A couple of years ago I attended a conference whose theme was a question: "what is urban design?" After a dozen or so sessions it became clear that if the assembled academic and professional experts were going to agree on anything, it was that the question was too good to have any definitive answer. This perplexity seemed to me refreshingly candid, and certainly it would be in no way lessened by two recent books on city building — two admirable books which together compel you to ponder the distance between the corporate suites and rooftop supper clubs of Manhattan, where vast fortunes are amassed and enjoyed, and the dirt paths and airless mud huts of an East African shantytown, where half a million squatters make do with not much.
Great Fortune: An Epic of Rockefeller Center, recently released in paperback, recounts the story of the ultimate big-city real estate deal — the most ambitious and successful property development in the glamorous metropolis that surely was the capital of the 20th century. Author Daniel Okrent, a long-time book and magazine editor (and now the public editor of the New York Times), has apparently left no lead unfollowed, no archive unvisited; and he seems to have read everything — every book and article, every unpublished memoir, oral history transcription, business letter, inter-office memo, boardroom doodle, diary jotting — about the conception and construction, the financing and designing and building, of Rockefeller Center.
Accordingly he has made good on his subtitle. Okrent has molded his superabundant material into an urban epic, a tale that begins early in the 19th century, when the city of New York gave to Columbia College the dubious gift of a derelict botanical garden in what was then the gridded but still empty middle of Manhattan (and "the best [the college] could do . . . was rent it to a private individual for $125 a year and taxes"); moves swiftly to an early spring night in 1928, when a "convocation of New York's plutocracy" gathered at the Metropolitan Club to mull over the proposition that John D. Rockefeller, Jr., heir to the colossal Standard Oil fortune and hence the richest man on the planet, should develop the 11-acre parcel in what had already become the city's bustling and valuable Midtown; and then dramatizes the complex history — financial, dynastic, architectural, political — that would lead to the afternoon in November 1939, when Rockefeller Center was officially dedicated in a ceremony whose confident and expansive spirit was suggested by a guest list that included not just the usual dignitaries — assorted politicos, corporate chiefs, university presidents, architects and artists — but also Ida Tarbell, the investigative journalist whose relentless reporting had decades earlier led to the breakup of Standard Oil and the end of the Rockefeller monopoly.
Okrent is a worldly and wise guide to diverse professional and cultural spheres,
and his great achievement here is to portray the intricate and often contentious intermingling of worlds — of businessmen and architects, traditionalists and progressives, old-guard patrons and left-wing artists. The architectural history has been told before — most notably in New York 1930, by Robert A.M. Stern and Gregory Gilmartin, and Wallace K. Harrison, by Victoria Newhouse — but never has it been set within such a vivid and capacious context. Rockefeller Center was designed by a committee of architects — the wildly eclectic group included Raymond Hood, Wallace Harrison, Harvey Corbett, Andrew Reinhard, and Henry Hofmeister — whose mutual interests were not aesthetic but pragmatic. "The architects cooperated on Rockefeller Center not because they wanted to," Harrison would recall, "but because they were paid by Mr. Rockefeller." Amazingly, the compulsory collaboration produced not a mess but a masterwork.
Masterwork making and real estate financing do not figure largely in Robert Neuwirth's Shadow Cities, whose plainspoken subtitle is "A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World." An independent journalist based in New York, Neuwirth is — in the tradition of Ida Tarbell — an intrepid investigator. He has not just visited but lived in squatter towns in Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai, and Istanbul, and from these residencies he has brought back a contradictory story, a report that is at once understandably troubling and confoundingly optimistic. After extended stays in a Brazilian favela, a Kenyan kijiji, an Indian johpadpatti, and a Turkish gecekondu, the author argues persuasively that bureaucratic categories such as "illegal," and politically loaded terms like "slum," are inadequate and often antiquated characterizations of the urban squatter communities that comprise about one-sixth of the world's population.
In Brazil and Turkey, especially, Neuwirth doesn't encounter the rough encampments he'd expected. In the Rio de Janeiro favela of Rocinha — the largest of the city's 600 or so squatter settlements — the author finds himself in the thick of a bustling district packed with people and crowded with cars and mototaxistas. Rocinha is, we discover, a squatter town where the "waterlogged wooden barracks" of the early years have been upgraded into thousands of multi-family homes of poured concrete and brick, many with "shiny tile facades or fantastic Moorish balustrades or spacious balconies," and most with refrigerators, cable television, and stereos; where pirated electricity has been made unnecessary by a non-profit utility run by the local power company; and where burro-hauled barrels of water have given way to jerry-built but (usually) reliable plumbing systems of plastic tubing, rooftop tanks, and electric pumps. And although Rocinha's 150,000 residents might be illegal in the ledgers of Brazilian bureaucrats — i.e., nobody possesses a title deed to the land they live on — they are full citizens of the republic of consumers. Besides the usual eateries and groceries, the community's commercial sector includes a video store, several health clubs, a branch of a state-run bank, two 24-hour pharmacies, a franchise of a São Paulo-based appliance retailer, several nightclubs with mega-powered sound systems, and — that sure-fire sign of marketplace mojo — a McDonald's.
