Twelve-year-old Devanil de Souza Jr. looks out from his family's "tiny wood-and-tin house. . .over a sheer cliff to the prosperous commercial district." Devanil lives in the favela, or shantytown, of Santa Marta, on the steep hillsides above Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana neighborhood.
But Devanil rarely leaves the favela. He'd have to walk down 788 steps past "piles of garbage, grotto shrines, cliff-face bars, and hundreds of ramshackle houses cantilevered over the steep cliff." He'd then have to negotiate with the traficantes, "young members of the Commando Vermelho (Red Command) drug army that control every aspect of life in the favela," and then "run the gauntlet of the 'crack line,' a stretch of street lined with tables covered in bricks of cocaine, sold wholesale to dealers, guarded by 15-year-old boys with assault rifles."
Is the Santa Marta favela in Brazil some kind of it-is-what-it-is/the-poor-will-always-be-with-us inevitability? No, says journalist Doug Saunders, author of "Arrival City." The Santa Marta favela and hundreds or thousands of other immigrant enclaves around the world are "arrival cities," crowded urban startups into which impoverished rural immigrants are moving in huge numbers -- one-third of the human population, according to Saunders.
Why are they moving in such great numbers? Crop failure and starvation, a desire for more education or freedom from cultural or religious constraints, a need for cash, a determination that their children will have better lives than their parents. Urban governments and societies can isolate these rural immigrant communities, treat them as workforces to use, abuse and then reject when they aren't needed anymore. Governments can send police forces in armored vehicles once the arrival city population resorts to drugs and guns for money, or send in the bulldozers to clear the shacks out. Or urban governments and societies can welcome the rural immigrants as fellow human beings who have made courageous or desperate journeys out of villages. They can see them as people who will add to the economic and cultural vitality of the city; they can make sure these arrival cities have garbage collection, clean water, schools and transportation into the work centers of the city, and -- most important of all -- opportunities for entrepreneurship and homeownership within the arrival cities themselves.
Look at the table of contents, and you'll see where the book takes you: cities and villages in China, Britain, India and Bangladesh, Kenya, Brazil, Europe, Canada and even the U. S. of A. At first you may not realize what's going on. But after about 80 pages, it gets under skin. You start to develop an empathy for the people Saunders writes of and an understanding of the pattern of rural-to-urban migration he reveals.
One of the many arrival city stories he tells is of a gecekondu (pronounced "getchy-kondoo," meaning night-arrived) in Istanbul. This particular gecekondu began in 1977 by laborers from Anatolia, Turkey, who dug foundations at night with plastic spades, and then built walls of mud bricks over which they laid corrugated metal roofs. This gecekondu had a leader, Sabri Kocyigit, who helped organize the community to counteract the threat of both the government who usually wanted to bulldoze the settlements and mobsters who wanted to extort money from them. Kocyigit's story is of community building and political organizing; family and friends; and coffee houses, violence, hiding and arrests. Eventually, Turkey elected a president who legalized property and business ownership in the gecekondu. And when Kocyigit is freed from prison to return to the gecekondu and his family, he finds that expansion, renovation and even a sort of gentrification has taken place. A middle class has emerged out of what had once been a slum.
And there's the story, with less of a happy ending, of the public housing structures called "Les Pyramides" outside of Paris, where rural-to-urban immigrants from many different African, Turkish, Indian and also French villages come. The problem with Les Pyramides and other arrival cities like it, explains Saunders, is that the villagers come and work and have children, but those children and their children are not allowed to join urban French society. They are French citizens, French educated and speak French -- they are no longer villagers -- but they are not accepted into French society. Without jobs, and without the architectural space in Les Pyramides to develop businesses of their own, the teenagers have nothing to do and have no connection to French society. In 2005, a wave of car and building burnings swept through the city. The youths who caused them had no leader or slogans and no religious component to their discontent but, when confronting police, they held their French ID cards up in the air.
Saunders also makes an important observation about radical Islam: Turks who immigrate into German cities generally are not fundamentalist Muslims when they come. But when Turkish immigrants to Germany are denied citizenship in their new cities, they sometimes become more orthodox and fundamentalist in their new home than in their old ones.
On another note, Saunders suggests that this new wave of migration might ultimately avert a Malthusian population crisis because with education and financial stability, immigrant families tend to have fewer children.
"Arrival City" is a sprawling book, but if you read it, patterns will emerge, your perspective will shift and what you learn will affect not only how you see the "slums" of Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul or Paris but also how you regard the communities of immigrants in our own fair city, Seattle, and the other towns and cities of our county and state.