In the upscale neighbourhood of Pocitos, between the new apartment towers where residential space sells for $1500 US per square meter, there's a vacant Texaco station that served temporarily as an encampment for homeless people. In January, on our way to see a film at the Casablanca movie theatre, we noticed that the residents in Texaco town had completely settled in. Three men were sitting on an old couch that they had rescued from a dumpster, while another two were busy cooking sausages (no doubt salvaged from the same source) on a makeshift open grill. There were foam mattresses set out on the asphalt of the former parking lot, and a few stray dogs - now pets - lying on the beds. I wanted to take a photo of the improvised domestic scene, and vowed to bring my camera the next time we headed this way.
That opportunity came a week later and here's what I found. The Texaco station and two historic houses adjacent to it had been totally enclosed by an impermeable grey metal hoarding, and were now in the process of being demolished. The homeless had been forced to re-locate, a fact that likely prompted a collective sigh of relief from Pocitos residents whose expensive condos happen to overlook the corner.
|Texaco station, now a building site|
|The house next door, a classic residence, is also coming down|
|Make way for high-rise urban living!|
Where do the homeless go when the current wave of high-rise building projects forces them out of Ciudad Vieja, Parque Rodo and Pocitos? The poor in Montevideo are feeling the pressure of rapid urban development and have become an army of nomads, constantly shifting from park to park, doorway to doorway, dumpster to dumpster, vacant lot to vacant lot, in an exhausting, demoralizing effort to survive.
Some have replaced down-and-out desperation with bold action aimed at creating their own place in the world. As gentrification transforms the inner city, the poor are seeking refuge on the periphery in "cantegrils" illegal settlements ironically named after the exclusive Cantegril Country Club in Punta del Este. Homeless families band together and occupy en masse a vacant suburban field that has either been abandoned by an absentee owner, or is tied up in legal limbo, with no clear title. These marginal properties are measured and sectioned off into individual plots by the squatters, who construct their own shacks, and in time, organize a neighbourhood commission to oversee the shanty town. If they manage to stay put, without police intervention, they eventually earn squatters' rights and can take legal ownership of the land. Several of these grassroots groups have successfully lobbied municipal government for the extension of services such as water, sewer and electricity to their communities. It is estimated that the growth of cantegrils near Montevideo is increasing at a rate of 10% a year.
While the trend to move to the outskirts provides a chance for families to stabilize their immediate surroundings and lifestyle, it's not a perfect fix for the basic problem of poverty. The more marginal poverty becomes, the more it hardens and continues in subsequent generations, as prospects for improvement are reduced by ghetto culture and isolation.
The gap between rich and poor is becoming more and more evident in Montevideo, and as the city offers less and less resources for those living below the poverty line, the disadvantaged will be forced to move on and find their own places, on their own terms. The hinterland slum is expanding on the horizon, establishing its presence as a permanent phenomenon; just as permanent as downtown luxury apartment buildings designed for the upper echelon of society.