In Sultanbeyli, a squatter suburb of Istanbul, the scene is similarly sophisticated. Neuwirth describes a Muslim community that has in three decades sprawled from a rural village into a settlement of 300,000 with low-rise apartment houses, numerous schools and mosques, and a busy main boulevard lined with restaurants, internet cafés, banks, car dealerships, travel agencies, and department stores. Sultanbeyli has even built itself "a seven-story squatter city hall, with an elevator and a fountain in the lobby."
Only in India and Africa does the reality become rougher — more what the journalist anticipated. In Mumbai Neuwirth rented a room above a tailor's shop in what he calls an "upper-class" squatter community, a neighborhood with sturdy concrete homes, electric service, and shared toilets. But few of the city's squatters — an estimated half of its population of about twelve million — enjoy such comparative comfort. Many of Mumbai's poor live in small wooden huts on city sidewalks; some camp on roadway median strips or under railway bridges. Others have colonized the hilly expanses of Borivali National Park, "literally hacking plots out of the jungle," and now "facing a court-ordered eviction"; and about a million are crowded into Dharavi, a densely built-up squatter slum with mostly makeshift houses and what the author describes simply as "horrible sanitation."
In the squatter cities of Kenya, sanitation was no better. "A sea of homes made from earth and sticks rising from primeval mud-puddle streets" is how Neuwirth describes his first impressions of Kibera, a squatter town of several hundred thousand near downtown Nairobi. Kibera, where the author lived for several months, has no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no sewers, no trash collection. Neuwirth finds an old tourist brochure in which the Kenyan capital boasts of being "the green city in the sun"; but he quickly points out that more than half of Nairobi's two and a half million citizens live not in that green city but instead in "huge agglomerations of mud huts and scrap steel shanties."
From scrap steel shanties to steel-framed skyscrapers: the distance between the two is perhaps impossibly great, and I am not trying to force any easy or invidious comparisons. And yet it seems to me that the signal achievement of Shadow Cities is to make us see squatter communities not as separate or sinister — not as urban no-go zones — but rather as continuous with all the rest of the city, right up to the blue-chip districts of Great Fortune. Shadow Cities makes us see that certain long-standing divisions — divisions between the city of real estate, where property is owned, and the illegal city, where property is possessed — are becoming, if not irrelevant, then at least negotiable. Various laws and customs have either enabled or validated squatter communities (Brazilian law, for instance, recognizes the right of usucapião, or possession; Turkish law protects citizens from being evicted from stable dwellings without due process); and the growth of squatter communities has prompted a range of government and private programs (the city of Mumbai, for example, will give long-term squatters new homes if their communities are relocated by state-sponsored projects).
Squatter communities have also inspired debate among urban theorists, with some surprising political re-alignments. The controversial topic can induce what Neuwirth calls "ideological dyslexia," with left-leaning thinkers moving rightward and vice versa. Leftist intellectuals like Peter Marcuse, for example, have criticized squatters for failing to organize to promote large-scale social change, while free-market champions like Hernando de Soto have praised the illegal builders for their value-creating labors. Neuwirth is more pragmatic; what interests him most are on-the-ground facts — the walls and roofs that happen when people need to get out of the rain. Few of the squatters he met are proto-Marxists or incipient socialists; most are squatting "not out of ideology but out of necessity," simply because they haven't the cash to buy a house or the credit to get a mortgage. And from necessity they've done what their city and state authorities have so far failed conspicuously to do: create affordable shelter that encourages stable communities.
Which raises again the question: what is urban design? Rockefeller Center is a powerful example of the city that can be constructed when a financier/builder dedicates himself, and immense reserves of his own capital, to a monumental project. In a sense it was the apotheosis of urban development in a century that Henry Luce — whose Time/Life was headquartered in Rockefeller Center — boldly called the "American Century." And when it was built New York was the biggest city in the world, the only city whose population exceeded ten million. Today, in the early years of a century that seems unlikely to be labelled "American," at least a dozen other cities, including Mumbai and Istanbul, are more populous than New York, and the fastest-growing cities are in the developing world. And in these fast-growing cities, according to Neuwirth, "the number of squatters is expected to double" in the next quarter century. Numbers like these are notoriously hard even to estimate; but they do make plain an urban presence — a way of making cities — that will be increasingly hard to keep in the shadows.