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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

Metropolis and Slums

Within a short time, the social structure of those cities in which a split society had taken shape began to appear in their physical contours. In order to accommodate a bourgeois society, these cities, originally built on a modest scale, had expanded and developed a modern infrastructure tailored to the growth of the population. But the urban explosion had changed the size of that population, and the physical city was again threatening to burst at the seems.

When the first shock was felt, the sheer number of new arrivals altered the character of the city and drew attention to the fact of change. There were more people in the streets. It was difficult to find a house or an apartment. Shacks began to appear on vacant lots that very quickly mushroomed into neighborhoods. Trolleys and buses became more and more crowded. But behavior began to change, too: on the streets, on public transportation, in shops. In the past, there had been some semblance of courtesy. Now one had to push and shove to defend one’s place. One had to stand in line even to go to the cinema. All those mannerisms that had previously made someone “urbane,” those rules and conventions of an educated people accustomed to city life, were abandoned.

Numbers changed the way that people moved within the city. The narrow streets in the old downtown district were unable to hold the growing numbers of people. How could one stop and chat with a friend in the financial district of the city? Even the traditional streets for promenading, from Florida in Buenos Aires to Conde in Santo Domingo, began to have a frantic pace. Little by little one discovered that they were surrounded by strangers. Urban transportation could no longer absorb the growing population. The number of automobiles increased; trolleys were replaced by more agile busses. At all hours of the day, especially during rush hours, getting out of the downtown area in a car would be a time-consuming ordeal, though the wait at the bus stop could be worse. Subways became a necessity: following Buenos Aires’ lead in 1914, Mexico City was the second city to install one. After World War II, officials of various other capitals began to make plans for subways. In the meantime, although costly highway networks, like those of Caracas or the beltway around Mexico City, were built to handle traffic problems, they were unable to avoid seriously interfering with the traditional circulation pattern that was part of the old way of life. Some streets were widened, others were repaved, and traffic signals were installed, all in an effort to alleviate the serious problems created, especially by the ever-increasing number of automobiles. Bottlenecks began to be part of the urban landscape in the Latin American metropolis. Where to park the car generally became a more important issue than what one intended to do when one set out in the car.

Numbers altered population density in the cities. The traditional, rather flat city skyline was transformed as more and more apartment buildings went up, first downtown and then in the residential neighborhoods. The architectural mass of El Silencio would appear on Caracas’ skyline and the Torre Latinoamericana on Mexico City’s, as if challenging the colonial cities at their feet. They were monuments to the power of the State, the power of the banks, insurance companies, big foreign companies. These were soon followed by apartment buildings that created a new kind of neighborhood, attracting those who wanted to get out of the old mansions, with their courtyards, many rooms, and a small army of domestic help. For every two or three houses razed, an eight- or ten-story building went up, with twenty or thirty apartments that were home to as many families. The apartment buildings were not just a kind of neighborhood but also a form of architecture. Their height blocked the sunlight from reaching the streets and spelled doom for the trees on the sidewalks. The streets seemed narrower, and then they became even narrower as more and more people parked their cars along them. The city began to take on a monumental air that, with the tall prisms of cement, became a sign of modern times.

At the same time, numbers increased the value of urban property. With demand on the rise, the large properties were subdivided. Further out, old country estates, swallowed up in the urban sprawl, were divided into lots. Property values rose sharply, especially when the prospect of inflation made investment in real estate a wise move. Then values became speculative. A certain neighborhood or street, or even one particular block on a street, might become fashionable and have a certain snob appeal for “social climbers.” Property values skyrocketed, partly because demand was on the rise, and partly because they were focal points of speculation. Apart from the cost of the urban and suburban property—divided up into lots and advertised as the Promised Land—one also had to charge for lot preparation, the expenses of advertising, and sales promotion. But most of all, when a property went on the market for the first time, its sellers expected the first buyer to pay a premium, anticipating the profits that initial buyer would make once the property was resold. Middle- and low-income people who just wanted a place to live had to move further and further out where prices had not yet been caught up in the speculative spiral.

