The Tower of David – Venezuela’s “vertical slum”
By Jorge Silva
I have wanted to photograph life inside Caracas’ Tower of David – also known as “the vertical slum” – for years now. At times, it became something of an obsession; it was a story I had to tackle.
The tower is an icon of modern-day Caracas. Although squats or “occupied spaces” are common downtown, the Tower of David has literally taken the phenomenon to whole new levels. The third-tallest building in the country, it was intended as a financial center but abandoned after its developer died and the financial sector crashed. Squatters have now occupied the tower for years. Its unfinished, humongous, modified skeleton can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. The stories of what happens inside have become the stuff of urban legend.
The place could be the perfect setting for what the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has called the “novela total” or “complete novel” – a book that encompasses the many and contradictory aspects of life. The tower is a physical example of the greatest problems faced by Venezuelan society: a great scarcity of housing, and a security crisis. It is also a symbol of what happened after the collapse of the country’s financial system in the 1990s and of the historical juncture at which Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution now finds itself.
The first time I tried to get access to the tower wasn’t really a success. I was told, not in the friendliest of terms, that I should leave while I still could. This happened sometime after a critical article appeared in The New Yorker and was widely translated in Venezuelan media, featuring a long interview with the man who led the occupation of the building in 2007 – a born-again evangelist who had done prison time.
The residents of the tower, and particularly those in charge of managing it, were (and still are) very sensitive to media. Publications frequently feature headlines such as: “Tower of terror,” “The shanty skyscraper,” “Inside the tallest vertical slum in the world,” “Woman raped in the tower of David.” It has even been featured in an episode of the TV series “Homeland” as a kidnappers’ den.
My intention wasn’t to follow on from these headlines. I wanted above all to create a portrait of the lives of the thousands of people who call this place home, and who face struggles and risks every day. I wanted to document without judging.
That is what I told the squatters’ board of administrators, who made me explain my intentions in producing this story so that they could decide whether to grant me access. At the end of the meeting, during which they listened attentively and respectfully, a woman said:
“Ah, so you are not coming to see the crocodile we have tied up in the basement? Out there they say that we have one, which eats people and makes them disappear when they enter the tower.” As soon as she said it, everyone burst out laughing.
Of the tower’s 45 floors, only 28 are inhabited. Motorcycles and other vehicles can only get up to the 10th floor through the ramps of the parking lots. Inside the building’s long hallways there are warehouses, clothing stores, beauty parlours and day-care centers. One could live here without ever having to go outside.
I felt the strong sense of community here the first time I ascended the tower, accompanied by a woman named Thais and her nine-year-old daughter, Genesis, who live on the 27th floor.
Thais was carrying two loaves of bread that she’d just bought and as we began to climb the stairs we stopped on the 10th floor where a friend of hers sells homemade ice-cream. When we arrived, her friend was washing clothes and fetching buckets of water. She offered us coffee and, sitting on the stairs, Thais began to break the bread and share it with us. It was still warm and I couldn’t refuse.
Next we stopped at a store on the 16th story, and on several others. On each floor Thais knew someone, or had something to do. When we reached her home on floor 27, the bag of bread was empty. I could see that this was a tightly-bound community; during my days in the tower, I felt safer inside than out on the street.
Although the first people who arrived in the Tower of David in 2007 spent months sleeping in tents, today almost everything is made out of bricks. Images of the late president Hugo Chavez are a common sight. Everything is provisional and makeshift, but it seems to be here to stay.
During my time inside the tower, I saw an endless succession of great images: a man carrying a 20-liter water bottle over 26 stories while two others lugged up a washing machine; men recycling metal beams from the upper floors at sunset; a group of girls attending Taekwondo lessons in the dark; a woman at the door of her apartment using her mobile phone to find her daughter in the hallway during a blackout.
On a terrace on the 28th floor, I watched as Gabriel Rivas and his brother Franklin worked out on a Sunday at noon. Behind them was a breath-taking view of Caracas. They stopped and looked out at the city. Gabriel suddenly turned to me and asked: “Isn’t it true that we are the richest among the poor?”