Urban Poverty and Relocation

By: Scott Bower

Brief Overview:

When I think about Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina, romanticized images of European architecture, tango music, and urban sprawl inundate my mind.  In addition to my pre-conceived notions of the city, my recent trip to Buenos Aires with a group of 11 other students and a professor helped me to broaden my understanding of this historically rich and socioeconomically diverse cityscape and the larger implications that sustainable housing may have for a better future.  We studied sustainable housing and urban development which comprised of our group actively participating in the construction of an adobe home on the periphery of the city in El Tigre, visiting stratified neighborhoods,  and engaging in analytical discussions about the ‘bigger picture’ of sustainable living amongst our group. The following posts of mine exemplify my deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of this subject of sustainability with globalization and how this subject is becoming increasingly important environmentally, politically, and economically in the 21st century.

Urban Fallacy- Deep Inequality and Poverty The urban development of Latin American countries began in the export-driven coastal cities.  Increased demand and competition amongst local economies led to the emergence of labor institutions such as “free-trade” zones and maquiladoras that facilitated massive displacement of population from rural to urban areas (Angotti, 8).  The origins of port cities like Buenos Aires shows that the city already had colonial barriers that were set up in order to isolate the poor from the wealthy.  Not only are these barriers physical and come in the form of shopping malls, grand theaters, and rich housing complexes, but they have become socially ingrained into the highly urbanized and complex cityscape.              As described in the magazine series Latin American Perspectives, the urban fallacy exemplifies how inequality has become more pronounced in Latin America, resulting from neoliberal agendas to boost the economy through low-wage labor.  The attraction of urban areas to the poor had large repercussions regarding the effects of inequality in countries such as Argentina and Brazil.  Angotti asserts that land property and how investments are protected by property owners plays a big role in the divisions that can still be found within large cities like Buenos Aires.  The fruition of enclave urbanism, which is the conscious design and development of fragmented cities and metropolitan regions, has made the barriers within the city limits more apparent as the poor are being forced away from the city centers.  In Buenos Aires much of the city was designed based off of enclave urbanism. 

Angotti, Tom. “Violence, Enclaves, and Struggles for Land.” Latin American Perspectives. March 2013, Issue 189 Vol.40: 5-20. Print.

ElefanteBlanco- What is Villa 31?             Buenos Aires is no exception to urban poverty that prevails in Latin America.  A neighborhood that has become notable for their high levels of political organization, yet dismal crime rates is Villa 31, which is located in the downtown area of Buenos Aires.  When our LC group observed the entrance of the slum, I immediately saw the stark contrast of the distant make-shift houses and its affluent neighbors and the surrounding industry buildings.  This expansive urban slum is nestled in the heart of the Buenos Aires with the most affluent and wealthy neighborhood, Puerto Madero, only a short bus ride away.  Although we did not enter the slum, the movie ‘Elefante Blanco’ depicted the conditions of the marginalized people living in the community.             The premise of the movie is that a longstanding priest in Villa 31 calls upon a younger priest to take over his position in the community as mediator of the crime-ridden area, ardent practitioner of faith and trustworthy friend to the community.  However, the corruption of the religious institution and the increased gang violence exemplifies the tough and hostile living conditions many people are forced to survive in.  Many scenes and shots from the movie show dilapidated and antiquated homes made from scraps lying around the city or recycled materials.  The claustrophobic feel of the alleyways in the film are characteristic of many slums. 

From Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro- Urban Poverty             It seems to be that the iconic image of urban poverty in Latin America is the Brazilian favela.  These ‘shanty towns’ crawl up the lush hillsides of major cities like Rio de Janeiro and come within a few hundred feet of wealthy communities like Copacabana and Ipanema.  I recently traveled to Brazil in January 2013 and I had the unique opportunity to visit Santa Marta, which is a pacified favela in Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro.              The steep incline of the road made it difficult to walk up, along with the numerous pot holes and crowded sidewalks.  The close proximity of each house was incredible.  It seemed as if they were overlapping each other as telephone wires and kite strings connected the rooftops like cobwebs.  The community was vibrant and many homes stood out with intricate window panes or bright colorful paint finishes.  From a distance Santa Maria appeared to me as one entity, one favela, one specific type of poverty; however, this misconception quickly dissipated once I observed how unique the lives and homes of the community members were in comparison to other areas of Brazil that I saw that trip.             In comparison to Buenos Aires’ Villa 31, it would seem that both face similar problems of urban relocation.  In Villa 31 the property value of the community’s location within the city makes it extremely valuable.  Despite the strenuous attempts of politicians to renovate Villa 31, the residents continue to successfully resist because that would mean relocation and the destruction of their homes so that wealthy investors can use the land for other purposes.  In Santa Marta the residents face a similar threat of relocation.  Although favelas began as illegal occupations of land that were isolated from the urban hot spots, the up-scaled renovations of many homes in favelas like Santa Marta have attracted outside buyers.  In other words, lower middle class people are beginning to purchase homes in the favelas.  This stems from the fact that the property taxes many people in the favelas are forced to pay continues to increase until the cost is out of their budget and they have no choice but to rent or sell their home.  This leads to yet another relocation of the poor and marginalized people living in Brazil to other favelas that are further away from major cities.   

Urban Relocation Perpetuates Class Divisions- FOVISEE             FOVISEE is an organization we spoke with that uses housing policy to facilitate social change and to promote sustainable energy use.  Our LC group spoke with a representative of this non-government organization named Nicolas.  His talk focused on a specific project that makes pre-existing government made housing communities more sustainably viable.  These large housing complexes are located far away from the city where land is cheap.  The government offers free housing for a select number of ‘qualified’ people who are then coerced to leave their current home and live in the new, government houses.  Nicolas’ presentation brought to mind questions about urban relocation because it seems quite obvious that the government is blatantly creating a greater divide between the social classes.  The majority of paying jobs are within the city and impoverished people depend on these jobs for their income.  However, the farther away they are from those jobs, the greater it will cost them because of transportation and time costs.              The intentions of the FOVISEE project have good intentions; however, I cannot see it leading to any real, dramatic social change.  The importance of ameliorating this social division in society using more compassion and understanding is outlined in a radical work of literature called Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.  I believe that my discussions about urban poverty and relocation extend far beyond simply sustainable housing or urban development.  The idea that is proposed in Freirian pedagogy is one of co-responsibility when it comes to the oppressor and oppressed.  The oppressors will never actualize any social change if they continue to distance themselves from the poor using social and physical borders.  A change in the distribution of information and in the mentality or ideology of the oppressor class is necessary to instigate real change amongst the larger and arguably more powerful working class aka the oppressed. http://fovisee.com/