“Them” and “Us”, a Metaphor for Urban Inequality
BUENOS AIRES, Jun 7 2016 (IPS) – For the inhabitants of “Bajo Autopista” (Under the Freeway), a slum built under an expressway in the Argentine capital, “they” are the people who live in areas with everything that is denied to “us” – a simple definition of social inclusion and a metaphor for urban inequality.
Karina Ríos’ roof is the Illia freeway, one of the main accesses to Buenos Aires. The shantytown is at the edge of Villas 31 and 31 Bis, where some 60,000 people live just a few metres away from El Retiro, one of the poshest neighbourhoods in the capital.
Rios gets light and ventilation through the space between the two halves of the elevated expressway, which is the roof for her two dark, damp rooms with bare brick walls where she lives with one of her daughters.
“Ambulances won’t come in here unless the police accompany them. That’s because here, as the police say, a ‘negrito’ (poor, dark-skinned person) who dies is just another negrito. For them, we negritos are nobody,” Ríos told IPS.
That’s how her son Saúl, 19, died last year, when he was stabbed in a fight, defending a friend. The knife perforated his liver and spleen, and he bled to death, she said, because he wasn’t “one of them.”
“If the ambulance hadn’t taken so long to get here, my son would be alive today,” lamented Ríos.
As an activist with the community organisation “Powerful Throat”, Ríos represents her neighbourhood now, demanding better living conditions. The main demand is “urbanisation”.
“We slum-dwellers are stigmatised. And it’s because we’re not urbanised, we don’t have decent streets,” she said.
“When we look for work, we don’t say where we live because if you give an address from here, they won’t hire you. ‘Villeros’ (people who live in ‘villas miseria’, the name for slums in Argentina) are all seen as thieves.”
For Ríos, urbanisation means streets have names and are paved. The streets here, most of which are dirt, are muddy and impassable when it rains.
It also means there are clinics. “There is a health post but the doctors only see five patients (a day) because they aren’t getting paid, and they attend the kids outside. They weigh the babies naked outside in this terrible cold,” she said.
Nor are there basic public services. The list of demands is long: “We need sewers, electric power. Fires happen here because everyone is illegally connected, and short-circuits happen and the houses start to burn,” said Ríos.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, with a total population of 625 million, 472 million people live in cities, including more than 111 million (23.5 percent) who live in slums or shantytowns like this one, according to a regional report byU.N.-Habitat and other organisations.
The report, “Construction of More Equitable Cities: Public Policies for Inclusion in Latin America”, states that despite the reduction in income inequality in urban areas in the region since the 1990s, the number of slum-dwellers increased in at least one-third of Latin American cities.
“The first thing the report says is that in the past 20 years, the general tendency seen in Latin America was the growth of urban inequality,” said Elkin Velásquez, director of U.N.-Habitat for Latin America and the Caribbean.
This inequality creates cities of the excluded inside large cities, where access to rights is unequal.
“We should understand ‘the right to the city’ as the possibility and the right of each citizen to have access to high-quality public goods and services in cities,” Velásquez told IPS from the regional U.N.-Habitat office in Rio de Janeiro.
It also includes “access to all possible opportunities for personal development, family development, community development, and of course all of the elements that make optimal quality of life in the city possible,” he said.
But this right is not accessible to the people who live in “Bajo Autopista” or other “favelas”, “cantegriles”, “ranchos”, “tugurios”, “callampas” or “pueblos jóvenes”, among the dozens of terms used for slums in Latin America.
“Them” and “us”, again – the divide between two for-now irreconcilable worlds.
The region is hosting the third U.N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) Oct. 17-20 in Quito, Ecuador, which will seek solutions to combat urban inequality.
“This is another world. They are clearly two very different worlds. Here everyone knows each other, everyone is friends, and when you go out there it’s not just that no one knows you, or that it’s not the same way of life, but out there you live with stigma, discrimination,” said computer technician Ariel Pérez Sueldo.
For this resident of Villa 31, the most pressing need is security or safety, in a broader, more inclusive sense.
“Not just from the police, but in terms of the power lines, the sewers, the streets. There are places where people, to get to their homes, have to wade through knee-deep mud. There are places where power lines hang down, and kids can be electrocuted. Safety also in the sense of having a place that fire fighters and ambulances can get to,” he said.
To include these “excluded cities”, a new appreciation of them is necessary, said Alicia Ziccardi at the Institute for Social Research of the Autonomous National University of Mexico, who is also an expert in social and urban issues in the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO).
“In the case of Mexico City, for example, the ‘colonias populares’ (a term used for slums) are vital spaces full of life where people have managed to have a habitat that is much better, sometimes, than the ones they are given with homes produced by housing policies that force them to live in distant outlying areas without services,” she told IPS.
“I think what is needed now is a new appreciation of self-production,” said Ziccardi, the editor of the book “Processes of urbanization of poverty and new forms of social exclusion; the challenges facing social policies in Latin American cities in the 21st century”, published by Clacso.
In Ziccardi’s view, “the social production of housing means governments have the capacity to make a public version of these neighbourhoods created by the people, because the results will surely be better than when popular housing is turned into a commodity.”
It’s as simple, according to Pérez Sueldo, as “having what everyone has: an address where they can install public services. Just be able to live normally.”
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes
Pictures for this story
This story includes downloadable print-quality images — Copyright IPS, to be used exclusively with this story.
- “Bajo Autopista”, a slum in the Villa 61 shantytown wedged under an expressway, just a few blocks from Retiro, one of the most upscale neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires. At least 111 million of Latin America’s urban inhabitants live in slums. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS
- A muddy unpaved street in Villa 31, a shantytown in the heart of Buenos Aires that is home to some 60,000 people. In the background are seen buildings in one of the poshest districts of the capital, just 200 metres away. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS