The skyscraper squat

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Iwan Baan

With Hurricane Sandy delivering a movie-quality disaster to New York City, people were suddenly put in mind of apocalyptic scenarios: looted shops, streets without power, the 1970s vision of a dystopian city.

New York doesn’t seem to be headed that way anytime soon, even with last week’s nor’easter. But if you’re curious about what a genuine modern post-apocalyptic urban environment might look like, there’s an example: a 45-story office tower in Caracas. After the building’s developer died and its financing dried up in the 1990s, the building was abandoned and is now home to some 3,000 squatters.

Their lives are chronicled in “Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities,” a forthcoming book about “the improvised home to more than 750 families living in an extra-legal and tenuous squat, that some have called a ‘vertical slum.’” The book will be published in the United States in mid-December by Swiss publisher Lars Müller.


Authors Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, cofounders of Columbia University’s Sustainable Living Urban Model Laboratory (SLUM Lab) spent a year studying the “ruin-become home.” The book includes floor plans and maps amidst extensive photographs by Iwan Baan showing how Torre David residents have adapted the structure to create homes and businesses. There are also drawings showing, for example, how water is distributed throughout the complex.

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In order to begin to think differently about the billion people who are now estimated to be living in slums on the fringes of the world’s mega-cities, the authors consider the power of terminology in the case of Torre David: What should they call this “growing house” of a thing?

They alight upon the “arrival city,” coined by journalist Doug Saunders, which they see as a corrective to the “the judgment-laden terms for squatter settlements—barrio, favela, slum, shantytown.” The idea of an arrival city evokes the possibility of social mobility for its residents, and allows us to see a structure like Torre David, in the authors’ words, as “a laboratory for exploring and testing a utopian potential.”


Monopoly? More like utopian socialist collective

The story of Monopoly’s creation matches nicely with its capitalist bent: Parker Brothers says it sprang fully formed out of the creative mind of Charles Darrow, a dog walker and American striver living in Philadelphia. But Christopher Ketcham, writing for Harper’s Magazine, tells a different story: The first version of Monopoly was called The Landlord’s Game and, years before Darrow “invented” it, was played in the commune of Arden, Del., a 160-acre utopian experiment where land was owned collectively.



In this telling, Monopoly was the Settlers of Catan of the early 1900s: It was popular with geeky economics professors, students at elite universities, Quakers, and camp counselors in the Poconos. While being developed at Arden, the game’s rules took on an ideological bent almost exactly opposite to the one Monopoly represents today. Instead of trying to own all of the land and bankrupt their opponents, players in this first Monopoly were encouraged to pool their resources and raise their fortunes together. The game was meant to help teach the ideas of Henry George, the 19th-century journalist whose popular book “Progress and Poverty” railed against private property ownership. In its original form, it was distributed without copyright, in the public domain. The “Go!” box that’s on the modern Monopoly board once read “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.”

Ketcham follows a trail leading from the game played at Arden to the version of Monopoly the Parker Brothers and Darrow patented in 1935. (There are a lot of juicy details, and it’s worth reading the whole thing at Along the way, a series of people added to and refined the original version. Darrow’s contribution? “His only innovation seems to have been to claim the mantle of sole inventor,” Ketcham says.


Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro. She maintains a blog, The Ys Have It, and is a member of the Literary Wing of the Lark Play Development Center. Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian’s SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.