Venezuela's 'skyscraper slum' provides haven for poor

CARACAS Wed Apr 2, 2014 6:53am EDT

1 of 20. A view of the lobby from the top of the 'Tower of David' skyscraper in Caracas February 3, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Jorge Silva

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CARACAS (Reuters) - It boasts a helicopter landing pad, glorious views of the Avila mountain range, and large balconies for weekend barbecues.

Yet this 45-storey skyscraper in the center of Venezuela's capital Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: it is a slum, probably the tallest in the world.

Dubbed the "Tower of David", it was intended to be a shining new financial center but was abandoned around 1994 after the death of its developer - financier and horse-breeder David Brillembourg - and a massive run on Venezuela's banking sector.

Squatters seized the huge concrete skeleton in 2007, then-President Hugo Chavez's socialist government turned a blind eye, and now about 3,000 people call the tower their home.

Though many Caracas residents view it as a den of thieves and a symbol of rampant disrespect for property, residents call the "Tower of David" a safe haven that rescued them from the capital's crime-ridden slums.

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It appears - at least for now - to have escaped the violence and turf warfare that followed similar building takeovers in Caracas over the last decade, often launched under the banner of the late Chavez's self-styled revolution.

Communal corridors are freshly-polished, rules and rotas are posted everywhere, and non-compliance is punished with extra "social work" decided by a cooperative and floor delegates who make up a mini-government.

"Without ethics or principles, all is irrational," reads one typically didactic poster in a public area.

Work was sufficiently advanced by the time the tower was abandoned for the first 28 floors to be habitable, though the squatters have had to brick up dangerous open spaces, and put in their own basic plumbing, electrical and water systems.

Families pay a 200 bolivar ($32) monthly "condominium" fee, which helps fund 24-hour security patrols.

'SAFER INSIDE THAN OUT'

"There is far more order and far less crime in here than out there," says 27th-floor resident Thais Ruiz, 36, exuding contentment from an armchair as her kids play and her husband fulfils the family's once-a-week corridor sweeping duty.

Like many inhabitants, Ruiz abandoned her shack in the violent Petare slum of east Caracas in 2010 to build a spacious four-bedroom apartment in the tower where she lives with her husband and five children.

The family paid a small fee for a space that was supposed to have been a fancy corner office with an amazing vista, and at first lived in a tent. But over the years, given the absence of elevators, they hauled bricks, furniture, water tanks - and even barbecue equipment - up 27 flights of stairs to build a home.

"I never lived in an apartment before. We're so comfortable now," she says. "We had to get out of Petare and the daily gang shootouts. Once we found a dead body on our doorstep. Now look, we can leave the door wide open."

Few deny the conditions can be precarious.

One young girl fell through a hole in the wall to her death a few years back, and a drunk motorcyclist rode off an edge and killed himself. Police have raided the building a couple of times searching for kidnap victims, adding to its notoriety.

The building showed up as a Dantesque backdrop to an episode of U.S. TV drama Homeland, with on-the-run terrorist-suspect character Nicholas Brody held there. Though filmed mainly in Puerto Rico, the 2013 episode includes shots of the real tower and has a scene where a gang tosses a thief off the building.

But it's the unique quality of "Tower of David", whose intended name was the "Confinanzas Financial Center" before the group went under, that has won it attention beyond Venezuela.

Documentaries and analyses of it have showed up at trendy art festivals around the world: one exhibition about the tower won a prize at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.

'INVASIONS'

The sometimes romantic view of the tower tends to overlook criminal activity associated with "invasions," which were common long before Chavez but proliferated early in his rule.

One woman dubbed "Commander Manuitt," a self-described pro-Chavez activist, helped lead a wave of invasions in Caracas in 2003. She was arrested in 2004 on charges of inciting violence, resisting authority, and illegally carrying firearms.

That year, a rival "invasion" leader who frequently clashed with Commander Manuitt was shot in a hit-man style murder.

Neighbors in the area surrounding the tower have complained of frequent robberies, ATM hold-ups, and drug trafficking taking place under the noses of authorities.

Residents acknowledge the tower had problems with crime but insist miscreants have been kicked out over the last 18 months, and that a new leadership is keeping the house in order.

"Everyone thinks we're a bunch of thieves and thugs in here. We are not 'invaders', we're occupants of an empty space," argues another resident, Luis Raul Pinto, 63.

The former government employee drives a taxi by day before clambering up to his roomy apartment every evening. When he first arrived four years ago, he slept in a hammock.

"Sometimes, I'm driving customers and they look up at the tower and tut 'Look at those criminals in there'. When I drop them off, I tell them 'Hey, I live in the Tower of David, I'm not a criminal, come and have a coffee with me some time.'"

Though the tower could be viewed as an indictment of his housing policy, inhabitants appear fiercely "Chavista".