Finally, numbers raised once again the problem of public services. Planned and installed to serve a certain radius with a stable population density, usually at a time when costs were relatively low, public services were challenged daily by the expansion of the built-up areas and the increase in population density. Pushed to the maximum with the emergence and growth of industrial centers that drew heavily upon them, water supply, drainage, and power services soon became inadequate. Since every city had a metropolitan area growing around it, steps had to be taken to renew and expand the networks on a non-stop, almost limitless basis. The same thing happened with trash collection, a metropolitan nightmare since two days of strikes or holidays could leave mountains of trash even in the most central and well-tended parts of the city. The mail system suffered from chronic delays; telephones were saturated with calls despite technical improvements in equipment; fire fighters were powerless to fulfill both their original functions and the new roles they were called upon to perform in a complex metropolis. The police were overpowered not just by the increase in common crime but also by the increase in new dangers from which society wanted to be protected: drug trafficking, juvenile gangs, urban guerrillas. Neither schools nor hospitals were able to keep pace. Even cemeteries were filled, with no space available for those who died each day.

So many and such profound changes did not equally affect all sectors of the metropolis, already vast and complex before they began. They had a particular impact on the old center of the city. At times the administrative, commercial, and financial center moved out quickly, and the old downtown area began to deteriorate and decline in status. It might one day regain a certain dignity, protected by those who discovered that it was worth restoring, perhaps as a tourist attraction. In the meantime, however, businesses declined in standing, the old homes were left semi-abandoned or transformed into tenements, and the streets, once tranquil havens of the aristocracies, became the noisy territory of gangs of young men who played soccer or carried out their dangerous activities nearby. The bank buildings and a handful of wholesale businesses, perhaps even some government offices or the government house itself, tended to remain near the cathedral or the old city hall—provided that melancholy reminder of the colonial city was still standing. At the end of the work day, however, the area was deserted.

There were some big cities in which the old center never lost either its function or its dignity and was in fact improved to keep pace with the progress of the more advanced neighborhoods. Such was the case with Santiago, with the area north of the center of Buenos Aires, and to some extent with the old downtown area of Rio de Janeiro. Some of the good hotels (although perhaps not the best) stayed on, as did the old tourist attractions; new apartment buildings and public buildings were added. A certain continuity was preserved between the modernized old downtown and the new areas of the city.

Progress was also visible in those neighborhoods that, near the old city center, had long since been populated with well integrated lower middle-class and working-class families. There the homes of average- or low-income families alternated with tenement houses and modest businesses. These transition areas had at one time been suburbs and had benefited from the fact that urban development moved radically for the sake of good communications. But the important thing about their development was the influence that their long-standing integration exerted. If from the standpoint of urban development such areas ensured the continuity of an outwardly-expanding city, socially they were home to the initial wave of migrants who, in the more depressed areas, had their first taste of integration in these neighborhoods. “La Casa Grande,” that enormous tenement house that Oscar Lewis describes in his Five Families, was in such a neighborhood in Mexico City, near Tepito.

The tenants of the Casa Grande come from twenty-four of the thirty-two states of the Mexican nation. Some come from as far south as Oaxaca and Yucatán and some from the northern states of Chihuahua and Sinaloa. Most of the families have lived in the neighborhood for fifteen to twenty years, some as long as thirty years. Over a third of the households have blood relatives within the neighborhood, and about a fourth are related by marriage and compadrazgo. These ties, plus the low, fixed rentals and the housing shortage in the city, make for stability. Some families with higher incomes, their small apartments jammed with good furniture and electrical equipment, are waiting for a chance to move to better quarters, but the majority are contented with, indeed proud of, living in the Casa Grande. The sense of community is strong, particularly among the young people who belong to the same gangs, form lifelong friendships, attend the same schools, meet at the same dances held in the patios, and frequently marry within the neighborhood. Adults also have friends whom they visit, go out with, and borrow from. Groups of neighbors organize raffles and tandas (informal mutual savings and credit plans), participate in religious pilgrimages together, and together celebrate the festivals of the neighborhood patron saints, the Christmas Posadas, and other holidays.

