Favelas Will Change When People Feel Proud of Living There

American journalist and author Robert NeuwirthWhen someone hears about life in the slums of Brazil, Kenya or other places around the world, the view one gets is always from someone on the “outside looking in”.

Through the years, countless journalists have given their reports on how hard life is for those who have no choice in life but life in “unsafe, unstable” neighborhoods in which your dwellings – which are not legally yours in the first place – can come crashing down on you any minute.

That is not the case of Brooklyn journalist Robert Neuwirth. To research for his recently released book, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (Routledge, 332 pages, US$ 27.95), Neuwirth spent a year living in what he calls “squatter communities,”

He lived in Rio de Janeiro (at Rocinha favela), Nairobi (Kenya), Mumbai (India) and Istanbul (Turkey), where he rented homes in each place and did his best to redeem the erroneous view that others have of those who live in those places.

Instead of dangerous, ignorant  criminals and drug addicts, he found thriving communities where people try their best – on a daily basis – to improve the conditions in which they live in.

The result is a very readable tome in which Neuwirth gives a hands-on point of view of life in these illegal cities around the world, and also looks at the history of squatter cities that used to exist right here in the city of New York.

In Shadow Cities, Neuwirth attempts to create a new debate on the importance and heritage of the squatters around the world.

We caught up with Neuwirth recently  and conducted an interview with him via e-mail.

What caused you to get into this project – living in “squatter towns”, as you call them, for a year and writing a book about it?

It’s exactly as I said in Shadow Cities. I traveled to Istanbul in 1995 and learned about the ‘built overnight’ communities. The following year, the UN held a huge conference on housing there – and paid absolutely no attention to the squatter successes in the city.

At the same time, a friend who was working for the UN (in a different division than the one that sponsored the Istanbul conference) reminded me that squatters are the most successful builders of housing in the world.

I decided that the only way to understand these communities was from the inside out. It’s easy to stand on the outside and say: ‘No sewers. No water. Stolen electricity. The horror!’

I thought that was doing these people a disservice. If half of Istanbul or 20% of Rio is squatter-built, then these people are making a real contribution to their countries.

After you returned, which was your most lasting impression from your visits?

The amazing energy and vitality of the squatters and their communities.

You mention that Rocinha has become quite urbanized, with the arrival of cable TV, legal water and electricity connections and the like. That doesn’t quite seem to happen in the other communities you lived in, but people seem to want the communities to go in that direction. Do you think that this is possible?

Actually, it has happened in Istanbul, too. It depends on how secure people feel in their homes. This doesn’t mean whether they ‘own’ their property, but rather whether they know they will not be evicted.

When they have that knowledge, they settle in for the long haul, save their money, improve their houses, and petition the government for services.

I think squatters everywhere can follow this model. It’s not easy, but they have the chance to battle the authorities and achieve permanence.

People seem to live safely in Rocinha despite the violence elsewhere in Rio. Why does that happen?

In part, it developed from the communitarian spirit of the initial land invaders. The favelas started as real communities, where residents had to depend on one another to survive.

In today’s more dense and sprawling communities, it develops from a trade-off with the drug lords. In Rocinha, as in many favelas, the rumor is that the Comando Vermelho will hurt you if you commit a crime, because this will bring the
police to the community.

And the rumor also is that if you snitch on the drug operations, the CV will kill you. I never met anyone who could directly confirm these rumors. But  the reputation of power is power. Also, people appreciate the way the traficantes take care of the community.

Just down the road from my home in Rocinha was a floodlit soccer field. It was installed and operated by the local drug barons, so people said. People found the drug gangs to be more honorable than the police or the politicians.

Money destroyed our squatter communities (as you describe in one of the chapters of your book). Do  you think that can happen in the other countries?

Absolutely. For instance, the growth of asfaltização (NR: the growing tendency to asphalt the dirt streets of the favelas) will bring many changes to Rocinha and other squatter communities.

Local merchants have already been forced out of business. And, as outsider businesses purchase or occupy more of the structures on Rocinha’s main streets (the Estrada da Gávea, Caminho dos Boiadeiros, Via Ápia), this will greatly change the character of the community and may wind up raising rents and forcing long-time residents out.

The same problem may hurt Sultanbeyli in Istanbul. Indeed, I read that a major department store opened in Sultanbeyli last year, and this will certainly affect the rents and businesses around it. This process has benefits for the communities, too, but it has many potential dangers.

Also, even in communities that have less development, the monied interests successfully push people out. Tenants in Kibera in Kenya are continually being muscled from their homes by local landlords and their thugs.

Like Rocinha, Kibera sits on valuable turf in between two luxurious upper class enclaves, and could be vulnerable to a real estate deal.

You seem to go a little out of your way to redeem the image of squatter towns as pools of violence, and even describe how people deal with justice in their own way. Could you describe your experience with that?

There are local community networks that handle disputes – sometimes official residents associations, sometimes simply informal groupings.

And squatters sometimes have a vigilante instinct. In Kenya, for instance, people would sometimes band together to beat up a thief if they caught him ripping someone off in their area.

In Rocinha, I was told that people would sometimes visit the traficantes to resolve small community issues. I never saw this happen myself, though. Generally, people seemed to resolve minor disputes by talking with each other and attempting to arrive at consensus.

Gangsta rap is popular among our African-American and impoverished communities. Rap stars here are millionaires, but Rio’s funk scene emerges from the slums and seems to stay there. Your impression of that?

Just a guess here as I’m no expert: It took quite a bit of time for rap to penetrate suburban culture here in the U.S., so it may still emerge as a national phenomenon in Brazil.

What’s more, some of the funkeiros are middle class. For instance, I’ve been told that Gabriel O Pensador is actually from São Conrado, though he will often hang out in Rocinha.

Still, Brazil is much more socially stratified than the U.S., and the upper classes seem to  fear and despise favela residents, so the process may work differently in Brazil.

It’s also a question of marketing: record labels here aggressively marketed rap and even brought out white versions (remember a fellow named Vanilla Ice) to make it palatable to white kids.

American rappers also desired the mainstream. Ice Cube, one of the leaders of the early rap band NWA, is now making movies. Ice T, another rapper, is now on one of the Law and Order TV shows.

I’m not sure Brazilian MV Bill or Dexter and Afro X want to be on the telenovelas, or that the telenovelas would even want them.

Could you describe the happiest moments of your visits?

There was a point in my stay in each country when I became accepted as a part of the community. Then, I could come and go as I pleased and hang out and simply be another neighbor. That was the greatest, for me.

Do you have any specific goals you want to reach with the publication of Shadow Cities?

Yes. I hope the book serves to humanize these communities, so that outsiders stop looking at the people who live in them as dirty or lazy or criminal.

I hope outsiders will instead understand the squatters as patriotic citizens who are forced by circumstances to live precariously.

Second, I hope the book inspires squatters themselves to understand their power. In a city like Mumbai, where squatters make up half of the population, they can really have power if they organize.

All over the world, squatters can become a tremendous political force, and it would be terrific if my book acts as a mirror for them, and a catalyst, encouraging them to be proud and vocal in the cities they call home.

Ernest Barteldes is an ESL and Portuguese teacher. In addition to that, he is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The Greenwich Village Gazette, The Staten Island Advance, The Staten Island Register, The SI Muse, Brazzil magazine, The Villager, GLSSite, Entertainment Today and other publications. He lives in Staten Island, NY. He can be reached at ebarteldes@yahoo.com.

Originally published in The Greenwich Village Gazette.

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