Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Do the shantytowns of the developing world hold lessons for the U.S.?

I once had two friends that lived on a dusty street filled with potholes and broken down cars on the western slope of Cerro Colorado in the Matamoros Colonia of Tijuana. The street seemed impossibly steep in parts and partially impassable at points. They lived next to a makeshift storefront where an old Chiapan woman with a watchful eye, quick wit, and an almost toothless smile would greet you partly with kindness and partly with suspicion.

The front of their building was a deep kelly green, peppered with dusty gray scrapes and pocks that enhanced the walls of the house with texture that was purely accidental. The main entrance was a gray and dented garage door which opened into a courtyard filled with broken concrete, foul smelling puddles and a menagerie of cats. All of this was watched over by a mangy dog on a short chain behind a broken down car that had no hope of ever being fixed.

At the opposite end of the courtyard was a makeshift concrete stairway that rose up over the outhouse. Created without aesthetics, in mind, the step heights weren’t consistent but they were functional. There was no railing to guide you as you climbed up its uneven steps. But it was easy to find your way up to their patio and into their particle board shell of an apartment. Their apartment was little more than an afterthought which had organically evolved from available resources and a will to survive.

This two-room wooden shack, grew like an appendage from an already roughly constructed building. It was far from luxury. A slum to the untrained eye, it was immaculate and well stocked with all the modern electronics and furniture you would expect to find in the more middle class neighborhoods anywhere in the world, yet it was missing standard amenities like a kitchen sink and bathroom, all of which were communally shared in the courtyard by other tenants in the building. Not fancy; not even desirable by most; just basic and cheap housing for two very poor people who desperately needed a place to call home. Welcome to the shantytowns of Tijuana.

But it's not just Tijuana that has shantytowns. Shantytowns are a common feature throughout Mexico and in developing countries throughout the world. They are the result of either rapidly expanding populations of poorer people and / or rapidly expanding economies, coupled with a weak and cash strapped government that can't keep up with the needs of its people. Such was the reason for the explosion of shantytowns in Tijuana.

The border economies are driven by the industries of the maquilidoras. The maquiladoras are manufacturing industries that thrive on cheaper labor and production costs and they can be found across the border region. While the end product is shipped throughout Mexico, the majority of the products are shipped into the United States and Canada. The largest maquila centers and their sister cities in the United States are Brownsville / Matamoros, Reynosa / Mcallen, Nuevo Laredo / Laredo, and Ciudad Juarez / El Paso. But the largest and most important center by far is the Tijuana / San Diego centers. Fueled by NAFTA legislation, Tijuana exploded with growth as poorer Mexicans moved from locales in the interior to plentiful and better paying jobs at the borders where they could begin to build a life and adopt the everyday trappings that the middle class takes for granted.

Tijuana was unable to keep up with the rapid growth as people began to build illegal dwellings on government land. These dwellings were often built in environmentally sensitive lands that were often unsuitable for human habitation. In most cases these lands lacked even the most minimal of infrastructure improvements. Water , sewer and electricity were an afterthought and paved roads were little more than a pipe dream. The government had lost control of development and people began to permanently settle on lands, building without regard to codes or aesthetics. Once settled, there was no way to remove, the large and established, communities that grew from nothing, so as the government began to grow stronger, they adopted a policy of legalization, and began to legitimize the settlements and provide to the people much needed services like water, sewer, and electricity.

To the unknowing eye, these settlements look like a deplorable slum. But while poorer than what most many American's are accustomed to, there are tightly formed communities thriving there which give the poor the means to create a better life. In no way do I want to romanticize these settlements; life in these neighborhoods are seldom easy. They are sometimes plagued with crime and other issues of extreme poverty, but more often the majority of the population consists of hard working families trying to make ends meet. These shantytowns provide organization and the building blocks of a better society, something that is much more safe and solid than being completely homeless and without resources in which to grow.

The lack of regulation that initially existed in these areas allowed for the flexibility needed for people to build their homes, to build locally owned businesses that serve every need within walking distance to area residences, and to allow for the density needed to allow for solvent private and public transit solutions that fill in the gap that results from low car ownership. Much of this flexibility already exists in development regulations in place across Mexico. The end result allows poorer people to help support themselves through locally serving business, many of which exist on the ground floor of their own residences. So while to the untrained eye these type of settlements may seem shocking, they are actually much more humane than what is seen in the United States where it is nearly impossible for the poor to open up a business or own a home of their own.