It was precisely because of those experiments in integration that such neighborhoods were regarded as part of the “other society.” They were mass neighborhoods, enclaves of the anomic. Established society stayed away, avoiding any contact with groups that to them seemed alien. In their flight, they formed new upper-class residential districts where unspoken rules kept socially inferior people out. For a long time high social standing was determined not simply by level of income, but by family history within the city and by previous social accomplishment.

This class-based demographic distribution was typical of the development of cities with a divided society. It was not a new phenomenon, yet it had never been so obvious. In Rio, it led to the development of Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblón, Gavea, and Tijuca; in Santiago, it created Providencia and Tobalaba; in Caracas, Sabana Grande, Chacaito, and the neighborhoods that sprang up beyond the Country Club; in Bogota, it led to the creation of Chapinero and Chicó; in Montevideo, it brought Pocitos and Carrasco; in Buenos Aires, it created the Barrio Norte and San Isidro; in Lima, Miraflores and Monte Rico; in Mexico City, San Angel and Pedregal. The residential suburb led to another novelty: the fashionable shopping center. Although the people who called these residential suburbs home said they were looking for peace and quiet, it was obvious that they were looking for exclusivity and relying on the fact that distance and the price of the land would keep out “undesirables.” A car was a necessity for those who lived so far from their places of work; before long, the family would need not just one car but two or three. High-level businesses, luxury boutiques, bars, and more sophisticated restaurants would emerge, as would members-only nightclubs and still more exclusive golf or tennis clubs: everything necessary for the residential suburbs to become a high-class ghetto with its own conventions and norms—what one had to have, what one had to say, what one had to think. These suburbs were always worried by the appearance of an outsider, someone who was not, as they say, “one of us.” These were the districts inhabited by the elite of established society.

Without a doubt, middle-class neighborhoods were part of established society. Some cities had old, traditional middle-class neighborhoods like Colonia Roma in Mexico City, El Cordón in Montevideo, Belgrano or Flores in Buenos Aires, or other suburban neighborhoods. As property values increased, those neighborhoods assured the position of their inhabitants; in them there soon appeared apartment buildings with certain pretensions that proclaimed the rising status of those who were buying horizontal property. But as the middle classes developed, housing became a problem for new groups, especially the middle-income ones. A salaried employee or average professional, even though prosperous, could not cover the cost of a home in one of the preferred neighborhoods. Although they were members of established society, they had to settle for more modest solutions and set their sights on suburban neighborhoods. At times, the State implemented a relatively effective housing policy, building homes generally described as “for employees”—just another way of saying that they were not for workers or the lower classes. Lending and long-term credit systems allowed a few to obtain the home of their dreams. At other times, imaginative businesses planned lots or developments for the middle class—generally the middle middle class—with a modicum of the conveniences and isolation that their clientele were seeking. As a rule they were one-family bungalows or large, multi-family apartment buildings; monotonous perhaps, but outfitted with conveniences and built in green areas so that they were sometimes called “garden cities.” When a company undertook a large-scale project, generally with heavy State investment, the result was something resembling a complete city, a separate world all its own, like the Ciudad Satélite in Mexico City or Ciudad Kennedy in Bogotá.

Not all the members of the industrial proletariat settled in specifically industrial suburbs, since the neighborhoods built by the unions were set up according to other criteria. But many preferred the proximity of the factories; in any case, the ever-present and recurring housing problems caused housing developments to spring up nearby. The industrial plants needed the urban infrastructure and therefore developed in certain parts of the city or even in the suburbs, away from the downtown area but not entirely detached from it. The decision to move a factory to more open areas came only when the city’s growth made it difficult for the factory either to remain within the inner city or to expand. And so in some cities, specific industrial zones developed. Sometimes they formed a ring around the city, as in the case of Buenos Aires. At other times they stretched in a particular direction, as in São Paulo where they lined the route to Santos. But other cities sprang up with the industry itself, grew alongside it, and created tight complexes of factories and housing that replicated the pattern of the old industrial neighborhoods in the large cities. Only in those places where pre-established sites were selected for an “industrial park” was any sophistication maintained.

