Tent cities and what they tell us


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

The movie's popularity has inspired a spate of real-life Slumdog articles and broadcasts about slums around the world, from Mumbai to Brazil, to Mexico City. But rarely do U.S. neighborhoods appear in these accounts. Maybe they should. 

Most of us like to believe that the closest we ever get to large-scale squalor is just the other side of the Mexican border -- in the dusty barrios of Nogales, the colonias of Juarez and a community in Tijuana that rose up on and based its economy on the city's dump. Surely our nation has enough governmental and charitable safety nets, not to mention land-use laws, to make slums a virtual impossibility here. Or so we like to believe, if we think of this at all.

Yet in recent months, the media revealed a different reality. Outlets from the New York Times to Oprah have carried stories on informal settlements of the poor that have risen up on the fringes of urban areas, including Fresno and Sacramento in California, and Seattle, Wash. These settlements are known as tent cities, a name that for some readers probably conjures up images of mountain meadows or parks covered with North Face nylon, perhaps pitched by revelers at a music festival.

But, as journalist Scott Bransford points out in the March 16 issue of High Country News, these settlements are more akin to the slums of the developing world than they are to group camping. While they can't compare in scale to the slums of India or Peru, they share some of the same qualities. Tent cities are improvised and include dwellings made from all kinds of recycled materials, ranging from plywood and salvaged construction material to placards advertising a big-box, going-out-of-business sale. Though most people may think of tent cities as informal homeless shelters, a lot of residents have come to think of them as home, and they're not moving. They put care into the construction of their dwelling, keep it tidy and place “wipe your feet” welcome mats at the door. The shantytowns develop a sense of community, a culture, and sometimes even their own economies. Often they become strongly rooted in a specific place, much to the dismay of local officials. 

In other words, these are not the temporary settlements that the name “tent city” implies. In fact, many of today's Western slums -- let's just call them what they are, why don't we? -- arose not during the bust times, and 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. During our orgy of prosperity, we tended to forget our less fortunate brethren. Social welfare was outsourced to the churches -- alienating non-believers in need of help -- and government aid dried up. 

The contrast is stark, for just as McMansions sprouted in the deserts and vacant land around our Western cities, ranks of tent colonies burgeoned nearby. The juxtaposition of the American slum with the American suburb became yet another echo of the developing world, and a tangible symbol of the growing abyss between the rich and the poor in the United States. 

Perhaps this deepening foreclosure crisis will leave the suburbs so empty and in need of residents that they will become affordable -- even for the working poor. 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. Perhaps we will collectively develop a deeper sense of compassion during these tough times, and lend a hand to those in need. 

In the meantime, though, the tent cities aren't going anywhere. They remain a symbol of our collective failure to keep our fellow citizens from being disowned by society. Until we right that wrong, communities nearby will have to figure out how to deal with these slums. They could try to bulldoze them, but that always turns into a public relations debacle. In fact, it's also futile, as past efforts have shown. Or communities could try to accept the new slums for what they are: Tent cities are the new affordable housing in a nation that has lived beyond its means for far too long.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's editor in Paonia, Colorado.

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