Posters of Chavez, under the phrase "Eternal Commander," adorn walls. Some have photos of him by their beds. The former president, who died last year of cancer, spoke affectionately of the tower's residents several times.

"Chavez's legacy is the values you see right here in this tower," said Nicolas Alvarez, a 38-year-old filmmaker who first entered the tower to give photography courses. He ended up moving in after getting married and struggling to find a home.

"What Chavez did was to rescue the sense that we all have the same right to live on this planet."

A hierarchy of sorts does exist, however.

Though requiring more leg-power to reach, the higher floors are cooler and fresher, without the whiff of sewage at the bottom. And only the top floors have large balconies where neighbors sit around, listen to salsa music, or sizzle meat.

The tower also boasts shops, a dentist, and a beauty salon. On a 27th-floor terrace bathed in the setting sun, a group of men played dominoes on a recent evening.

"Who needs to go the Hilton?" quipped one.

(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray)

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Comments (2)
MaggieMP wrote:
Thank you for this article, and for some ‘even-handedness’ with regards to Venezuelan politics. It often seems as if we’re almost fiercely committed to the proposition that “exhibit A” MUST be ALL GOOD, or ALL BAD. (‘Exhibit A’ being almost any item, person, trend, or narrative – in history culture, politics, economics, etc – that can be examined! I think American culture is among the worst with this!)

There may be a few besides me who’ve not heard of Hong Kong’s famous walled city, Kwanloon. Some 33,000 residents, driven by social, economic, political circumstances, relied on the marvels of their own innate creative problem solving, and very often lots of sheer grit, to create an astonishing community. All the same complaints that we read of The Tower of David, from those of more comfortable circumstances, were made, and are made still of Kwanloon: crime-ridden, unsanitary, unsafe,

Dismissed as if irrelevant to any critique are provisions and practices developed by residents for educating children, and helping and caring for one another. Kwanloon is described by those who know it as having had these. It also seems to have been teeming with single-owner service businesses. There were grocers, hair dressers, restauranteurs, and more.

Learning of both Kwanloon and now The Tower of David in only two days time sparks my enthusiasm for “evidence” of human community potential. It also gives evidence of underlying innate creativity. Both these are critical to thriving: innate creativity brought to bear on real living issues, and doing so in the context of building community.

I’m now also thinking of counter culture communities that emerged during the 60′s and morphed during the 1970′s into the ‘back to the land’ movement. I think also of Occupy camps. Often these 3 explorations in building community were similarly targeted: ‘filthy’, ‘drug and crime ridden’. I spent a modest amount of time with 60′s counter culture communities, two decades involved with a ‘back to the land’ community, and watched Occupy practice processes I’d witnessed as powerful community builders in a different context, ((wide sharing of skills/knowledge; and participatory democracy.) In all cases, I’ve found tremendously powerful innate human potential: intelligence, often considerable bodies of formal knowledge, creative problem solving, and strong willingness to be cooperative.

It is this tremendous power of human community, including individual uniqueness within community, that can and – IMO should – be celebrated.

Now is an excellent time for us to be noticing this evidence. Supporters and leaders of status-quo, long entrenched, values and systems are presently either serenely complacent or in stubborn denial that earth itself is “being taken down” by destructive scope and pace of industrial and financial capitalist ventures. Abandoned ‘sacrifice zone’ and/or refugee communities are increasingly common in all nations. Causes include government supported financial market and interest gleaning extortion practices; profit-driven resource ‘management’ industries; and the ever-war-seeking military arms industry. Extreme violence to earth’s life (human and other) to meet ggoals of these groups is exacerbated by all that comes with ‘consumerism as raison d’etre.

Yep – might be a good time to begin to admire intelligent, creative, community building as it develops in response to ‘rough times’

Apr 02, 2014 9:04pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
I think any article on Venezuela that shows Chavez in any type of favourable light is not only incorrect, it borders on delusional. Chavez and the latest dictator, the ex-bus driver Maduro have managed to plunge the country into a state of chaos where lawlessness rules the land and the only way to get food is to stand in line for 4 hours. In a country that has the most oil in South America, this is not acceptable. Unfortunately, a lot of Venezuela’s oil is given (not sold, given) to the dictators that pull Maduro’s strings: most likely the Castro clan of Cuba. Technically, you can’t really say the oil is being given away; it is sold at $2 a barrel on 25 year promissory notes. Meanwhile, Maduro and his cronies smuggle billions of dollars of state oil funds into foreign banks and the country fights to try to rid its self of these robbers. If you want to read a true article on the happenings in Venezuela you are best served by looking up the answer to Maduro’s Op-ed piece in the New York Times. Actually, in my opinion, any article in the NYT gives a more balanced and realistic view of what is happening in Venezuela than this one does.

Apr 04, 2014 10:37pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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