In any event, it was inevitable that housing developments should go up in industrial areas, both within the city and in its outlying areas. Those that developed spontaneously were very different from those that the State or the unions planned and developed. The former were slums where people lived in tight and sordid quarters, but also in communal solidarity. These were the conventillos (poor tenement houses) described by the Chilean Nicomedes Guzmán in Los hombres oscuros [Dark Men] and La sangre y la esperanza [Blood and Hope]. In these neighborhoods, more than anywhere else, air was polluted, streets dirty, living space scarce. The planned developments, by contrast, were built in green areas and already had all the features of modern and hygienic housing. They were, for all intents and purposes, neighborhoods of the lower middle class, with playgrounds for children and a center for the arts. Even in prosperous cities, however, the supply of housing of this type was always much smaller than demand, and many industrial workers had to continue to live in depressed areas, since even their high salaries were unable to keep pace with the speculative land prices.

But established society was increasingly assimilating to its ranks a sizeable percentage of the industrial workers, with solid professional skills, stable jobs, good salaries, and powerful union organizations that helped them and provided them with social services. Only housing continued to be an insurmountable obstacle, as if the physical city were refusing to legitimize their newly acquired standing. The situation was similar for other high-income workers, as it was for those who managed to leave behind their salaried jobs to become their own boss: truckers who bought their own trucks, mechanics who set up a small shop, painters or bricklayers who succeeded in finding independent jobs and ended up forming small construction companies. All these became part of the established city in the middle-level, diffuse area that separated the working class from the petit bourgeois, hoping one day to resolve the problem of finding housing suited to their new status.

Those who were ostensibly not a part of established society were the people in the slums, those suburban settlements that, although not altogether new, grew rapidly after the crisis of 1930. They grew even more rapidly after 1940 until they finally became one of the poles of the physical layout of many cities, which reflected thus their social structure. In each country these settlements were called with a different name: callampas in Chile, villas miseria, and then simply villas in Argentina, barriadas in Peru, favelas in Brazil, cantegriles in Uruguay, ciudades perdidas in Mexico City, pueblos piratas in Colombia. But everywhere their generic names were “invasions,” “overnight settlements,” and above all rancheríos (encampments). Their name almost always had some curious, meaningful implication: some ironic twist or a pugnacious affirmation of something that until then would have been a source of shame—an attitude typical of the inner-city poor, who avoided words like callejón (blind alley), corralón (vacant lot) or conventillo (tenement house). But with the development of the new suburban neighborhoods, one could see a shift in attitudes among the invaders themselves.

It was not just the big cities that had slums, although theirs—more numerous and more heavily populated—had greater social significance. But slums could be found in many other cities of a different type. In Mexico, they proliferated at luxury beach resorts like Acapulco; from the hillsides their inhabitants, watching the parade of wealth below, slipped through the cracks in the structure of that idle society to gain whatever advantage they could. Slums also grew in Culiacán, the capital of the state of Sinaloa, a city surrounded by a rich agricultural region with no industrial development. The poverty belt that grew very quickly around it was a combination of over twelve neighborhoods of immigrants, made up of slums that lacked basic sanitary conditions and had no public services. There people speculated with drinking water and pirated electricity from public power lines. Slums also spread in Monterrey, a city of 1,300,000 and home to over 9,000 industries. A crowded net of poverty-stricken neighborhoods pressed in around its metropolitan area that increased by an estimated 40,000 people each year. Hovels built of cardboard or old plastic bags were home to a burgeoning population that lacked any kind of services, especially at the five neighborhoods built on trash dumps. In the 1970s estimates were that 40% of Monterrey’s population lived like this, and that 70% lacked at least some services.

The slums of many other cities could be described in much the same way. As in Monterrey, the explosive development of industry triggered settlements in Argentina, in Rosario and Córdoba, and in smaller cities like Zárate and San Nicolás, with populations of around 50,000. In Mexico, the slums of Puebla, built atop garbage dumps on the edge of the city, were home to 100,000 people who had no water supply. Slums also appeared in the Venezuelan cities of Maracaibo and Santo Tomé de Guayana, the latter a budding emporium receiving an estimated 1000 people every month that soon brought its population to over 150,000; in the Colombian cities of Medellín (which received half a million new inhabitants between 1938 and 1970), Manizales (where one-sixth of its half-million population lived in slums on hillsides, in constant danger of mud slides), Barranquilla, and Cartagena; in the Brazilian cities of Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte, which like São Paulo were invaded by migrants from the surrounding region and from the depressed northeastern region of the country; in the Peruvian city of Chimbote, where the metal industry began in 1958 and soon saw 20% of the population live in slums.

