Largest slums in the Americas?
March 31, 2010 1:22 PM   Subscribe

This Flickr blog post about the project to map Kibera (perhaps the largest slum in Africa) has left me thinking: what is the largest slum in the Americas? In North America? In the United States?

I apologize if that question seems vague, but I get conflicting and/or irrelevant results when I try and use Google to answer these. Plus, I'm a bit stymied by the question of whether or not we even say we have slums in the US, or whether or not we call them "blighted areas" or "economically disadvantaged high-density neighborhoods" or something along those lines.
posted by komara to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Taking the Amtrak train from Boston to D.C., I noticed there were some very, very scary neighborhoods around Wilmington and Baltimore. They seemed to go on for a while too.
posted by Melismata at 1:31 PM on March 31, 2010

I found a lot of information out by reading the wikipedia article on favelas [which I inadvertently edited, fixing a typo and then it was on my watchlist so I kept seeing how it changed]. The Brazilian census included information [non-Enlgish link] on favelas. The city with the most favelas is Sao Paulo.
posted by jessamyn at 1:36 PM on March 31, 2010

In the United States, it depends on what you mean by slums. There's a strong push to keep from having tent city sort of improvised housing. So you're not going to have the sort of large scale neighborhood of displaced people with no electricity and running water in a favelas. They get bulldozed, here.

I'd look at the poorer or larger cities in the US like Detroit and Baltimore for urban slums. Does NYC still have really slum-like areas or has it all been urban renewed and occupied by hipsters? (I honestly don't know.) Boston has urban renewed a lot of its more slum-like areas, but you can probably still find some areas that qualify as slums particularly when you get away from the MBTA but still within Dorchester and Roxbury. (I used to do work around those areas.)
posted by rmd1023 at 1:54 PM on March 31, 2010

Taking the Amtrak train from Boston to D.C., I noticed there were some very, very scary neighborhoods around Wilmington and Baltimore. They seemed to go on for a while too.

But those areas had access to safe water, toilets, and (admittedly overcrowded) medical clinics. To my knowledge there are two large real slum regions in the US: a sizable portion of Pine Ridge Reservation, and the the colonias on the Texas-Mexico border. Both these areas lack basic services to an extent largely unthinkable to most in America, urban poor included.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 1:58 PM on March 31, 2010 [9 favorites]

A good resource for info on Kiberia, Brazilian favelas, and other slum/squatter communities around the world is the excellent book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World by Mike Neuwirth. He talks about historical American slums, including the foundations of NYC and San Francisco. (I'm actually only halfway through it, but it doesn't seem like he intends to spend much time talking about contemporary American slums; I'm sorry this is a halfbaked answer!)
posted by soviet sleepover at 1:59 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

StrikeTheViol: thank you very much, that's exactly the kind of answer I was looking for with regards to the United States. Do you have any insight into the Americas (both North and South) in general?
posted by komara at 2:08 PM on March 31, 2010

I was going to suggest the Neuwirth book. It's not perfect -- it's a very casual, journalistic approach to a more complex issue -- but it's a really good and approachable place to start.

As you've noticed, definitions of "slum" vary considerably, and it's a word that many reject in favor of words with fewer loaded connotations -- I'm using it in this answer to keep things consistent, but do realize how problematic it is as a term. My seat of the pants guess is that you are going to find the largest slums in the Americas in the outer areas of metropolitan Sao Paulo and Mexico City, simply because those are the largest cities in the Americas with many millions of poor people in each living in some pretty tough areas. But that's just a guess, and it's possible that another major city (Rio, say, or Lima) would have a larger single slum that was identifiable as a single community.
posted by Forktine at 2:11 PM on March 31, 2010

Do you have any insight into the Americas (both North and South) in general?

