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Why cities need to make room for the working poor (part 1 of 2)

Mercúrio and São Vito stand behind the Municipal Market | photo courtesy of Kate Sokol

Two years ago, while studying in Brazil, a young NGO volunteer named Aldo brought a group of students and I to meet the leader and resident of a building that had become a brazen symbol for São Paulo's  working poor. The Mercúrio building (and its more famous empty neighbor São Vito) sat across a catchment basin from the city's popular Municipal Market. The tower's green faded exterior walls held together a jagged mix that included the occasionally intact window. Graffiti, spanning a time span of almost thirty years, tagged every floor of the twenty-six story structure.  Only the drying laundry, hung from the empty window frames, clued outsiders that squatters still resided in the long condemned building.  

At the time of our visit, the Mercúrio housed almost 150 residents.  Varying from elderly couples to young children, the resident squatters had been there illegally spanning the long interim during which city officials remained undecided on the structure's future. Originally, in the 1960's, the building was occupied by rent paying middle income laborers. As São Paulo's population began to explode in the later part of the 20th century, the city became more decentralized, the renters moved on, and the soon bankrupted building was sold to the city. Following a period of neglect, a mix of families and individuals from a wide range of circumstance began to move into the vacant building. They set up homes and rented out adjacent apartments while the local government debated whether to remodel the building for low income housing or bulldoze the structure to expand on a nearby park.

Some city officials want Mercúrio bulldozed to make way for this park| photo courtesy of Elena Dahlberg

The Mercúrio lobby was lit by the gaping hole where the front entrance used to hang. All artificial light in the building's public spaces, we were told, had been recently destroyed by city workers who were trying in every way to deter squatters. I suspect that, failed, illegal wiring could have also been an accomplice. Given the lack of stairwell light, after our greeting by a few of the tower's residents, we were informed that we were to use the building's last operational elevator.  Using the 50's era, steel-caged elevator to move between floors, a trip journeyed multiple times a day by the building's residents, was a rattling experience. It was only one of the building's many extreme aspects, which we soon learned, that the remaining squatters were willing to endure in order to remain in the city center.

On the 6th floor, surrounded by doors marked with a faded "X"s and a city padlocks, we were pointed to the entrance of our guide's home.  He explained that it was the constant harassment from city officials and transients that had driven every other inhabitant from his floor away. Apartments left unattended, even for a short time, were at risk to be ransacked or bolted closed. Up a few floors we ran across three girls playing in a dark hallway just beyond the threshold of their parent's residence. Short of a few remnants from broken hallway lights, the girl's level, where they had lived for most of their living memory, was noticeably better cared for than the rest of the building. On the roof of the building we were brought to an overgrown performance space where Os Gêmeous, two of Brazil's most famous graffiti artists, had left their mark among countless other tags. The Mercúrio was all at once a historical relic, a home, and a symbol of resistance to exclusion in an ever gentrifying, urban arena.

A young girl draws near the entrance to a condemned apartment | photo courtesy of Elena Dahlberg

  With the constant threat of eviction looming, I asked a few of the residents where they planned to go if they were forced to move. I was curious whether anyone had identified other options and were holding out with the hope of receiving government compensation following their removal. For our guides, affordable options did not exist in the formal sector. Their future was split between homelessness or moving to a favela at the city's periphery (where they would likely have to relinquish their current jobs). From what I could tell, it was a reality on which they actively attempted to not dwell. 

I thought of the Mercúrio building this past week when the New York Times published an article on the squatters residing in an unfinished, 45 story structure in downtown Caracas, Venezuela. The skyscraper, known as the "Tower of David," houses 2,500 people who have come because of the high cost of rent and extreme wage disparity within the city's downtown. Much like most of Mercúrio's residents, many of the tower's squatters chose to live there because their city offered few (if any) affordable alternatives. Like many city residents across the Americas, they recognized the value of urban life (access to jobs and consumption with low transportation costs) and their habitation of unsafe/ unfinished structures was their only way to have it. From not only a social and economic perspective, but also from an energy and climate perspective, city officials have to do more to slow, and hopefully reverse, the high cost of urban housing for the working poor.

To be continued tomorrow….