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Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World [Paperback]

Robert Neuwirth
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

31 Aug 2006
In almost every country of the developing world, the most active builders are squatters, creating complex local economies with high rises, shopping strips, banks, and self-government. As they invent new social structures, Neuwirth argues, squatters are at the forefront of the worldwide movement to develop new visions of what constitutes property and community.


Visit Robert Neuwirth's blog at: http://squatterci ty.blogspot.com

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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; New Ed edition (31 Aug 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415953618
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415953610
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 17 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 494,122 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

'Neuwirth gets the lowdown on the low life by becoming a resident of four of the most happening squatopolises: the thriving extralegal pockets of Istanbul, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Rio. His ghetto epiphanies include impeccable civility, self-organizing local governments, bustling economies, modest crime rates, and squatter millionaires.' - Josh McHugh,Wired


'Urban squatters - families that risk the wrath of governments and property owners by building dwellings on land they don't own - represent one out of every ten people on the planet. Squatters create complex local economies with high rises, shopping strips, banks, and self-government in their search for decent places to live. This book reveals squatter communities from Rio to Bombay that give a glimpse into our urban future and show new visions of what constitutes property and community.' - architecture week


'Shadow Cities is at its best shining an investigative lens into areas of urban life that have seldom been described before. It is a wonderful story of the vitality and creativity of ordinary people who have managed to survive and sometimes even prosper in the face of government indifference if not hostility.' - Robert H. Nelson, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy; Reason Magazine


'[A] superbly probing book...Compelling, thought-provoking and written with laconic grace, Neuwirth's study is essential reading for anyone interested in global urban affairs.' -Publisher's Weekly

About the Author

Robert Neuwirth is an investigative reporter who specializes in urban issues. He has written for The New York Times, The Nation, Metropolis, The Village Voice, New York Magazine, and many other publications. He received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for his work on squatter communities.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surviving in the Shadows 8 Oct 2005
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is quite unique as it's based on the author's first hand experiences after spending extended periods of time living in the slum areas of four of the world's most sprawling 'Sqautter Cities'. Robert Neuwirth is a journalist by trade and his writing does have a 'newspapery' sort of feel to it - but that doesn't make the book any less enjoyable. There are plenty of facts and stats that appealled to the egg-head side of me, but even more so lots of real human stories, many which were very moving. I felt myself both infuruiated at the injustice in the world yet also hugely proud of the urban poor and their creative survival ability.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Really proper journalism 21 Dec 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A fantastic concept of a book, Neuwirth's account of his time actually living in squatter settlements around the world completely changed my and (to judge from the references I have seen to it elsewhere) a great many other people's view of slums, squatter settlements and unplanned urbanism.

There is much to dig into here, not merely the headline finding - still often treated as surprising - that people who live in one room shacks on the fringes of megacities are fully three dimensional human beings with hopes, ambitions and, as often as not, jobs doing important and worthwhile things. But from that flows his main thesis - that reform is not the simple matter one might hope. Crudely imposed from outside, blanket title reforms will destroy the intricate network of informal relationships, often well documented in a parallel legal system, that have grown up over decades. Yes, there are exploitative landlords and racketeering but there are also many landlords who rent out rooms or even whole houses that they have spent twenty years building in order to finance the construction of a new home.

It is completely compelling and I have thrust my copy onto many other people
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4.0 out of 5 stars A peek under the carpet 19 April 2012
Format:Paperback
Living in a relatively prosperous country, the concept of life in one of the gigantic squatter settlements seems almost as close to hell as one can get. The picture I had in my head before reading this book was of short brutish lives living in squalor, with raw sewerage flowing down the street. All of which really goes against what we see as the basic requirements of life.

