Living on the edge. Reuters/Jorge Silva

It's been called "a pirate utopia." But the eviction of 3,000 residents is no solution to Caracas' glaring poverty and desperate housing shortage.

On a rainy night in September 2007, hundreds of squatters made their way into the third-tallest skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, and set up a temporary encampment. The unfinished, 45-story building—intended as a bank headquarters in the center of the capital—had sat vacant for more than a decade after the developer’s death and the country’s 1994 financial crisis put construction on hold.

Eventually, nearly 3,000 of the city’s poor—many of them refugees from insecure shantytowns—would join the initial squatters, creating a makeshift city with apartments up to the 28th floor, even though there are no elevators or, in some places, even a facade. The squatters organized their own electricity, running water, and plumbing, along with bodegas, a barbershop, and an orthodontist. The improvised community became known as Torre David, or the Tower of David, after the developer, David Brillembourg.

Torre David in the Caracas skyline. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

Yesterday, the Venezuelan government began a long-threatened eviction of Torre David’s residents. They are being relocated to Cua, a small city 40 miles south of Caracas. Local newspapers speculated that a Chinese deal to redevelop the tower was behind the move. China’s president, Xi Jinping, was in Caracas this week to sign oil and mineral deals worth billions of dollars with Venezuela.

The government denied these rumors, citing safety issues instead. Ernesto Villegas, a government minister, told reporters yesterday: “The tower does not meet the minimum conditions for safe, dignified living.” Torre David’s half-finished state has led to accidents (mostly falls), and there were reports of gang violence in its early years.

A brutal, fictionalized version of the tower appeared on the U.S. cable television series Homeland, prompting The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson (who had written at length about Torre David and the economic policies that created it) to note that, “In real life, as in ‘Homeland,’ the Tower is a symbol of contemporary Venezuela’s broken dreams and, more pointedly, of the failure of the late Hugo Chávez’s experiment in socialism, which he called his ‘Bolivarian revolution.’”

A girl rides a bike on a balcony of Torre David. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

In a new book, Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture, the journalist Justin McGuirk recounts a 2012 visit to Torre David, which he calls a “pirate utopia.” He details some of the systems the self-organized community has put in place: The building’s electricity comes legally from the city’s grid, while an ad hoc water system is pumped from the 16th-floor elevator lobby. Residents are barred from buying or selling apartments, though some manage to. Bodegas have variable pricing because “in a vertical economy reliant on leg-power, there is a premium the higher up you go.”

In interviews with McGuirk, Torre David’s residents argue that for all its obvious faults, the squatted skyscraper is an improvement over the city’s crowded barrios. “Thank God this building is safer than many others,” one says.

And that is the obvious problem: Clearing Torre David does nothing to address the chronic poverty and housing shortages that led to its establishment in the first place. Though the tower is highly visible, it’s hardly the only informal settlement in Caracas’s downtown. McGuirk counts “dozens”; Anderson said there were over 155 as of late 2012. That includes an entire shopping mall just two blocks away from the emptying tower.

Evicted residents of Torre David with their belongings yesterday. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)
In this April photo, a resident of Torre David lifts weights on the balcony of the 30th floor. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)
A woman and her son watch TV in their apartment on Torre David’s 24th floor. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)
A woman looks out of her shop window in a corridor in Torre David. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)
Torre David’s lobby, as seen from the top of the unfinished skyscraper. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.

MORE FROM QUARTZ:

An Epic Battle in Streaming Music Is About to Begin, And Only a Few Will Survive

U.S. Airlines Are Still Flying Over These War Zones

It's Time To Stop Using 'Exoticism"'As An Excuse for Opera's Racism

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    Why New York City Stopped Building Subways

    Nearly 80 years ago, a construction standstill derailed the subway’s progress, leading to its present crisis. This is the story, decade by decade.

  2. Environment

    New 'Mutant Enzymes' Could Solve Earth's Plastics Problem

    Scientists accidentally created an enzyme that can break down plastic. But is it any better than recycling?

  3. Naked cyclists ride down Lombard Street in San Francisco.
    Environment

    The Weirdest Ways That U.S. Cities Are Celebrating Earth Day

    From group oyster-shell bagging to a naked bike ride, some Earth Day events are more colorful than the standard festivals and tree plantings.

  4. Equity

    What Drives the Black-White Wealth Gap?

    A new paper debunks various myths about the wealth gap between blacks and whites in the United States, and the methods for bridging it.

  5. Life

    Dutch Cities Don't Love Weed

    The Hague’s new ban on the public consumption is the latest signal of the country’s waning tolerance. It could also be a step toward a happier medium.