Slums

Map of Slums in Greater Buenos Aires (Source: Christian Werthmann and John Beardsley, Harvard Graduate School of Design)
Map of Slums in Greater Buenos Aires (Source: Christian Werthmann and John Beardsley, Harvard Graduate School of Design)

Slums are and will continue to be an integral part of the urban future according to Mike Davis in his book Planet of Slums. Davis points to the explosive growth of slums around major cities in the Global South and the enormous population housed in these slums. In some metropolitan areas, slums house more than half of the region’s population. Davis says the high levels of poverty faced by slum residents and the issues associated with large concentrations of impoverished residents will be some of the most pressing concerns facing urban areas around the globe in the decades to come. Slums house a largely powerless population that is at the mercy of decisions made by wealthy citizens, government officials, and foreign investment firms. 

An aerial view of a slum.
An aerial view of a slum.

Slums in Buenos Aires are called a variety of different names but the most common are villas or villa miserias. Villa miseria translates to “miserable villes” according to Mike Davis in Planet of Slums. The villas are squatter settlements, built on land, that for the time, is undesirable and unwanted with no value illegally of cheap and makeshift materials. Immigrants from other countries who come to fill the low-waged jobs in comparatively wealthy Buenos Aires create many of these settlements because they find themselves in need of affordable housing. They are often located in hazardous locations in flood plains, swamps, chemical dumps, and other hazardous places. Some of these immigrants take refuge in inquilinatos, abandoned buildings and factories that have become home to 100,000 in the federal capital alone.

Slums have been part of life in Buenos Aires since the 1960’s when the government decided to finally take action and eradicate illegal slum developments in the federal capital. The government instituted the Plan de Erradicacion de Villas de Emergencia in a short-lived attempt to remove shantytowns from the city. Laura Pudalsky, in Specular City: Transforming Culture, Consumption, and Space in Buenos Aires, 1955-1973, notes that the population of villas in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area had increased by about 400,000 between 1963 and 1968. According to Mike Davis in Planet of Slums, the effort to remove shantytowns regained steam in the late 1970’s and saw the demolition of 94% of shantytowns leaving 270,000 people without homes. Those eradication efforts pushed villa dwellers to the edges of the city beginning the formation of slum suburbs in Buenos Aires.

 

Emanuela Guano looks at the methods used to strip the lower-classes of their citizenship in “The denial of citizenship: barbaric Buenos Aires and the middle-class imaginary”. Guano describes several methods used to reduce the lower-classes to non-citizens one of which was by imposing new restrictions on public spaces that allowed only the wealthy to use them. The lower classes were also evicted from their homes and their neighborhoods left off official maps of the city as they were illegal creations with no legal right to the land the sat on. As neo-liberal Argentina ‘progressed’, the middle-class became highly vulnerable and could easily fall into the lower class. The middle class is stuck in a notion of citizenship that they’ve inherited from an early 20th century Buenos Aires that was a haven for wealthy European immigrants. The tensions between classes in Buenos Aires is intensified by the continuing decline of the economy and worsening of poverty and unemployment statistics.

A villa miseria.
A villa miseria.

Through a combination of ethnographic study, official data, and interviews, Javier Auyero describes the violences that face shantytown residents in “The Hyper-Shantytown: Neo-Liberal Violence(s) in the Argentine Slum”. The article describes the impact globalization, state abandonment, and rampant drug use has had on slum communities such as Villa Paraiso, La Cava, and La Ranas. Neo-liberal policies have left slums devoid of any jobs leaving slum residents continually unemployed with little opportunity to support themselves. Auyero sees the government’s policies towards slums as “an act of containment” meant not to solve the underlying problems but to prevent rioting. The ethnographies provide a better understanding of how these violences come together to shape the lives of the villeros. One resident commented the government doesn’t provide services such as water, electricity, or gas either because it imagines villeros do not need such services or because the government wants the villeros to leave.


The economic collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001 set the stage for the massive poverty that would blanket 40% of Buenos Aires. Alfred Hopkins, writing for the World Press Review, writes about a man who walked up to a reporter while looting, telling the reporter he hadn’t had a job in two years and had two young children to feed. A report by National Public Radio titled “Buenos Aires poor make meager living from dumps” tells how poverty in the slums of Argentina has forced some to forage in dumps to make a living. In the face of the hopelessness of slum living, drugs have taken hold and destroyed families and lives. The New York Times writes about the explosion of paco, highly addictive, low-quality cocaine made mostly of solvents with a small amount of cocaine, has taken the streets of Ciudad Oculta in Buenos Aries in the article “Cheap cocaine floods a slum in Argentina, devouring lives”