A year ago, as part of a design studio course in the Universidad Simón Bolívar I had the opportunity to analyze one of the most intriguing places of Caracas: “La Redoma de Petare.”
“La redoma de Petare (or the petare roundabout) is a turning point holding the largest pedestrian activity in Caracas takes place, attending the localities of El Llanito, La Urbina, Palo Verde, and the Francisco de Miranda Avenue. The latter being one of the main circulation roads of the city.” “La Redoma” stands next to the historic center of Petare, and represents the entrance to the Jose Felix Rivas and Petare barrio, the most emblematic slum in Caracas due to its extension and density. Petare expands across el cerro (the mountain), gaining great heights allowing it to overlook the formal city resting in the Valley.
In the Redoma, is the only place where “slum” dwellers can access both formal public transportation -subway, local buses, motorcycle taxis- to commute to their jobs in Caracas. As well as informal modes of transport that allow them to reach their homes through motorcycle taxis or jeeps up to the highest points of the cerro.
The informal establishments that surround “La Redoma” are mostly broke and closed, the informal commerce and kiosks- the buhoneros- now taking over their entrances. Listening to them, I learned that the informal economic activity of “La Redoma” had been going for at least the last 50 years and wasn’t about to stop just yet. The economic crisis had only accentuated and multiplied the commercial activity in the area due to the thousands of workers who had lost their jobs and were forced into the informal economy to make a living.
For the first time, I saw “buhoneros” not as invaders of streets but as resilient bodies and the better or more viable alternative to formal job opportunities which are growing scarcer every day. Thus, instead of focusing on how to get the inhabitants of barrios to “work”, I was intrigued by the possibility of creating job opportunities from within.
It was necessary to find ways to create more spaces or points of encounter such as La redoma that allowed these connections between the formal and informal city. I believed that the replication of this condition would guarantee the promotion of economic activity in Petare. It was no surprise that while researching on the informal economy in informal settelements I came across Dharavi, “Asia’s biggest slum.” An informal settlement standing in the middle of the city of Mumbai that provided livelihoods to 50% of its population and that according to the New York Times generated anything from 500 million dollars to 1 billion dollars of revenue a year. To me however, reading about an informal settlement with such an economic potential created some important parallels and overlaps between the formal and informal city. What I found upon my arrival in Dharavi though was completely different. I encountered a particularly porous agglomeration of constructions, with no clear boundary between the formal and informal city. In stark contrast to Venezuela where topography acts as a barrier, Dharavi proved to be an urban tissue that was fully integrated to the city spatially. This integration was the result of thousands and millions of economic and social relationships that made up the prosperous web that is Dharavi.
These relationships do not limit themselves to the “boundaries” of Dharavi, having established commercial ties with the biggest markets of Dharavi and the rest of the city. Dharavi proposes a new model of city, where the flexibility of space as well as the clustering of uses, allows entrepreneurs to save costs in transportation and raw materials. As well as, allowing women into the workforce and reduce costs of production by merging their homes and their livelihoods. All this despite the cost of necessary bribes aimed at government officials, police forces, etc.,; as well as the cost of new formal regulations and taxes.
Dharavi was not my first experience in an informal settlement, but the living conditionsof its 1 million inhabitants still in took me by surprise. I thought that their staggering productions capacity would translate into a general improvement of the community by the reimbursement of the revenue generated into their roads, basic infrastructure, and the quality of their homes. The conditions of the 13th compound, the machine that recycles most of Mumbai’s plastic waste, couldn’t possibly be considered a place to live in. The instability of its walls, the lack of proper flooring and the filmsyness of the mezzanine that doubled as sleeping space, couldn’t be generating hundreds of dollars a month.
Shyam, a local shop owner explained to me that investing in a building wasn’t a safe investment, because it could be taken from them at any time. The safety of land tenureship in Mumbai is a foreign term, most of the land that compose the hyperdense city of Mumbai is to these day on lease. What guarantees your safety is your political and economic power, and the ties that you have established. Occupancy rights, are only temporary. I was shocked to learn that Dharavi’s inhabitants lived on a constant fear of being evacuated. In Venezuela, slum dwellers don’t count with property rights, but their occupancy rights are enough to guarantee that they’ll house won’t be taken from them. They are proud of their “ranchos” (houses in slum areas) and invest all their time and money into improving them each year. In Dharavi, most of the money is sent back to their villages and it is there where they invest in their homes and commodities. Dharavi seems to be for most just a temporary home, which made me wonder what brought them here in the first place?
I have come to understand after speaking to Bhau Korde, a social activist and resident of Dharavi who works with religious conflict resolution inside the community, that Dharavi represents to its inhabitants an escape from oppression and poverty in their rural villages. Even when they are still stigmatized by the formal city, they are free to prosper and thrive in the 535 acres of land that compose Dharavi. For the first inhabitants of Dharavi, that were allowed to occupy the land by the Kolis, Dharavi was the place where they could enter the temple for the first time or take their family’s first generation to school. Most importantly it
was a place where they were able to make a living by working independently. Despite open sewages, heaps of trash, constant bribing and power abuses, Dharavi still represents a better alternative than that which their villages would have ever been able to provide. Their history of occupation explains why the main industries of Dharavi can be culturally traced back to “impure” practices reserved for Dalit community in different regions of India, like pottery, leather tanning and textiles. The rejection of these “unhabitable marshlands” by indian authorities explains how they were able to reduce costs by avoiding taxation. The stigmatization towards businesses in Dharavi by the formal city, kept their money out of banks and constantly circulating through informal loans providing easy access to cash for new entrepreneurs. Nowadays, new taxation policies like the Good and Services Tax have restructured business in Dharavi, forcing them to move their manufacturing units to their villages where costs of production are even lower. This means that businesses in Dharavi might become the motors of prosperity of rural India.
Whilst physically there is no barrier, in comparison to the steep slopes that divide the formal and informal city in Caracas; Dharavi and Petare share a common border. The barrier that exists in the minds of every Mumbaiker and Caraqueño that react with disgust and worry when someone suggests that there might be something of value in that “slum.”
Today one third of the world population call these “slums” or “barrios” home. Only in Caracas, 1.4 million of the total 2.9 million that live in the city live in these informal settlements, nevertheless when we study the development of Caracas in our schools and universities we never focus on the origin of these neighbourhoods. Why is it that the origin and development of the 10% of the territory that is home to half of the population of our cities is not a story worth telling?
This comparative exercise has been eye opening to me in more than a few way. Observing a different context, has made me realize how many things I’ve taken for granted and how many questions are still unanswered. Most importantly I’ve been able to realize the value of experiences like these, where a debate on informal settlements can be held focused on the values and success stories of these so called “user generated cities.”