SHADOW CITIES: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World
Robert Neuwirth, Routledge, New York, 2005.
As Rob Neuwirth acknowledges in this book, he was "big in Bombay" -- something of a star when he was here two years ago. Which other journalist deliberately chooses a home in a slum -- Neuwirth objects to the word, but he'll indulge my use of it here -- and then writes about his experience? More: he also lived in slums in three other great cities around the world. Who ever did that?
You can read this book as a voyeur, to peer into homes of people who live in what we think are dreadful conditions. If you do that, you'll ooh and aah: at flying toilets; the fan that threatens but never quite manages to decapitate; water pipes that need mouth-to-mouth treatment ... ooh, aah, do these things really happen?
They do. But you can more usefully read Shadow Cities as an examination of attitudes and policies towards squatters, both in the four cities Neuwirth lived in and historically, in several great Western cities. Do that, and you may start wondering with Neuwirth "about the morality of a world that denies people jobs in their home areas and denies them homes in the areas where they have gone to get jobs."
Which, of course, is the issue. It's the truth that Bombay's Shobhaa Des and Vilasrao Deshmukhs must come to terms with when they call for these homes to be torn down. 100,000 homes destroyed, half a million humans left homeless last December and January. Where's the morality?
Yet think what might change in those numbers, those attitudes, if more of us recognized what Neuwirth does in this book: that these are people. And these people building homes for themselves is a process that's "sensible, patriotic and worthy of a true citizen."
"Patriotic"? You're spluttering, I know. Illegal encroachers, and they're "patriotic"? What's the man been smoking?
Whatever it is, it's humane, practical stuff. But you don't need to smoke it yourself to understand what slums are really about and how cities must approach them. Instead, read this work of hard-nosed yet graceful journalism.
Excerpts from an interview with Neuwirth:
Q: How did this project change you?
A: [It] removed some ideological blinders: previously I had tended to romanticize the idea of squatters. But the reality is harsh. There is no good reason for people in Rio or Nairobi or Mumbai or Istanbul to have to live with no water or no sewers or no sanitation. Squatter or not, the cities are simply not serving the mass of poor people.
Q: Will attitudes towards squatters -- among the middle-class, the media, the authorities -- ever change?
A: Middle-class attitudes are hard to change. It remains strange to me that in India middle-class people will hire squatters as drivers or cleaners or child care workers or security personnel or laborers, but at the same time will worry about criminality and bad morals in squatter communities. ... When squatters stop voting for outsiders and start voting for themselves, thus claiming a place in the doings of government, it will [force] reporters and middle-class people to pay a different kind of attention to their communities.
Q: You write of squalid hutments in London and New York just a century ago. Some readers will react by saying "Yeah, and because they took firm action in those cities, look at them now! Let's keep up the demolitions!" How would you respond?
A: Ah, but they do have slums. New York has thousands of homeless people. The homeless used to erect shacks in all sorts of out of the way places. Many little communities were demolished in the 1980s and 1990s. For homeless families, the city spent millions of dollars renovating apartments. ...
The point is to work with the squatters. No one wants to live in a tiny wooden structure on the pavement. No one wants to live without water or sanitation. If the cities make minimal investments, the squatters will do the rest.
New York, S.F., London, Paris: these cities developed because they were able to be economic engines for their people and not because they pushed out squatters. As long as Mumbai remains a center of economic growth, where people can get jobs and make money, the city will grow.