Fundamentally, conditions that constitute "slums" vary from city to city and region to region, because our perception of what constitutes a slum is not only absolute poverty, but rather poverty combined with inequality. Brazil, for instance, is very unequal in terms of relative wealth and poverty: hence many favelas and an overall impression of mass squalor. But access to basic services in many favelas is actually fairly high, to an extent that complicates direct comparison to, say, the worst African or Indian slums. If you want more complete analysis, here's a good place to start.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 2:36 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Forktine: I do understand the connotations. I chose slum just because favela and barrio carry an Hispanocentric connotation, while ghetto has a specific definition, and skid row seems too slang-y. Slum, while a loaded term, at least comes across (to me, at least) as an over-arching loaded term.

StrikeTheViol: I think that UN-HABITAT paper will be fascinating reading at some point in the near future.
posted by komara at 2:39 PM on March 31, 2010

Also, soviet sleepover, Forktine: thank you for the recommendation on the book. It's now on my list.
posted by komara at 2:41 PM on March 31, 2010

I live an hour or so north of the Pine Ridge reservation. Many of my students move back and forth between town and "the rez," and I see and hear things that still, after a lifetime, stun and amaze me. Homes with no floors, no plumbing, no heat. Packs of wild dogs roaming around. Drugs, alcohol, abuse. But if you go there in the spring, on a beautiful day... well there's nothing more beautiful than the prairie in springtime.

Anyway, you may be interested in a study that's going on right now. The Safe Passage Study on infant mortality chose Pine Ridge and an extremely depressed area of South Africa to study the effects of poverty, alcoholism, and drug use on the rate of SIDS/infant mortality. It's barely off the ground, but they already have some interesting info.
posted by SamanthaK at 2:59 PM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Remembering my time in NYC from the crack-infested 1980s, even such legendary areas as the South Bronx or Harlem could vary considerably from block to block. The US also has in almost every state a form of the TIF redevelopment district, so in many instances an area becoming blighted is simply a preparation period before it becomes regentrified.

In the US, building codes would prevent tent or shack cities, yes, but we have a real problem on the other hand with urban deterioration. Flint, Youngstown, Detroit epitomize the rust belt; Camden is an example of a completely deteriorated eastern urban core. The culprit here was the loss of industrial jobs, and the decline of the lower middle class to poverty assisted by the departure of the capable classes to the suburbs -- but the root of many third world slums is mass migration to cities where the rural poor become the urban poor. There are certainly some commonalities, but I would be wary of direct comparison.
posted by dhartung at 9:47 PM on March 31, 2010

IIRC the largest slum in North America can be found surrounding Mexico City.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:51 AM on April 1, 2010

The references I used a few years ago on Rio-based projects consistently pegged Rocinha as the biggest in Brazil and one of the biggest in the world. Wikipedia currently lists the population between 60,000 and 150,000 (obviously a good census is hard to take in an area where the government doesn't want to enter, the gangs rule, and people in general try to lay low).

That said, one thing about Rocinha in specific and neighborhoods like it is a reluctance to label them as favelas or slums, and a preference for words like comunidade. It isn't just about labeling; Rocinha, for example, has a lot of infrastructural services (but they are stolen from the grid, in general), businesses (though they are often part of the informal economy), homes (maybe not structurally sound), etc., like a "normal" neighborhood. People don't move out as soon as they can - they really have lives there.
posted by whatzit at 10:28 AM on April 1, 2010

The references I used a few years ago on Rio-based projects consistently pegged Rocinha as the biggest in Brazil and one of the biggest in the world. Wikipedia currently lists the population between 60,000 and 150,000

Rocinha is big, but places like Dharavi are a lot bigger, population-wise, as are some in places like Lagos and Manila -- so Rocinha is big for the Americas, but not so much so worldwide. And in terms of quality of life, close-in older communities like Rocinha are positively utopian compared to the newer, sprawling, much further away communities that are much poorer, less connected to services and nearby employment.

(And this is where it gets into semantics and parsing out definitions, in that Rocinha is a slum in some senses, such as informality of titles and levels of violence, but not in others, such as real estate prices. When you are trying to compare sizes of communities from one country to another, make sure you really are comparing apples to apples, not just places to which people are casually giving the same label.)
posted by Forktine at 10:48 AM on April 1, 2010

The Navajo Reservation? Not everyone has running water. Unemployment is something like 60%.
posted by cmoj at 2:17 PM on April 1, 2010

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