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Investigative Reporting: Squatter Nation

Investigative Reporting: Squatter Nation by Ellen Pearlman

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

One billion, or one in six people on this planet, are squatters. It’s a number ballooning daily as the poor, driven from farmlands and villages by modernization and industrialization, move into corrupt cities ill equipped to house, feed, sanitize and clothe them.

Rob Neuwirth, a longtime Williamsburg resident who I have occasionally bumped into on the street walking his bright eyed dog, didn’t just talk the talk when he wrote this book, he walked the walk and spent two years (courtesy of a MacArthur Foundation grant) living in squats in Rio, Nairobi, Kenya, Mumbai and Istanbul. Shadow Cities, his engaging book, is the result of his sojourns.

What is a squat? It’s a lot more than the takeover of a dozen buildings in the East Village a generation ago. Neuwirth informs us that a century or more ago there were squats in Red Hook, the East and West sides of Manhattan, and Central Park. Hunter College was built atop a squat and Ebbetts Field was a squat called “Pigtown.” Thanks to reforms in property law, that can’t happen anymore. However, squats now comprise two-thirds of Nairobi’s population as well as half of Mumbai’s and a fifth of Rio’s. The inhabitants live on illegal plots of land that they don’t hold title to, in buildings they are not allowed to build on, in circumstances that range from the luxury of piped-in water to the unique compensation of “flying toilets,” the norm in Nairobi. It’s so dangerous to go out after dark, you do your business inside a plastic bag and hurl it out the window, hopefully as far as you can toss a baseball, or at least as far as your neighbor’s roof. Of course, those in Mumbai don’t even possess the luxury of “flying toilets” and are forced by circumstance to do it in the road for all to see.

In Brazil there emerges a real neighborhood ruled by vicious drug  running thugs, but no one seems to care. They contribute to community causes and there is virtually no crime to speak of inside the favelas because all of it is committed in the neighborhoods outside of them. Besides, with the system reinforced by a bevy of watchers, eyes and snitches, cross the drug lords’ iron-fisted rule and you’re dead. That’s squatter-style justice, and a great incentive to play by their rules. Given this kind of stability, small, illegal businesses flourish and illegal apartments are sold and notarized just like in the legal world. In fact the only time a gun was pulled on Neuwirth during his entire stay was by the police.

In Sultanbeyli, Istanbul, there are 150 illegal avenues, 1,200 illegal streets, 30,000 illegal houses, 15 illegal neighborhoods, 91 illegal mosques, 22 illegal schools with 48,000 illegal students—for a total of 300,000 illegal people. This huge, hidden economy sprang up in pieces literally overnight because of the obscure law of gecekondus, which says if you build it in the dead of night, it’s yours by dawn.

And what about all those NGOs and government organizations? What are they doing? Neuwirth hooked up with UN Habitat, bloated with conferences and studies but not with anyone who got down and dirty with the squatters, an especially vexing fact since they were within a stone’s throw of the Kibera slums in Nairobi.

Neuwirth’s central argument is that squatters should stop being treated as illegals and afforded the same kind of respect we gave our own pioneer Western settlers in the U.S.. Squatters, the poorest of the poor, have taken, without any government assistance, matters into their own hands. Using mud, cardboard, bricks, and corrugated metal, they build homes and neighborhoods. Electricity is filched, roads are slowly paved, and generations grow up and raise new families. Illegal landlords abound, and when asked what would happen if governments suddenly granted land titles to them, they answer, “There will be war.” The philosophical justifications and arguments Neuwirth weaves into the book are difficult to wade through, but what keeps the narrative moving, and ultimately daringly original, is Neuwirth’s pure moxie in living life among the world’s most desperate of desperadoes.

Find out more on the Shadow Cities blog, at squattercity.blogspot.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 05-JAN 06

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