If one defines slums simply as aggregations of inadequate housing – stripping the extensive other definitions and uses of the term to categorize variously their residents, the image of such areas in the poplar press and sometimes in more formal intellectual circles, a particular form of social co-habitation, a spatial cesspool of poor morals and criminal instincts [i] — they can be understood as the spatial reflection of an extreme of exploitation and neglect within a profit-driven capitalist economy, a generalized spatial aspect of the early relegation of working-class residences clustered and stuck behind the major streets and residential areas of the new industrial towns of England in the 19thcentury.
The logic is straight-forward. Businesses, employers, make profits by paying their workers as little as possible, and keeping for themselves as much as they can of the profits made from the sale of what their workers have produced, mixed with their own capital, itself the product of such labor. How high those profits are is of course in part determined by how much those workers get paid, and that will in turn depend in part on how much they need to survive. If their cost of housing goes up, it will increase their pressure for higher wages, at the cost of their employers’ profits. Hence employers have an interest in holding down the cost of housing for their workers, and having minimal housing, below socially desirable and economically feasible standards available for them, is an advantage. Thus the existence of minimal housing, inadequate but minimally livable, i.e. slums, serves the interest of employers.[ii]
But those slums have contradictory consequences. On the hand, for those not relegated to living in them, their function to house low-paid or unemployed workers is a useful one, benefiting businesses directly, arguable benefiting all indirectly – it’s “good for the economy, promotes businesses and their job creation.” On the other hand, it concentrates groups of individuals who have reason to be discontented, who may cause trouble, possibly collectively, possibly on the model of the working-class fauburgs of the 19th century in France which became hot-beds of proletarian agitation and organization, perhaps breeding crime, disease, immorality, as in the thinking and action of early housing reformers in Europe and the United States.[iii] The availability and expansion of such housing areas for the influx of rural residents new to the urban fold accentuated these dangers. And the closeness of such inadequate housing to the housing of more upstanding citizens caused direct pressure to limit their extent and wall them off from their surroundings. So slums were useful for those in power, but had drawbacks for social peace.
Further, such slums caused a specifically spatial problem, newly developing after the initial phase of industrialization. Early factories were located near the centers of towns and cities, where the newly needed large numbers of industrial workers could be housed with ready access to the jobs for which they were needed. Their betters could find housing a little further removed from them and the environmental impact of the industries at the center
But by the early 20th century many factories, growing in size, needed could use location at the fringe of towns, and new modes of transportation were developed that permitted longer journeys to work to be feasible at reasonable cost. The growing need for housing close to their work and business interests by for the rapidly growing number of owners, investors, engineers, lawyers, technical personnel of all sorts at the same time increased the desirability of locations near the centers of cities dramatically. Central cities grew as the location of cultural facilities, entertainment options, restaurants, and all the attributes that have come to be associated with urbanity. With this turn-about, the problem became how to remove the low-paid and unemployed from such desirable central areas?
The answer lay in a multiple set of approaches. [iv] On the one hand, slum clearance in its classic form, what at that time was known and legislated as urban redevelopment, which included simply physical clearance of the in-city areas occupied by “slums,” making those areas available for higher and better uses. That handled the spatial problem. But the social problem of displacement resulting from the displacement of the affected slum-residents needed a further approach, one that was met (in small part) by the provision of early public housing, in the United States in the constellation of New Deal programs dealing directly with the housing of low-paid and unemployed workers in the public sector and secondarily providing a floor under wages of employed workers enabling them to find other housing in the private market outside the newly desired central locations. Today, gentrification is perhaps a softer and slower way by which such desirable in-city locations are recaptured for the use of those better off, having the same effect as earlier slum clearance but with a less obvious direct involvement of the state, whose early clearance schemes had produced the radical implications and public expenses of those of New Deal social programs.
Another approach to dealing with the problems created by the slums was “slum upgrading ,” dealing with those problems where they existed, in situ. It seemed uncontroversial, where their location was not a spatial problem for their betters. Improving the quality of slum housing where it was would help assuage the discontent and unrest occasioned by its obvious disadvantages, reduce the dangers of crime and illness and epidemic that affected not only their residents but others nearby in contact with them. Those improvements could consist of largely of the results of efforts of the slum residents themselves,[v]perhaps supplesmented by not too expensive infrastructure provision, sewage, electric lines, street paving, electrification, and such like. Such improvements did, however, involve government expenditures, expenditures that depended on the state and had to be finance somehow, presumably by higher taxes on those with the ability to pay them, rather than by the poorer residents of the slums themselves.