It's funny how much this book changed my opinions as well as leaving me completely perplexed about what should be the role of ownership of property in these communities. But a good book shouldn't necessarily make life any easier, it should force us to think and it should make us understand that there are no definitive solutions.
The real heroes of the book are the inhabitants of the squatter communities who remind us that we are all basically the same. The shear ingenuity, hard work, stoicism and optimism of many of the inhabitants is breathtaking.
Some of the national circumstances are truly grotesque but the steadily improving lot of inhabitants in other countries is downright amazing.
It's funny the only part of the book that I didn't like was the discussion of the historical/western experience of squatting. I think it was rather dull and broke the flow of the book. It was far, far more interesting hearing the actual day to day stories and experiences of people in the various squatter communities. The historical stuff is disjointed and there were too many disjointed anecdotes and not enough relevance to the discussion of the four different national experiences.It would have been better if this was put into a separate book.
It would have been better if the descriptions of life in each of the different communities he lived in was fleshed out more.
All said though I enjoyed the book and will be passing it on.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  17 reviews
93 of 101 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Haphazard Letdown 22 April 2006
By A. Ross - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This rather haphazard book functions well as a sociological portrait of four squatter cities as well as a spirited PR piece for the people living there, but fails on other fronts. The best parts are the first four chapters, which outline Neuwirth's field work in the shantytowns of Rio, Nairobi, Mumbai, and Istanbul. This consisted of living in situ for several months and talking to as many people as possible in order to get the pulse of a place. These 150 pages are fairly engaging insider views of places few of us are likely to venture, and are worth reading as a kind of non-traditional travelogue.

The book really loses its way after this. There is a meandering chapter about urban squatting throughout time, including snippets on ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Victorian London, '20s Shanghai, and various cities in the U.S. This is followed by another meandering chapter about squatters in New York over the last 150 years. Both of these contains some interesting stories and factoids, but fail to cohere into anything more than that. Next is a brief, rather snide chapter skewering the efforts of the NGO Habitat, which takes the rather predictable line that well-intentioned aid from outsiders accomplishes nothing. Then a chapter addressing crime in the four communities he lived in -- why this needs to be broken out into it's own chapter is unclear. Next is a rather muddled chapter on the concept of "property" and the various theoretical tugs-of-war surrounding it, which feels quite like the obligatory "theory" chapter of a Master's thesis.

A rather significant flaw running through the book is that Neuwirth writes as if his readers all hold some kind of ridiculous stereotype about who lives in shantytowns. Few readers are likely to believe that millions of shantytown-dwellers around the world are simply lazy and/or criminal -- yet the writing is rather shrilly pitched as if the reader was some kind of reactionary nincompoop. His profiles in courage of ingenious hard-working and optimistic poor (and a few who aren't so poor) shantytowners are welcome, but get rather repetitive. Furthermore, while these profiles are certainly heart-warming, they are ultimately little more than anecdotal data. They are also ironically similar to the sustaining American capitalist myths of "rugged individualism" and "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." However, the reality is that the vast majority of the people living in the communities he passed through are going to be born poor, live poor, and die poor -- regardless of how hard they work or how ingenious they are.

The book's larger aims fail because Neuwirth tries to uncouple housing issues from broader issues of poverty when the reality is that the one is embedded deeply in the other. Shantytowns have exploded around the world thanks to rural-to-urban migration patterns driven by global capitalism. In his book The Mystery of Capital, Hernan de Soto addresses this larger problem quite specifically and offers a possible way forward (within a traditional capitalism framework). Unfortunately, Neuwirth seems to have not quite grasped de Soto's ideas, and instead offers only sneering potshots at only portions of them. This problem with his dubious analysis is that by singling out specific elements of de Soto's proposal (notably property titles) from his larger framework (which includes addressing corruption, elitism, stagnant bureaucracies and a great many other things), the critique has no meaning. It's especially disappointing because de Soto and Neuwirth are both on the side of squatters, and both want better lives for them. One of the underlying themes of de Soto's book is that when citizens create facts on the ground, their government should change its methods to accommodate them, not isolate them.

Ultimately, this is a rather disappointing work with some genuine bright spots. It's great that Neuwirth went and spent a year of his life in these communities, and he's good at capturing the flavor of them. It's just a shame that his broader analysis is so flighty. There is an running underlying tension whereby Neuwirth provides case after case of how squatters get taken advantage of because they have no legal protections, and yet he refuses to admit that valid, enforceable property titles are part of the solution to exactly these inequities. In any event, worth a quick read by those with a deep interest in the subject, but on the whole it's a letdown.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Building the Cities of Tomorrow 3 Mar 2005
By L.A. in CA - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A billion squatters living around the world and the number is growing. This book gives us a glimpse into the day-to-day life of 4 distinct squatter communities: Rocinha (Rio de Janeiro); Southland (Nairobi, Kenya); Squatter Colony (Mumbai {Bombay}); and Sultanbeyli (Istanbul).

