Latin America
3:08 pm
Wed July 30, 2014

A Tour Of The Tower That Fell Into Squatters' Hands

Originally published on Wed July 30, 2014 6:07 pm

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you're caught up on the TV show "Homeland," you've seen a fictionalized version of a building known as the Tower of David. It's an unfinished skyscraper in middle of downtown Caracas, Venezuela. It's named after a real-life banker who commissioned it. In the show, a character's being held in the tower by thugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMELAND")

ERIK TODD DELLUMS: (As Dr. Graham) Unfortunately, before it was completed, David died. Then the whole economy died. Construction stopped. The squatters all moved in and voila.

SHAPIRO: Construction of the real Tower of David was abandoned in the mid-'90s. In 2007, squatters led by an ex-convict invaded the tower. Today, thousands of people live there illegally. It's a functioning community that's also plagued by the crime and corruption found in more traditional slum settings. And after turning a blind eye for years, Venezuela's government is now clearing the building. Justin McGuirk is an architecture critic who spent time in the Tower of David. I asked him to describe what it looks like.

MCGUIRK: What you're seeing is a 45-story skyscraper with, you know, mirrored, glass facades - except on one side those facades have been removed because people had to ventilate their apartments. Then you go in through a metal gate, passed the community's security, and you find yourselves in a kind of raw, concrete atrium, which would have been the gilded atrium of this corporate headquarters. And then you'll start walking up steps. And you'll pass, you know, all kinds of facilities like an ad hoc basketball court and football courts. Then you'll start walking up stairways. And you can go 28 flights up or 45 stories up. People only live up to the 28th floor. You'll pass women carrying shopping up, stopping every five to 10 flights or so, kids running around, people listening to radios or doing each other's hair, or you'll find shops, businesses. Mostly, you'll find apartments.

SHAPIRO: On television, this building is depicted as kind of a criminal haven, a den of terrorists and gangs. And does that match what you saw when you were there?

MCGUIRK: Not at all. I mean, I get it. I understand why Showtime felt it was more entertaining to depict it as a den of drug dealing and crime. But that's certainly not what I saw. I mean, you have to remember that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 people living in this building. That would be a lot of criminals. Actually, what we have here is ordinary people, from the poorer income bracket, who are there out of necessity because they didn't have anywhere else to live.

SHAPIRO: One of the most amazing things about this place to me is that everybody sort of pitches in and has built electricity and water and other infrastructure that was not there when the squatters first arrived.

MCGUIRK: Well, exactly so. I mean, they've taken a derelict skyscraper, a kind of dead skeleton, and they've brought it to life. They pay for their electricity. They've brought it in. They've brought in running water - in a rudimentary way, but they have done it. They try and look after each other as a community. And they take decisions collectively. It's kind of participative democracy, in a way.

SHAPIRO: Are there real safety concerns for people living in the building, though? I understand people have fallen to their death. How safe is it a place for people to live?

MCGUIRK: It is a fairly hairy place, I must say - especially when you get higher up. You have to remember that the building was kind of redeveloped ad hoc, if you like, and so there's a lot of fairly weak balustrading and safety barriers going on. And a couple of people have fallen off in the past. And that is part of the tragedy of this place. I mean, far be it for me to romanticize it too much. But yeah, it's not a great place to have your kids growing up.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the evictions. Where do things stand right now? Where are people going to go? Is there any hope for it to be reversed?

MCGUIRK: It seems unlikely that this decision will be reversed. About 100 or 150 families have already been evicted. And they're being moved to a little town 50 kilometers south of Caracas, which, in a way, is indicative of the whole problem. I mean, you know, the government doesn't have anywhere to put these people within the city. And that's a tragedy for them because, you know, they were living right in the heart of the city as opposed to in the slums, where two or three million people live around the city, on the periphery. My question and, in a way, justification for their occupation was why should people live in slums an hour outside the city when there are empty skyscrapers in the city's center? So the fact that they are being moved, now, an hour away from their jobs and from their social networks is, in a way, the drama of Latin American cities.

SHAPIRO: Are there one or two people you met there who you vividly remember who you could describe for us?

MCGUIRK: I mean, one person in particular who springs to mind is the guy who lives on the very top, on the 28th floor. You know, he was - he has a family, and he's a young, hard-working guy. His name's Frankenstein. But what's interesting about it is that he has a fairly simple apartment up there, but he has, effectively, the quality of life of a penthouse. You know, he's looking out over the city from the city center. The problem with his existence is that he has to go up and down 28 flights of steps everyday. That is no small feat. I mean, he's young and fit. He's family's young and fit. But you can understand why that's just not workable in the long-term.

SHAPIRO: That is architecture critic Justin McGuirk talking with us about Caracas, Venezuela's Tower of David. Thanks very much.

MCGUIRK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.