
In Shadow Cities, Robert Neuwirth, an investigative reporter from New York City, writes about squatter communities that have sprung up around major cities of the world. Since there are one billion squatters globally- 200,000 are being added daily- and within 25 years, there will be two billion. Shadow Cities contains large ideas that are of vital importance to city dwellers and planners.

Neuwirth’s first-hand, in-depth look comes from living in: “Four cities. Four countries. Four continents. Four cultures. One reality: squatters.” The evidence in the book is diametrically different from the way squatters are perceived by most people: in three of the four shadow cities he studied, the squatters create huge hidden economies; they are “the largest builders of housing in the world.” The lesson to be learned is a profound one.

Neuwirth spent two years in shantytowns in Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai, and Istanbul. He found that if the people are not evicted from their makeshift dwellings, there is no limit to their creativity in planning, designing, and improving their housing.

Neuwirth captures the vibrant Latin spirit in Rocinha, a favela, on a hillside in Rio. Living in Rocinha, he could see from his rented apartment, sublime sunsets. There were eateries, successful upscale businesses, adequate infrastructure, and music and dancing on the streets at night. He discovered along the way the reason why the people of Rocinha had no security problems. At night, gun-toting young men in the employ of drug lords policed the hillside.

The shantytown in Nairobi, called Kibera, is a complete opposite of the one in Rio. The squatters of Kibera will be evicted if they attempt to improve their muddy squalid airless single-room huts. Many are government servants, yet they are kept in a cycle of unimaginable poverty. The law is entirely on the side of the “absentee landlords” who live outside the shantytown.

Kibera is on the equator, yet there are no shade trees. There’s no relief from heat under tin roofs, from the overflowing sewage; they have no infrastructure, no electricity, no running water, no toilets, and no security. At night, due to lack of security, they urinate in plastic bags- called “flying toilets”- in the morning they twirl and throw their waste into whatever lies beyond. Kibera stands out as a most hellish place.

One of Neuwirth’s informants told him, “The government claims the land is forest. When they come to ask for votes from the forest, we are suddenly changed from trees to people. But legally, we are just trees.”

In Mumbai (formerly Bombay) a city of 12 million, 6 million live in squatter communities. Their lean-tos and tent dwellings go up anywhere and everywhere, even in the ritziest areas. When demolished, they return and rebuild again. Their story is one of “despair, desperation, and triumph.”

After the tents of construction workers were repeatedly demolished in Colaba (a prime real estate area) and, after a hunger strike, and after writers and social activists joined their cause, the squatters were given a sunken marshland in Goregaon- where the soil had already been dug out and sold by a local thug.

The people did amazing things with the space: they leveled the land by filling it with the city’s garbage; they sealed the garbage to keep out the smells, they smashed rocks and rubble; they allotted an equal amount of space to each family, and they named it the Sanjay Gandhi Nagar (Nagar means city). To begin with, they had no water or electricity. They used the jungle as toilets. Now they have everything. They have continued to rebuild the original bamboo structures; their Nagar now contains people of every income level, including millionaires. When permitted, squatters improve a city.

The lesson seems to be that if a people are given the freedom to create better housing, the sky is the limit. The Mumbai media lionized Neuwirth. His New York credentials as a journalist, and his shaven head caught their fancy. But every time they interviewed him, they reported the opposite of whatever he said. He would say that he has encountered no crime: “I never felt threatened, never saw any crime, never even saw what I thought potentially criminal.” The headlines (even in The Times of India) the next day would read: “There is high crime in slums, certainly.”

In defense of the journalists, one might say that in Mumbai, same as in Brazil, there is an underground mafia that protects individuals, not visible to a visiting journalist. On the other hand, unless the Indian journalists had lived in a slum, they might not believe Neuwirth when he says that the quality of life in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar was as good as it gets for the majority of people in India’s commercial capital.

The shadow cities in Istanbul exhibit a genius of their own. Under an old law: people are allowed to build at night under cover of darkness, and if they are already settled in by morning, no one can demolish their houses. Such housing is called, gecekondu. Here too, the people periodically improve on their houses, till their makeshift dwellings begin to look like charming little country cottages with red tile roofs, gardens in front, and shade trees for sitting under in the warm season. What’s even more surprising is that the original gecekondus did not tumble down during the earthquakes. The houses that did crumble were the copycat versions built by developers.

Neuwirth reminds us that all cities began with squatters. He forays into the history of Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, and other great cities.

In the first half of the 20th century, Shanghai was the glittering Paris of the East, but beyond the central district, it was a shantytown. In 1949, the communist government razed the shantytowns. Now with the free market economy, migrant workers are coming back and “establishing their own self-built communities just beyond the city limits.”

Today, globally, one in six persons is a squatter. Shadow Cities is an in-depth look at what awaits the 200,000 people who are moving daily to the world’s cities.

Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World
by Robert Neuwirth (Routledge, NY, 2005)

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