When you picture a slum, the first things that come to mind are images of filth, squalor and snotty-nosed children abandoned on the streets. You think of guns and dubious transactions behind closed, stained doors. When you picture South America’s fourth tallest building, you instantly think of a glass-and-steel monolith, buzzing with suit-clad bankers clutching half-filled cups of coffee. And yet, the two worlds collide at the Torre de David in Caracas, the tallest building in Venezuela, and also the tallest squatter settlement in the world.
The spectacular 45-storey tower was being built in the 1990s, as a symbol of Venezuela’s growth and economic power, until a banking crisis forced the developers to halt construction. And today the unfinished skyscraper, with a helipad on one side and broken walls on the other, is still a symbol – of the housing shortage in the oil-rich country.
It demonstrates scale of the housing crisis that Venezuela is facing – and it’s not only because 2500 people have been forced to live on property that does not belong to them. It is because even though the building lacks basic facilities like running water, elevators, electricity, and sometimes even walls, each of the 2500 residents feel very lucky to live there. For as dark and foreboding the cellphone-lit corridors of the Torre de David might seem, they are still safer than the streets outside.
In the four years since the settlers have moved in, they have strived to bring in some order to the system. Water is brought in by truck, and distributed amongst the residents with jerry cans. Each floor has a bodega and small home-businesses like barbershops and internet stations. Each of the 28 occupied floors has appointed a co-coordinator to represent them. The co-coordinators have helped organize the residents so that the elderly are allowed to live on lower floors, and the children are allocated some place to play. For all of these services, the residents must pay an administrative fee of 150 Bolivares (approx 35 USD) every month. The rent, of course, is free.
The tower is its own city, with its own rules, government and economic system. And unlikely as it may seem, it functions. Some say, even more efficiently than the city outside it.