Taking up residency in these neighborhoods, the author found not only the most dismal of living conditions (piles of trash lining the streets; no running water, sewers or toilets), he also found lively, hard-working, resourceful and optimistic inhabitants.

What surprised me most was learning that many of those who live in these squatter communities actually prefer to live there rather than to be relocated to government housing. For example, in one area of Rio, there is a city housing project which consists of concrete apartment buildings. The buildings themselves are crumbling and the grounds are littered with garbage and broken glass. There is a sense of hopelessness. In contrast, living in a squatter town, one is not restricted to a single concrete room. One can build a mud hut initially and enlarge, upgrade or even tear down and rebuild in brick or wood. If one is resourceful, one can build an extra room to rent out or even open a business. This gives a squatter a sense of pride and a sense of being in control of his own destiny.

This is not a romanticized look at squatters, though. Much is said of the opposition these residents face at the hands of the the politicians, the land developers, the wealthy, and the press. Problems with crime and drugs are also addressed. But it would be hard to walk away from this book and not feel sympathy and respect for these people.

The number of squatters living in these communities worldwide is expected to reach 2 billion by 2030. That is roughly 1 in 4 people on earth. Perhaps that alone is reason enough to become aware and informed on this subject.

A very interesting book. Illustrated with black and white photographs.
41 of 47 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A tremendous missed opportunity 13 Mar 2005
By Feynman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Shadow Cities is a very good idea for a book, and an utterly important topic, but the Neuwirth clearly didn't put in the time it would have taken to write the important book that the topic demands. Here are my major concerns: 1) Neuwirth doesn't understand the intellectual history of shantytowns and squatting. For example, in the prologue, his examination of Hernando de Soto's ideas is laughably brief, and it's clear he doesn't understand de Soto's ideas. Nor does he give them the analysis they deserve. 2) The book is extremely short (it's printed in type so large that I initially thought I had the large print edition), and reads like a sketch for a much longer (and better-researched) book. After discussing four squatter communities, it appears that he runs out things to say, and he jumps into a discursive overview of American squatter history that often neglects to include dates, places, or enough detail to make his point clearly. 3) Neuwirth writes, I must say, like a hack journalist. Overused metaphors, florid language, and imprecise descriptions abound. Was he on deadline, or did he just not care? I'm rarely this critical of books. I just think Neuwirth missed a tremendous opportunity, and it shows.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An engrossing documentary concerning shantytowns 14 Mar 2005
By Midwest Book Review - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Investigative reporter Rober Neuwirth personally spent two years living in squatter neighborhoods on four continents, and from that experience presents Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World an engrossing documentary concerning shantytowns and those who live within them - estimated to be a billion individuals, and projected to grow to two billion. Though shantytowns are feared as centers of decay and lawlessness, Neuwirth discovered thriving and vital communities striving to build liveable quarters in an era when private developers charge far more than individuals can afford. One squatter home in Rio de Janeiro is a three-room apartment with tile floors, a full bathroom, an eat-in kitchen, electricity, running water, and a balcony with a view of the ocean. Though Shadow Cities understands that the reality of squatters may be gritty, it reveals hope in the character of those who live humbly, and reveals that squatters will build vibrant neighborhoods without private titles as long as they know they are not subject to eviction. A probing and highly recommended scrutiny of all dimensions of a critical worldwide phenomenon.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Should be required reading for anyone going to a developing country. 20 Sep 2005
By Shannon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a great read. Neuwirth presents plenty of anecdotes and moving stories about people who he obviously respects and cares for. This book is a cure for the errors of both left- and right-leaning travelers. For those who want to sweep in and save the slum dwellers, he makes it quite clear that intervention is often the worst thing you can do for the people you're trying to help. For those who think slum dwellers are lazy criminals, he presents real stories of real people living courageously and honestly in difficult conditions. He addresses the good and bad sides to squatter life and admits there are no easy answers.

My only complaints are that Neuwirth isn't so good at writing gripping history - I got bored and slightly confused in the section on the history of squatting in the US - and there were inexcusably many typos. Although the history sections weren't well written, they provided important context and addressed an issue I have often wondered about. Unfortunately, Neuwirth missed the opportunity to really delve into how the developing world grew out of the squatter phase - the section left you actually mourning the passage of a romantic era when anyone could build for himself, rather than with lessons from history which could inform efforts in the developing world.
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