In the United States , the poor are often demonized. They are continuously being ostracized from mainstream society through legal and socialized means and while their numbers are growing, they are often invisible to the upper-middle higher classes. As a member of the middle and upper classes of the United States it is easy to miss the growing poverty. Privately owned cars whisk people from place to place, usually from home to work and to store. Interactions are separated and controlled. They rarely have contact with the poor on the street or who might be riding public transit and they don't go to the neighborhoods where the poor live; in the sketchy apartment complexes that exist across the badburbs and the ghetto-sprawl. They don't have contact with the people living on the streets, nor in the shelters, or the riverbeds, and tent cities. In fact the middle and upper classes don't usually have contact with people that are much different from themselves. This is where Mexico and the United States differ. In Mexico no matter what class you are from, everyone lives together. Even if you are incredibly wealthy and living in an exclusive gated community, you still see the poor and you still interact with them. The poor cannot be hidden away and they cannot be ignored.

In the United States the poor are often hidden from view and they are susceptible to negative issues that the upper classes don't ever have to experience. They often pay far too much of their income for housing. They can get little or no access to medical care. They are forced to keep, fuel and maintain a vehicle to keep the cycle going. They often live far from employment centers and in bad locations in order to afford bigger housing for larger families. When they can't afford insurance on their vehicles and are caught driving without, they are jailed and fined. They are paying high prices on food, utilities, and bank fees. They have more access to cheap fast food than actual healthy products. They often can't walk to shopping that serves their local neighborhood due to an urban environment that lacks walkability or has too many personal safety issues. Lets not even get started on the social welfare system that in the long run reinforces the poverty cycle. The list can go on and on. The poor in the United States are constantly under attack.

I recently was speaking with a friend in Toluca, Mexico whom owns a restaurant. In the course of out conversation I discovered that he pays the equivalent of $100.00 dollars a week, after taxes, for his lowest paid employees. While that may seem shocking, know this; even the poorest person in Mexico can get basic medical treatment for free through the Mexican Social Security System. Rent for an apartment in a lower income area will run a person the equivalent of about $80.00 a month and while certainly not luxury, it will have all the basic services needed for two people to live comfortably. Food, utilities, transportation, and supplemental medical are also much cheaper than in the United States and being nickel and dimed to death over hidden fees is much less an issue than it is in the States. With two incomes coming in, the poor in Mexico can live much fuller lives than they can in our country.

So while the shantytowns of the developing world may seem shocking they really do serve a purpose. They are able to grow organically over time to suit the needs of the lower classes. They evolved like an organism, as a solution to the unsolvable. And while they are a symptom of poverty. they allow the poor to build the foundations for a full life in family, business, and home. Mexico took the correct step to legitimize these types of informal settlements. The key is to begin regulating in a way that provides for basic services but allowing for the right amount of flexibility that allows people to continue growing in their locally serving entrepreneurship, something that Mexico, so far , has been able to do well.

The lower classes of the United States are growing and the power of local governments to efficiently provide services is waning. Due to foreclosures , layoffs and the worsening economic conditions of our country, communities across the nation are beginning to see a surge of tent cities popping up in vacant lots and countryside. As local governments wrestle with bankruptcy and diminished local services, their ability to regulate will be stymied.

This situation is not far off from the situations that have occurred throughout the developing world. If the trend continues, communities across the nation may be forced to legitimize these informal settlements. Several cities in the Southeast such as Nashville Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama are beginning to enact policy that recognizes the tent cities as a legitmate form of transitional housing. It is even getting to the point to where they are providing basic services and police protection for tent city residents.

It is clear that a fundamental shift in the national psyche has begun. If conditions continue to worsen economically, it is entirely possible that local governments will have to make the same type of choices that those in developing nations have made regarding their own informal settlements. The bigger the problem gets, the harder poverty will be to ignore. So if the Great Recession grows into Depression 2.0, the ever growing homeless problem will shape our cities in ways unexpected.............whether we like it or not, in which case we will need a solution to the unsolvable. Are we up for the challenge?

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