Monocle 24: World’s tallest squat gives Caracas an urbanism dillema

Click for original. Piece starts at 25:00.

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INTRO
We go now to Caracas, Venezuela, where we find one of the world’s strangest living situations. It’s a 45-storey office block with a heliport. Back in the 1990s, it was abandoned during construction. Then, five years ago, people in need of housing simply took over. It’s now probably the world’s tallest squat, and a very tough puzzle for architects and planners. Steven Bodzin reports from Caracas.

AMBI1: BASKETBALL GAME
FADE IN, START MY NARRATION JUST AFTER THE REFEREE’S WHISTLE

Narration:
I’m watching a neighborhood basketball game in Caracas. The players are wearing clean uniforms and kids are crowding around me, asking me to take their picture, telling me that their local team is going to win.

AQUÍ, CACIQUES DE VENEZUELA VA A GANAR.

Narration:
That’s the name of the team. Caciques de Venezuela. It’s also the name of the legally incorporated coop that runs this group of towers, parking decks and public spaces. The towers are imposing. The tallest rises 45 stories into the night. It has a heliport. It was never finished. When construction started in the early 90’s, these buildings were going to hold a bank, a hotel, and a conference center. But today, the ground floor has been converted into a daycare center, a church and this basketball court. That’s because today, about 25 hundred people live in these buildings. They have no elevators, but they have built apartments as high as the 26th floor.

AMBI1 DOWN AND OUT

Narration:
I talked to Alessandro Daza. He was 35 at the time — but everyone called him “El Niño”.

AMBI2 UP AND UNDER

Narration:
After growing up as a petty thug, Daza went to prison for 5 years. There, he became an evangelical preacher. Then, in 2007, he helped lead the takeover of this property.

KEEP AMBI2 GOING THROUGH THIS SECTION

MALE VOICEOVER
As far as the basketball court, we ourselves as a community, the Caciques (ka-SEE-kays) de (DAY) Venezuela, we built it ourselves, from nothing. We recovered this area. This will be a soccer area, and here they also play volleyball. There, on the other side, kids ride bikes.

AMBI2 STILL GOING

Narration:
This building was started by a bank in the early 1990s during one of Venezuela’s occasional financial bubbles. The bank failed in 1994, and the government ended up with this half-built tower. For years, the government simply sat on it, never sold it off and never finished it. It became a rat’s nest and crack house. In 2007, the current residents just took it over. Here’s Daza again.

MALE VOICEOVER
Every Sunday, we come down at 5 am and work til noon, hauling out any quantity of debris, metal, garbage. We have recuperated this building, which is state property.

Narration:
Daza says that the squatters have made the neighbourhood safer.

MALE VOICEOVER
When we arrived, it was tough. There were people all over the place. People who tried to rape the women, abuse the children. So here the community itself is purifying, cleaning up, taking on the delinquents, the addicts, the dealers, those who mistreated people.

Narration:
It’s true that the place is basically safe. Security guards at the two entrances keep strangers out, so there is less chance of crime. Some kids told me that a couple years ago, gangsters used to try and shake them down for tolls to use the staircases, but today, that’s all gone.

AMBI2 FADE OUT

AMBI3 up for a couple seconds, then fade under & repeat

Narration:
From the inside, the building works better than you might expect. There was no running water or electricity when the squatters arrived. The residents have built exterior walls, filled dangerous gaps in the floors, and installed pumps and tanks to provide water for residents. Many apartments have DirecTV, and some have wireless Internet.

AMBI3 DOWN AND OUT

Narration:
A resident, who didn’t want to be on the radio, took me up the stairs. We stopped to buy tomatoes, onions and powdered milk at a convenience store on the 9th floor.

AMBI4 FADE IN DURING THIS NARRATION, BEFORE ACT5. AMBI IS SHORT, SO JUST FIT IT TO FADE OUT AFTER NARR

Narration:
Lots of people have built small businesses in their apartments — bakeries, hair salons. I talked to Saira Gomez, who had run this shop for a year.

ACT:
uno va y compra la mercancia, y despues la mercancia llega.

Narration:
Relatively speaking, Saira has it easy. Up to the tenth floor, people can take a motorcycle taxi up the parking deck, and then carry groceries in with a shopping cart.

AMBI 4 FADEOUT

Narration:
But life here is far from perfect, especially for people who live higher up. People have to climb as many as 26 flights of stairs to get to their apartments from the street. That keeps a lot of people from leaving at all. There are almost no railings at all. Some public areas don’t even have walls. At least one person has fallen from a high floor and died.

Everything is improvised. The water pumps are tiny. The electric wiring is jury-rigged. The apartments don’t have operable windows, so if residents need ventilation, they break the glass.

Worst of all is the sewage. Residents installed wastewater pipes down one of the elevator shafts. The pipes leak and sewage water drips down the shaft. Whenever a gust of wind blows through the unfinished atrium, it rains sewage. The smell is unbearable.

ACT
HELLO? HELLO ENRIQUE.

Narration:
I spoke to Enrique Larranaga, an architect and professor at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas. He said that to understand the tower, you have to remember that 2million people in Caracas live in hillside slums.

ACT
Many people have to, for getting to their house, it’s called, which is really a shack, have to go up through steps. And have to go up as high as equivalent to 40 stories in a regular building. So although David’s tower doesn’t have elevators. For those people have to go up the stairs, 30, 40 stories up, is not all that different from what they are used to do in the slums, and in fact, it’s more secure.

NARR13
Tower residents only need to contribute about $40 a month toward electricity and building fees. Normally, Caracas apartments are among the most expensive in Latin America. Here is Yoanderson Marquez, a 21-year-old cook who had just moved to the tower with his wife and 1-month-old baby.

MALE VOICEOVER
The cost of rent was super high. We came across information about the tower. Here we’re not paying anything and living better. We have much more space, and we have full faith that we’ll be relocated before too long, God willing.

AMBI5 UP, OVERLAP A LITTLE WITH END OF ACT8, TO AVOID A HARD CLIPPY ENDING.

Narration:
There is also the church. The whole squat is run by evangelical Christians. Their prayer meetings are filled with drumming and singing. It’s part of a long tradition of churches doing what they can to provide social services when government doesn’t do its job.

AMBI5 UP FOR A COUPLE SECONDS MORE, THEN DOWN AND OUT.

Narration:
The hardest question at this point is what to do next. Many architects and planners I spoke to said it would probably be fine to let people stay in the tower, but with all of the building systems brought up to code. One person who strongly disagrees is Zulma Bolívar. She is the official in charge of urban planning for Caracas.

ACT
It’s too dangerous for anyone to live there. There are people have died. They don’t have walls, I mean.

ACT
You have to give to the people quality of life, it’s a responsibility of government.

AMBI6 UP THEN DOWN AND UNDER

Narration:
The problem is, Caracas city government has almost no power. The national government of President Hugo Chavez has chosen to treat the building with benign neglect. And without support from Chavez, there’s nothing that Zulma Bolívar can do. She says she’s just hoping Chavez loses the November election, so she can have a national government that she can work with.

For now, the Caciques continue to play on this basketball court, and 25 hundred people continue to make their homes in this abandoned office tower.

For Monocle, this is Steven Bodzin.

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About Steven Bodzin

Steven Bodzin is a reporter. He blogged when he was a freelancer.

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