Squatters

December 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kostis Kourelis prompted my to read over Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities (Routledge 2005). The book deals with the various situations and conditions of squatter communities around the world. Neuwirth focuses on particular in well-known squatter settlements in Brazil, Kenya, and India as well as the less known situation around Istanbul. The strength of the book is the first 175 pages which documents anecdotally stories and conditions from these various squatter communities. 

The reason that Kostis recommended this book was that there are some nice parallels between life in squatter communities and life some of the man camps in the western North Dakota Bakken Range. I don’t mean to suggest that the residents of the Bakken man camps are squatting, although some of our residents in Type 3 camps almost certainly are, but I think there are significant historical, architectural, and social parallels between so-called man camps and squatter settlements around the world.

First, many of the squatter settlements began as camps set up to house workers who had come to participate in the emerging industrial economy. As the industrial economy retreated or changed, the workers in these camps lost their jobs, but sometimes continued to occupy the areas illegally. These illegal settlements became attractive to poor rural laborers who migrated to cities like Rio and Nairobi to find work. 

These settlements tend to become places of architectural innovation as the residents attempted to utilize their meager resources to the greatest effect and to build free from various codes and legal restrictions designed to protect the rights of property owners. In some areas, government regulations have limited what squatters can do architecturally, but in other places – like Brazil and India – squatters have found remarkable ways to overcome poverty and negotiate building practices that provide amenities without impinging on their rights of their equally illegal neighbors.

The parallels between the ad hoc building practices and those witnessed at the most informal man camps is quite remarkable. The use of discarded objects, the methods of gaining access to electricity, water, and sewage, and creative efforts to expand the living space all have clear parallels with practices used in squatter communities around the world. Moreover, outsider attitudes toward conditions in squatter communities and camps are similar. Outsiders see these places as violent, dirty, and depressing places, whereas residents often see these settlements as places of hope and potential.  

More significantly, perhaps, are the efforts of squatters to negotiate their own sense of community. In almost all the communities documented by Nuerwirth, squatters valued the social relations that made it possible to achieve a sense of community, to achieve a degree of social insurance in difficult economic conditions, and to negotiate rights among property holders in the absence of official state authority. The remarks by residents of Type 2 and Type 3 man camps in the Bakken Oil Patch often centered around the sense of community felt in these less formal and regulated settlements and stood in contrast to how they perceived life to be in the more physically comfortable environments offered in Type 1 camps. In fact, some of the residents of Type 2 and 3 camps explicitly remarked how they preferred their lives to life in a Type 1 camp. The more visible involvement of the state – or in the case of the Bakken Oil Patch – the corporate interests invested in managing the workforce there seemed to have undermined the sense of community in a way very similar to that perceived by squatters around the world. Like man camp residents, many of the squatter preferred their life in squatter communities and continued to live there even after the economic contingencies made it unnecessary. 

Neuwirth’s book invokes a kind of anarchist political philosophy that finds in squatter settlements a kind negotiated utopia where residents paradoxically have a greater sense of ownership over the place than state regulated private property would allow. (Of course, he downplays the involvement of equally exploitative and unregulated forces like drug gangs, local strongmen, and unregulated forms of capitalism (loan sharks, utility hoarders, and others) who prey upon poverty and unequal access to coercive force, capital, and basic commodities.  This same tension, of course, is visible in the man camps as price gouging, unequal access to utilities, and the invisible hand of corporate interests (and a sometimes intrusive state) constantly challenge efforts of communities to find a working balance and create their own utopias.

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