What if Jane Jacobs had directed "Slumdog"?
Is the slum in the title of the wildly popular Oscar contender Slumdog Millionaire a fetid, altogether inhospitable place that any reasonable person would try desperately to escape? The movie has apparently left many with that impression. I haven't actually managed to see the film despite much trying (I have small kids) but gather that early scenes — a violent anti-muslim protest, a revelation that beggar children are intentionally blinded to make them "more successful" at their jobs — are set in what appears to be Mumbai's Dharavi section, Asia's largest ghetto. They set up themes of escape and transcendence that help give the film its powerful narrative momentum.
In an intriguing op-ed in today's NYT, MATIAS ECHANOVE and RAHUL SRIVASTAVA say the impression of Dharavi as a place to escape — or even replace — is reinforced by a final scene in Slumdog in which the former slum-dwelling protagonist returns after finding fame, romance and adventure to see that "multistoried apartments have replaced the old decrepit structures." Although fictional movies probably bear no particular responsibility to treat a place fairly, no moreso than they do to turn every villain into a decent fellow, the authors make a pretty convincing case that Dharavi gets a raw deal in the film. Instead of a social and economic dead end, Dharavi's many neighborhoods are places of real resilience and meaningful economic activity, they say.
The op-ed echoes points made by Stewart Brand last fall in a gripping slideshow presented at CNU's Sustainable Communities event San Francisco. Despite their appearance of mess and squalor (and struggles with sewage and public health), the world's major ghettoes are in some ways quite green. Residents often live where they work, rolling up sleeping mats each morning and dispensing with petroleum-fueled commutes. Even garbage is picked clean of all reparable items or tradable commodities, making places like Dharavi the world's ultimate recyclers.
Like Brand, Echanove and Srivastava make it clear that there are millions of sources of resilience and ingenuity in Dharavi (its residents themselves), but the authors reveal that the unplanned but beneficial urban form of the community plays a role too.
Well over a million “eyes on the street,” to use Jane Jacobs’s phrase, keep Dharavi perhaps safer than most American cities. Yet Dharavi’s extreme population density doesn’t translate into oppressiveness. The crowd is efficiently absorbed by the thousands of tiny streets branching off bustling commercial arteries. Also, you won’t be chased by beggars or see hopeless people loitering — Dharavi is probably the most active and lively part of an incredibly industrious city. People have learned to respond in creative ways to the indifference of the state — including having set up a highly functional recycling industry that serves the whole city.
While certainly some take the opportunity to move to classier neighborhoods as means allow, it's moving to learn that active communities of residents advocate for renewal strategies that keep Dharavi intact, rather than clearing it as sometimes happens in Mumbai (and happened in most US cities during a previous era of urban renewal that Jacobs resisted vehemently). Says lawyer and lifelong resident, Ramesh Misra, “We have always improved Dharavi by ourselves. All we want is permission and support to keep doing it. Is that asking for too much?”
Photo: Children in Dharaviby owenstache, used under a Creative Commons licensce via Flickr.
Write your comments in the box below and share on your Facebook!