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Robert Neuwirth's "Shadow Cities"
Ethan Zuckerman, 31 Jan 05

Robert Neuwirth has a thing for squatters. Fascinated by the illegal, homemade neighborhoods lived in by a billion people worldwide, Neuwirth spent two years (courtesy of a MacArthur Foundation grant) living in four squatter neighborhoods around the world: Rocinha, in Rio, Brazil; Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya; Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, in Mumbai, India; and Sultanbeyli, in Istanbul, Turkey. His time living in these neighborhoods has led to a book - Shadow Citiesand a blog, Squatter Cities.

His time in these communities has cemented his conviction that urban planners, NGOs and city governments need to stop thinking of squatters as outlaws and to start thinking of them as productive fellow citizens:

"The true challenge is not to eradicate these communities but to stop treating them as slums - that is, as horrific, scary and criminal - and start treating them as neighborhoods that can be improved. They don't need to be knocked down and built new, because in most cases this will only produce housing that is not affordable to the people who are living there."

To convince the readers that these communities aren't as horrific as we might think, Neuwirth spend the first half of the book recounting his experiences in these neighborhoods, helping us to understand the details of daily life and how these neighborhoods came to be. Clearly, not all squatter cities are created equally - Sultanbeyli is almost indistinguishable from other new neighborhoods of Istanbul, despite the fact that many builders took advantage of a Turkish law called "gecekondu", which allows illegal building during nightime hours, so long as the structure is occupied the next morning.

And Rocinha, where new businesses are opening everyday, and moped-taxis shuttle passengers between three-story apartment buildings - built illegally - sounds downright idyllic. (At least, until he explains that security in the neighborhood is provided by the local druglords and their semi-automatic weapons.)

But even a squatter afficianado like Neuwirth has to acknowledge that life in Kibera can be rough. In parts of the neighborhood, it's so dangerous at night that residents are afraid to walk to the nearby community latrines. (Instead they urinate in plastic bags, which they call "flying toilets", because they tie the bags shut and fling them as far away from their houses as possible.) One of his friends in Kibera loses all his possessions when local thugs dig through his mud walls to enter his house. Neuwirth discovers that there's an art to staying clean in a neighborhood where water costs up to 30 times what it does in the "legal" city, and that he hasn't mastered it - his friends confess that they find his disheveled appearance comical.

It's personal touches like this that make the book an enjoyable read. Neuwirth is an excellent reporter, and when he's sharing his experiences, he's an entertaining, if occasionally didactic, companion. The book fares less well when he tries to provide a historical content and philosophical justification for squatting. We get a whirlwind tour of squats through history, starting in ancient Rome, moving through the mining camps that became San Francisco and Sacramento, and an extended discussion of squatting in turn of the 20th century New York City. Neuwirth wants us to understand that squatting is a movement with a long history - it's hard not to get the sense, though, that it's a phase that cities in the developed world moved through and overcame as they matured.

Neuwirth wants to end the book with a critique of land ownership, hoping to demonstrate that while individuals should have rights of posession, they shouldn't have rights of property. In other words, he wants squatters - as well as "legitimate" property owners - to have some certainty that they will continue to possess their homes, but doesn't want non-resident landlords to speculate in property markets, turning land into a commodity.

It sounds like Neuwirth read a lot of philosophy by the light of oil lamps while living in the developing world. It takes him roughly 5 pages to reject Locke's theory of property and Aristotle on government, and to paint Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto as a "hypercapitalist" with a land-title fetish. Even Peter Marcuse, son of radical Marxist Herbert Marcuse, is against him, terming squatting an essentially "conservative" movement based on individual, rather than collective action.

Ultimately, he finds solace in Marx, Arendt, and ultimately, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French socialist, who declared "Property is robbery." As Neuwirth explains:

...there's a difference between property and possession. Property turns land into a commodity: people own land not to use it, or because they need it for survival, but simply as an investment. Possession guarantees personal use and control rather than profit. For Proudhon, property, not money, is the root of all evil..."

While "Shadow Cities"is a useful introduction to these growing communities, and goes a long way towards building the reader's appreciation for the ingenuiety and creativity of developing world squatters, one is left with few concrete steps to take. Neuwirth is deeply mistrustful of NGOs working on this issue, and spends a chapter on the follies of the UN's Habitat project, which is based in Nairobi, near Kibera. He admires the legal flexibilities that have made Rocinha and Sultanbeyli so liveable, but seems concerned that these neighborhoods are "selling out", and becoming unaffordable for the most needy squatters. If there's a single, overarching solution to the problems squatters face, Neuwirth doesn't seem to have it.

Ultimately, Neuwirth's primary goal is increasing our understanding of squatter communities - something he accomplishes admirably in "Shadow Cities,"and continue to focus on in his blog. Both are recommended to anyone interested in the reality of urban life in the developing world and in a set of issues that developing nations will be confronting in the immediate future.

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Proudhon could better be described as an anarchist than a socialist (he thought one could not exist without the other.) I don't intend (or want!!!) to bring to the table discussions of philosophy, that's just usually his moniker everywhere else I have seen it.

Posted by: Ben Hunt on 31 Jan 05



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