Venezuela’s ‘skyscraper slum’ provides haven for poor
It boasts a helicopter landing pad, glorious views of the Avila Mountain range and large balconies for weekend barbecues.
Yet this 45-story skyscraper in the center of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: It is a slum, probably the tallest in the world.
Dubbed the “Tower of David,” it was intended to be a shining new financial center but was abandoned around 1994 after the death of its developer — financier and horse-breeder David Brillembourg — and a massive run on Venezuela’s banking sector.
Squatters seized the huge concrete skeleton in 2007. Then President Hugo Chavez’s socialist government turned a blind eye, and now about 3,000 people call the tower their home.
Though many Caracas residents view it as a den of thieves and a symbol of rampant disrespect for property, residents call the Tower of David a safe haven that rescued them from the capital’s crime-ridden slums.
It appears, at least for now, to have escaped the violence and turf warfare that followed similar building takeovers in Caracas over the past decade, often launched under the banner of the late Chavez’s self-styled revolution.
Communal corridors are freshly polished, rules and rotas are posted everywhere and non-compliance is punished with extra “social work” decided by a cooperative and floor delegates who make up a mini-government.
“Without ethics or principles, all is irrational,” reads one typically didactic poster in a public area.
Work was sufficiently advanced by the time the tower was abandoned. For the first 28 floors to be habitable, the squatters have had to brick up dangerous open spaces and put in their own basic plumbing, electrical and water systems.
Families pay a 200 bolivar ($32) monthly “condominium” fee, which helps fund 24-hour security patrols.
Safer inside than out
“There is far more order and far less crime in here than out there,” says 27th-floor resident Thais Ruiz, 36, exuding contentment from an armchair as her kids play and her husband fulfills the family’s once-a-week corridor sweeping duty.
Like many inhabitants, Ruiz abandoned her shack in the violent Petare slum of east Caracas in 2010 to build a spacious four-bedroom apartment in the tower where she lives with her husband and five children.
The family paid a small fee for a space that was supposed to have been a fancy corner office with an amazing vista and at first lived in a tent. But over the years, given the absence of elevators, they hauled bricks, furniture, water tanks — and even barbecue equipment — up 27 flights of stairs to build a home.
“I never lived in an apartment before. We’re so comfortable now,” she says. “We had to get out of Petare and the daily gang shootouts. Once we found a dead body on our doorstep. Now look, we can leave the door wide open.”
Few deny the conditions can be precarious.
One young girl fell through a hole in the wall to her death a few years back, and a drunk motorcyclist rode off an edge and killed himself. Police have raided the building a couple of times searching for kidnap victims, adding to its notoriety.
The building showed up as a Dantesque backdrop to an episode of U.S. TV drama “Homeland,” with on-the-run terrorist-suspect character Nicholas Brody held there. Though filmed mainly in Puerto Rico, the 2013 episode includes shots of the real tower and has a scene where a gang tosses a thief off the building.
But it’s the unique quality of Tower of David, whose intended name was the Confinanzas Financial Center before the group went under, that has won it attention beyond Venezuela.
Documentaries and analyses of it have showed up at trendy art festivals around the world: One exhibition about the tower won a prize at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.
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