Cities undergoing industrialization, however, were not the only ones where slums developed. Migrations targeted important, middle-sized cities. There, although the business of the city might be basically administrative or commercial in nature, the mere fact that it was a center of activity seemed to make it a likely place to find work and better living conditions; the result was the formation of poverty belts. Slum settlements developed in the Peruvian cities of Piura, Chiclayo, Huacho, Ica, Tacna, and particularly Arequipa, where in the 1970s some 10% of its 120,000 people lived in crisis neighborhoods; in Guadalajara, Mexico, an eminently commercial city despite the push from the suburb of Tlaquepaque; in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, a port whose population rose from 15,000 in 1951 to over 50,000 in 1972 and whose poor neighborhoods—El Malecón, Vida Suave, Pampón—became home to almost 1,000 families living in subhuman conditions; in Recife, Brazil, whose mocambos—huts made of mud, branches, and sheet metal and built atop the river’s mangrove swamps—housed over 100,000 people who, as Josué de Castro describes it, lived on crayfish from the sewage-polluted mud of the river.

But the most numerous, the most populated, and the most representative were (and still are) the slums that formed in the big cities. In Buenos Aires, a 1966 census put the population in the villas miseria of the metropolitan area at 700,000. In each one the same conditions were present: run-down housing, several families living under one roof, subhuman overcrowding, a lack of basic services. In those villas miseria settled some 35% of immigrants, people from the interior of the country and from neighboring countries, especially Bolivia and Paraguay. Located in outlying areas except for one near the port, these slums were barely visible to the average porteño, who could go years without ever seeing them and without even giving them a thought. The tourist was even less likely to see them. When they sprang up near the highway leading to the Ezeiza International Airport, a wall was discretely built to hide them.

Mexico City’s ciudades perdidas were not in plain view of the average citizen or tourist either. The idle tourist’s attention had to be distracted to the beauties of Puebla while traveling the Zaragoza road, leaving the Netzahualcóyotl slums to the left. Once Lake Texcoco was drained, some 6,500 hectares of salt flats began to be settled by migrants from the country’s interior and by people who had had to abandon their homes in the more central neighborhoods of the city. Netzahualcóyotl’s slums became home to a million people for whom the idea of having a water supply, electric power, sewerage, or telephone services became a repeatedly frustrated obsession. There, Oscar Lewis observed the family of Jesús Sánchez, a migrant from Veracruz who had purchased a lot in a development to build a house in a clutch of five or six., in the midst of the barren plain, some distance from a dusty road. In time, the buildings would close in on each other until they became compact neighborhoods, some of which began to have some services.

But Netzahualcóyotl is not, of course, Mexico City’s only ciudad perdida: by the 1970s there were some 452, home to nearly two million people, all living under similar conditions. They spread because the number of inhabitants increased as more and more people flowed in from the country’s interior, while others left the downtown area to settle in the outlying areas, beyond the city’s official borders, pushing the perimeter of the metropolitan area outward. Perhaps the most surprising development in this process was the formation of the 39 colonias at Ecatepec, spread over an area of 2,000 hectares, with a population of 180,000. They had all the same problems of other slum encampments, but they also had one more: in the rainy season, the waters flooded the homes to a depth of half a meter.

In other cities like Santiago, São Paulo, and Guayaquil, the slum encampments are not easily seen; they must be sought out. In a number of the big cities, however, they are more visible because they sit on the surrounding hillsides; the anomic city forms a kind of amphitheater around the established city. It is pleasant to have cocktails at the Hotel Tamanaco in Caracas, but the individual who thinks that he or she is an observer is in fact being observed by hundreds of thousands of eyes from the hillside. As night falls, the lights that burn on the hillside may be picturesque, but the visitor must not forget the slums that they illuminate and the urban landscape of which they are a part.