That regrettable necessity of higher taxes is addressed to some extent by attention increasingly paid to “resident participation,” the manner in which slum improvements are planned and provided. If made wisely and at minimum cost, slum improvements could maximize the satisfaction they provide and reduce the discontent and “anti-social behavior” of slum residents. Participation of the beneficiaries of the proposed improvements in their planning has often been a way to provide such a feeling of satisfaction and even contentment, in practice if not in stated intent, particularly in more newly developing countries Participation, grass-roots democracy, of course is a desirable good in itself for most people and for most communities including slum communities. By giving slum residents the feeling that they themselves controlled the direction of public investment in their communities, by involving them in the details of various projects and proposals, even those going beyond infrastructure , e.g. public education, health care, sports, entertainment, slum residents efforts were focused internally, on their existing units, communities, spaces. All parties were helped by the approach: slum residents not only had improvements, they also benefited because they themselves were involved in the planning and thereby they gained in feeling respected, treated with dignity, enjoying the benefits of citizenship in a democracy.
But citizenship with a limit. For the participation itself had limits. For slums are not sui generis, and cannot by improved only from within, with only their own resources. They are not brought about by the actions of their residents, but by the actions of others in the larger economy and the larger political structure, actions that produce their effective exclusion from areas of alternative better but not affordable housing, actions that keep their level of income below that enabling then to improve their own living and housing conditions. To affect the causes of slums, slum residents would have to be effective participants in the operations of the economy as a whole, in the running of cities as a whole, in the political structure of decision-making in government a whole. But participation in slum improvement projects is almost always limited to the slum itself.
A final word on the direction of research on slums. As a result of many noteworthy sociologically-oriented studies of slums, and the visible actions of slum residents themselves, it has become very clear that slums are not simply areas of poverty, disorganization, lack of competence, lack of ”social capital.” Rather, they harbor extremely resourceful – by necessity! — Individuals and households, with tight-knit social ties and manifold skills and complex understanding, all well worthy of respect and attention in the outside world. And such studies are important to highlight the necessity and fruitfulness of involving slum residents themselves in the planning of their own futures.
But they are situated on a slippery slope, one which characterizes a good bit of research on slums.[vi] They focus exclusively, if positively, on the slums themselves, their existing characteristics and histories and internal organization and impacts on their residents. Important as they are, they neglect confrontation with the wider social and economic and political forces that in fact produce slums as their necessary by-product: the low wages, the gated communities, the inequalities, the ethnic and religious and gender and national discrimination, the profit-motivated structure of most urban planning, the injustices of tax policies, the environmental degradation, the distorted enjoyment of locational spatial advantages, basically the relations of power, are also all necessary parts of the picture. Gayatri Spivak writes of “rearranging desires” of slum residents as a step in improving their lot, the approach, to be , must be applied to the desires of those creating the slums as well as—even more than—those confined to them, otherwise it slips dangerously close to a blaming the victim view. Solutions, remedies that divert attention from dealing with issues power can end up accelerating the slide down the slope of accepting things as they are instead of changing them.
Of course, dealing with the immediate issues slum residents face cannot wait till these bigger outside issues are dealt with; immediate needs must be raised and dealt with as a first priority, not be replaced by consideration of long-term causes. But the long-term causes of slums need to be kept constantly in mind, and addressed as directly and explicitly and energetically as the political and economic and social situation allows. Generally, paying attention only to the problems of the 99%, without looking at the actions of the 1%, is self-defeating. And expecting consensus without conflict is a deceptive hope.
[i] An intelligent discussion of these various usages, and their social and political function, was the topic of a useful conference at the GSAPP, Columbia University, April 9, 2015. I owe much of the thinking in this blog to conversations with David Madden, both at is conference and outside it. If his talk at the conference becomes available, it should be read in conjunction with these thoughts.
[ii] The roots of this vastly over-simplified formulation will easily be recognized in three classic volumes of a well-known nineteenth-century economist and his colleague.
[iii] Jacob Rhys in the United States, Bismarck in Germany, early Council housing in England , are all exampled; David Madden’s contribution at the above-cited conference, contained exemplary quotes .
[iv] For a good review, see Deepika Andavarapu, David J. Edelman. Evolution of Slum Redevelopment Policy, in Current Urban Studies 2013. Vol.1, No.4, 185-192.
[v] John F. C. Turner’s focus on self-help was the theoretical basis for much of this approach. Herando de Soto’s faith in the ability of residents, once given ownership rights, to handle up-grading is a much touted model today.
[vi] I initially made this argument in a slightly tongue-in-cheek review of “Scholarship and Burning Issues,” a review of Poverty Amid Affluence by Oscar Ornati, in The New Republic, August 13, 1966, pp. 23-24.