The Tower of David is a 45-storey skyscraper in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela. From the outside, there’s nothing too special about the tower, but on the inside, it’s hardly what you’d expect. In the past seven years, the abandoned building has been become the tallest slum in the world and home to over 3,000 homeless people in the city. It is greatly feared to be a hotbed of crime, drugs and gangs.
When construction began in the early 1990s, the Tower of David (locally known as Torre de David) was intended to be one of the most prominent structures of the new financial district. But when the developer died in 1994, the project was abandoned. By the year 2007, squatters had completely taken over the incomplete concrete skeleton. This actually isn’t too surprising, given the fact that Caracas is a city in need of almost two million homes.
For now, the residents seem to have made themselves very comfortable inside the tower. They enter the structure through an attached parking garage, and motorcycles are used to transfer residents up the first 10 floors. The first 28 floors are inhabited by families, but there are no elevators in the tower, just a single flight of stairs that they have no choice but to climb.
The residents do pool money to pay for a few basic facilities and services. That’s how they installed a communal electrical grid and an aqueduct system for water in the tower. They contribute a 200 bolivar (that’s about $32) ‘condominium’ fee that takes care of these amenities, including 24-hour security patrols. The first 28 floors have been made habitable with basic plumbing. Floor delegates help manage the tower and keep the communal corridors clean. A few businesses run inside the tower as well – they have a dentist, shops and a beauty salon.
According to Ricardo Jimenez, an occupation organizer at the tower, “Capitalism utilizes housing as a commodity, whereas we see it as a right. A fundamental human right.” He called Tower of David is a sad symbol of what has happened with Venezuelan cities. Guillermo Barrios, a professor of architecture and urbanism, called the Tower of David ‘bad news’. “This is not a better or nice use of an abandoned structure,” he insisted. “In reality, this is the ‘anti-housing’, the ‘anti-residence’, and the government has always looked away from the issue. It is a very violent place. It is completely outside the authority of the law, and they have their own law there.”
Those who live outside the skyscraper do view it as a den of thieves and a symbol of rampant disrespect for property. In fact, police regularly raid the tower in search of kidnap victims. But the residents have an entirely different story to tell. They insist that the tower is one of the safest places in the city. “Sometimes the newspapers publish, ‘A young girl was raped in Torre de David,’” said Ricardo. “And when they actually investigate, it turns out this did not take place in Torre de David. It was in the surroundings and not necessarily someone who lived in Torre de David.”
Resident Daisy Monsalve added: “They are always saying that this is a slum, that this is dangerous, that criminals live here, that people get raped here, this and that, that we sell drugs. The squat, the invaders, there are criminals there, only murderers live there. This and that. When in reality, me, I’ve lived alone here and nothing has ever happened to me. Never ever.”
Photo: Vocativ video caption
In fact, the Tower of David is actually a haven to many young couples who are looking for a home at a lower price. Like Nicolas Alvarez and his partner. “We’ve been in Torre de David for about two weeks, and it’s been an experience,” said Nicolas. Fortunately, thank God, we were given this opportunity in this space that is at a very low price. We need to do some work, some repairs. We are in favor of that, but we need to make this our home, our space, our apartment.”
Professor Barrios has a very different view about what needs to be done with the tower. “The right path would be to relocate these families into adequate residences, adequately planned around a vision of habitat, of housing with integrated public services,” he said. “And then return that tower to its original use. That is what is really needed. Torre de David is not simply a monster that should be eliminated and attacked and defeated. That monster needs to be supported. We need to see how to, hand in hand, with the state.”
But it doesn’t look like the residents are expecting such kind of help, nor are they looking to get out of the Tower of David. A case-in-point is Thais Ruiz, a 27th-floor resident. She moved to the tower in 2010 with her husband and five children. They have since built themselves a spacious four-bedroom apartment. “There is far more order and far less crime in here than out there,” she said.
Daisy sums up the residents’ sentiments pretty well: “It is a very wonderful thing to have a place and know where you are going to spend the night. It is not temporary, this is our life.”