« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Slumdog U.S.A.

 

In recent months, the big-screen blockbuster love story, Slumdog Millionaire, has brought images of a ramshackle Mumbai slum to millions of American viewers. Although the slum may have been a bit prettified, it did the trick: Moviegoers were shocked, offended and deeply moved by how the poor of other nations live.

The movie's popularity has inspired a spate of "real-life Slumdog" articles about slums around the world, from Mumbai, to Brazil, to Mexico City. Rarely do U.S. neighborhoods appear in these accounts. Maybe they should.
Most Americans like to believe that the closest we get to large-scale squalor is just the other side of the Mexican border: the ramshackle barrios of Nogales, the colonias of Juarez, the community on the Tijuana dump. Our nation has enough governmental and charitable safety nets, not to mention land-use laws, to make honest-to-goodness slums a virtual impossibility here. Or so we like to believe.

Yet, as Scott Bransford explains in this issue, informal settlements akin to slums have been forming for years in some unexpected places, from Reno, to Fresno, to Seattle. Known as tent cities, they are not nearly as big as the slums of India or Peru. But they share some of the same qualities. Much more than just a collection of dome tents — like the camping grounds of a mountain music festival — tent cities include dwellings made from all kinds of recycled materials. These shantytowns develop a sense of community, a culture, sometimes even their own economies. Oftentimes, they become strongly rooted in a specific place, much to the dismay of local officials.

Bransford toured tent cities across the West and saw much that he found alarming. Perhaps most shocking to the uninitiated, though, is the fact that many of the region's tent cities arose not during the bust times, not as a result of economic collapse and mass foreclosures, but during the unprecedented boom times of the 1990s and the first half of this decade.

Even as McMansions were ferociously sprouting in the deserts around our cities, ranks of tent colonies were springing up nearby. The juxtaposition is yet another echo of the developing world and a tangible symbol of the growing abyss between the rich and the poor in the U.S.

How all of this will play out under the new economic reality is uncertain. Perhaps the foreclosure crisis will transform those glitzy new suburbs into a new sort of slums. Perhaps Obama's plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and bolster social welfare programs will lessen the gap between the haves and have-nots. One thing we can bet on, though, is this: The tent cities aren't going away anytime soon. 

* * * 

But not all is doom and gloom in this special double issue of High Country News. In fact, most of our pages are devoted to some pretty good news. In the space normally reserved for a long cover story, we've provided a smorgasbord of short profiles of some of the most exciting innovators and innovations in our region. Our examples range from science-fictionesque solar power to a new wave of ranching and portable homes for the homeless. And then there are the aforementioned tent cities — a grim form of innovation themselves.