The urban slum is a living critique of the political economy of the city. By virtue of its existence, it is a comment on the failure of a political economy to provide certain kinds of lifestyle to its people.
— Ashish Nandy

In the US, they are calling them “tent cities.”  In other places, they go by the more familiar names of slums, squatter settlements and shantytowns.  In Brazil they are called favelas, in India, jhuggis.  What connects them all, however, despite their different locations and contexts, is what Ashish Nandy suggests above.  They all point to a limit of political economy, they all exist at the margins of urban intelligibility.  Their names are simply ways of saying: they don’t fit, they don’t live the way “normal” people should, they don’t have the right “access,” they don’t have “enough.”  Their existence in urban space is shrouded in a defining negativity, even when they are targeted by paternalistic states for welfare, care and aid.

In India, slums are an accepted fact of urban existence.  Some are more “settled” than others, producing generations of slum dwellers and generating complex relationships internally as well as with the external city.  It is commonly known and stated that a city like Delhi or Bombay simply could not function without the slums and those that dwell in them.  Their “cheap” lifestyles and labor are what make “normal” lifestyles in such cities possible.

In Delhi, slums have existed since at least colonial times, when they were early targets of the colonial state in its quest to “sanitize” the new capital city of India.  But not only did these slums pose a potential “health hazard,” they were also fundamentally opaque to the gaze of governmentality, thus necessitating a colonial lens through which to make such spaces intelligible.  Some of the earliest slum demolitions came from this period.  But they continued in the postcolonial era as well.  During the emergency period between 1975-1977, when democratic rule was suspended by Indira Gandhi, her son Sanjay took the opportunity to forcibly remove such “eyesores” from New Delhi.  In contemporary “Neo Delhi” (i.e. Delhi under the spatial and temporal regime of neoliberal urbanism), the desire to create a “world-class” city seems to necessitate “slum resettlement” in the name of “urban renewal” and “redevelopment.”  But such demolitions can only be partial at best, for the state knows better than anyone that the city could not survive even one day without the millions who reside in Delhi’s numerous slums.  So just as many become “regularized,” and their residents are promised basic services and infrastructure, though most of the time these remain merely promises.

In the United States, perhaps things haven’t deteriorated to such “third world” conditions yet.  Or perhaps they already have.  It is both ironic and appropriate that the “tent city” currently receiving the most attention in the domestic press, the one in Sacramento, is situated right on the banks of the American River.  This underlines both the singularity of the American case, as well as the ways in which it fits into the larger critique of urban political economies that slums, jhuggis, favelas, and other such settlements all embody.

I think several things need to be pointed out with regard to “tent cities.”  The first is that such “tent cities” are not new in America.  Neither is homelessness.  New York City under Rudy Giuliani got rid of homelessness not so much through social programs and aid, as much as by getting them out of the line of sight of most urban residents.  Many were simply shipped off to places like California and Hawaii, where new “tent cities” precariously materialize along the “public” beaches outside of Honolulu.

Second, it is a mistake to assume that homelessness and the “tent city” phenomenon are merely results of the current economic recession.  Of course, such homelessness has increased in the past several months, as foreclosures and job terminations have mounted with every passing day.  But what has happened with the proliferation of images of “tent cities” in the public sphere and Oprah Winfrey’s televised visit to Sacramento is nothing less than a redistribution of urban intelligibility.  In the midst of such images, it no longer seems unreasonable to imagine America as a “third world” country in its own right.  Perhaps here is where we can begin to make our larger critique of political economy, moving beyond Sacramento, California, and indeed, beyond even the United States, in order to make larger, global connections.

A redistribution of urban intelligibility transforms the scope of urban politics.  What is remarkable is how quickly and without reservation Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger offered to provide services, protection, and welfare for those that were before seen simply as “homeless.”  Mayor Johnson even spoke of “legalizing” the “tent city.”  How does squatting illegally on public land make one eligible for the state’s care?  If they are breaking the law, why are they entitled to welfare?  These are precisely the kinds of questions asked everyday in urban India and across the third world.  And this is precisely where the connections between slums on the American River and slums on the Yamuna River, or those on the Amazon or the Rhine become more interesting.

The fact that the inhabitants of “tent cities” in Sacramento are becoming the targets of the state’s paternal care should not lead one to believe that their treatment in America is qualitatively better or more “humane” than in India, where slum dwellers hardly even register in the government’s books, except at election time.  For even though slum dwellers are often patronized by political parties and consolidated into voting blocks on the basis of promises of services and infrastructure that almost never materialize, I would argue that the dwellers of “tent cities” are in just a precarious position as those of jhuggis.  Both signify the limitations of the urban political economies from which they are excluded, even as these limitations may exist at starkly different levels in the US and India.

So why are they called “tent cities” in America and slums everywhere else?  Probably because the word “slum” conjures too “third world” a context.  Americans probably prefer not to imagine themselves as belonging to a “developing” country.  To me, the name “tent city” evokes a more haunting urban reality.  It sounds more post-apocalyptic, even if the word “tent” suggests the temporariness of such settlements.  My point is that the fact that “tent cities” are being targeted by the state for care, or that they may soon be “legalized,” due to their newfound intelligibility in the public sphere, means that America too shares in a feature all too common in the third world.  For all its development, all its abundance and opulence, America too is a political economy that must readily admit to itself that it cannot provide adequate housing for its population.  I read the state’s willingness to provide care and legal legitimacy to “tent cities” not so much as a sign that they are a temporary phenomenon, but rather, that they will soon become merely another form of the urban slum.  In other words, “tent cities” will be a fixture on the urban frontier of the global economy, be it on the banks of the American River, or on the Ganges.

The slum is also simultaneously a critique of the basic assumptions and normative frames of the so-called ‘normal city’… It is through the perspective of the slum that the city looks very different. And that vision of the slum, that perspective of the slum, captures something which the ‘normal city’, despite all its intellectual powers and endeavors and efforts, can never really capture. This is a city it cannot cognize. The slum is a reminder not only of economic depravation and social suffering, but also that another view, another city, is possible. Another view of the city which is fundamentally not compatible with the ‘normal city’….The ambition of the slum is nothing less than to be an alternative city.
— Ashish Nandy