The New Slum Dwellers

By Cook, Brian | In These Times, May 2006 | Go to article overview

The New Slum Dwellers


Cook, Brian, In These Times


It's tempting to call Mike Davis, a history professor at University of California at Irvine, a modern-day seer. His first book, City of Quartz, published in 1991, essentially predicted the L.A. riots, along with other, less dramatic phenomena of the '90s, such as the exploding prison population and the rise of gated communities. "Poor, Black and Left Behind," a 2004 article he wrote for TomDispatch.com after Hurricane Ivan narrowly missed New Orleans, reads eerily prescient in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Seeing as the United States has done little to address the concerns he laid out in his last book, The Monster at Our Door, about an avian flu epidemic, we can only hope that, this time, he's wrong.

But Davis isn't some divine prophet. He's simply an incredibly astute observer, whose analyses of the natural (and artificial) world factor in race, class, geography, ecology, history, economics, politics, literature and any other discipline that might lead to new insights.

In his most recent book, Planet of Slums, Davis applies this polymathic approach to the exponential increase in the number of slum dwellers in the Global South during the latter half of the 20th century. In These Times recently spoke to him about the book.

What compelled you to write the book?

The book is a response to the truly epochal report of the United Nations, "The Challenge of Slums," that came out three years ago. Before this report there simply wasn't the data or even the methodology to look at the condition of the urban poor worldwide. It's an enormously ambitious and important study, and I wrote an essay in response to it. The book is an expansion of that, a kind of armchair exploration of a rather vast literature about the urban poor. I focus particularly on what are really the key questions: Is there still enough free or cheap land to sustain informal urbanization? Is there still enough economic opportunity in the informal sector-the main employer of new immigrants of the poor in the major Third World cities-to sustain the role of the informal sector? I think the answer to both is that we've come to a closing frontier of opportunity, and the book explores the consequences of that.

How many people are living in slums today?

Two years ago, the head of U.N. HABITAT [the United Nations Human Settlement Program] estimated that 1 billion people were living in slums, classically conceived as having inadequate, substandard housing and missing some essential services. A much larger number, perhaps 2 billion people, live in cities and are poor. More than a billion people, again overlapping with slum dwellers, really exist outside the formal economy and formal employment.

These developments are gigantic, and in some ways unexpected. No social theory predicted that urbanization would take this course at the end of the 20th century or on such a vast scale.

How do the slums today in the Global South differ from the 19th century slums?

The slums in St. Giles in London and in Old Town Manchester that Friedrich Engels explored in his pioneering report, "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844," were slums in the shadows of factories. The residents were factory workers or industrial workers.

Most of the slums of today's world resemble Naples or Dublin in the 19th century-cities that grew by absorbing poor people pushed out of the countryside or who were made redundant in traditional handicraft jobs by the industrial revolution. These cities were manifestly not industrial cities. If Europe had not had the safety valve of immigration to the New World for tens of millions of people, undoubtedly you would have seen more Dublins, more Naples.

So while it would be easy to find cases where slum dwellers work in some sweatshop-making something for Wal-Mart or another multinational-slum dwelling now goes hand-in-hand with informal employment. Industrialization, except in southern China and parts of East Asia, doesn't drive city growth.

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