El Torre de David, World’s Tallest Slum

In December of 2017, my bookclub read The Rent Collector, fiction inspired by the story of Sang Ly, a real person who lived in the Stungmean Chey dump in Cambodia. The women in the bookclub knew about the homeless in our own country, but we were less knowledgeable about people in other countries. It was a sobering read, but it roused my curiosity. Faced with extreme poverty, the kind that denies a roof over your head, how do people make a life for themselves?

In Caracas, capital of Venezuela (northern tip of South America), nearly 40% of the population live in informal neighborhoods, usually shacks built on invaded land. In the city center of Caracas is a five building complex, including a forty-five-floor glass tower that was abandoned when the economy crashed in the 1990s. Standing vacant for near quarter of a century, that was about to change.

On October 17, 2007 under the leadership of Alexander Daza, a born-again convict, 200 families invaded the tower. At first, these future residents of Torre de David—tower named after its creator—lived in tents outside the dwelling while they cleaned debris, built a rudimentary water system and made a makeshift electrical grid.

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Without elevators or escalators, their home was a concrete skeleton beehive. The least abled-bodied occupied the lower floors, with the most physically fit occupying floors 19 to 28. Eventually, the tower was an entire system of micro-economies, grocery stores, internet cafes, tattoo parlors, and churches, as well as a gym on the thirtieth floor (with weights made from unused elevator equipment). By 2013, 850 families called the tower home.

Iwan Baan, an architectural photographer, shares visiting the Torre de David on ted.com and how families created spaces they called home using whatever materials they could find or buy. Some called the tower a pillar of humanity’s ingenuity while others saw it as a monument to misery.

In 2014, the government declared that its decision to evict 1,150 families was a humanitarian move. They said the building was unsafe, with several children falling to their deaths from upper floors. Moving inhabitants three floors at a time, people were bussed to a new housing complex where government officials said, “they would be given dignified homes.”