The picture in Lima is similar, dominated by San Cristobal Hill. The barriadas began to creep up the side of that hill and others nearby, then spread into the sandy areas of the Rimac valley as well. All this was the work of the rural migrants who came to the capital, sometimes gently and slowly, at other times aggressively and in massive proportions. Since 1945, but especially since 1950, the movement has become increasingly intense. In 1945 a group created the San Cosme barriada, a squatter encampment on a hillside that immigrants occupied without the proper authorization. In his Message to Peru, President José Luis Bustamante y Rivero expressed the shock that everyone felt at this development: “This social phenomenon, which the authorities have been unable to stop, is basically due . . . to an abnormal increase in the population of the capital, caused by the influx of people from the provinces. . . .  The most recent outbreak of this demographic disease occurred when over 15,000 people from a small town called Atacongo founded the so-called ‘Ciudad de Dios.’” Although these remarks were made in the late 1940’s, the “disease” continued to spread: as much as 10% of Lima’s population lives in barriadas.

Lima’s slum settlements are perhaps those that organized more rapidly, and their population may be the one who has shown more determination to become integrated. “When a specific area is overtaken,” writes José Matos Mar, “the first thing people do is to divide up the land into lots of various sizes; once families have registered, those lots are distributed. Each family immediately proceeds to build its home on the lot it received and will use all kinds of construction materials in the process, as if its presence alone gave it some kind of right or claim to the lot. Life in the slums begins in this relatively organized process that repeats itself over and over. A citizens’ association is founded which at the outset is comprised of those promoting the takeover, who are generally urban mestizos. Once settled in, they will elect their own authorities.”

That capacity to organize was based on the movement of entire communities from their towns in the highlands to the capital. There they preserved not only their social structure but their customs as well. People from these slums go downtown to earn their living, but their instinct is to remain together. As a whole, they constitute the “other society,” the spectacle of which saddens and depresses Lima’s affluent classes.

A large area in southern Bogotá, below east-west Street 1 A, underwent tremendous expansion, especially after 1945. The slums occupied both the slope of the hills and the flatland and continued to expand, as they did everywhere else: dilapidated housing with no public services.

Almost half of Bogota’s population lives in slums. But the average citizen of Bogota, however, has no need to go beyond Street 1 A when heading south. His life takes place elsewhere. And if he is a member of the affluent upper class, he is moving gradually northward: toward 57th street, if he lives in Chapinero, and toward 92nd street, if he lives in Chicó. Many streets separate him from that southern expanse of the city.

São Paulo’s favelas are not very obvious either. As an industrial city, São Paulo attracted a considerable flow of migrants both from the surrounding region and from the northeast, especially the state of Ceará. But not all the migrants found work in the factories, and industrial wages were not high enough to keep pace with the speculative price of land. The city grew in all directions: toward Santo Amaro, toward Santo André, beyond Agua Branca Avenue, beyond Guaicurús Street and, above all, beyond Tieté, trying to creep up Cantareira mountain in the Tremembé and Guarulhos neighborhoods. One poor development could be home to hundreds of thousands of people.

In Rio, on the other hand, the hillsides had long been the preferred areas in which migrants would settle. Veterans of the Canudos War, seeking find a place to settle, established themselves on Providencia Hill, where the word favela was first coined. The favelas spread rapidly after 1930, accounting for at least 20% of the city’s population. They covered the hillsides, but also a number of flat areas both within and outside the city limits. The people of the favelas introduced rural-style housing in the cities, and brought with them other elements of their rural culture—customs and beliefs, as strong as the cult of St. George or spiritualism—and vestiges of African cultures as well. All this makes the society in the favelas even more homogeneous than that of Lima’s slums, whose links are predominantly social in nature. In both cases, their cultural homogeneity makes for a contrast with established society.

The two societies confront each other in almost all the cities and metropolitan areas where a mass of dual origin, internal and external, has formed. Their confrontation finds material expression in the physical structure of urban space. The actual metropolis belongs to established society, while the slums belong to the anomic groups. But at the core, the two worlds are integrated, and one could not live without the other. They are two hostile brothers forced to live with each other, like the societies that inhabit them. But the road from confrontation to integration is a long one, and much time is needed to go the distance.