Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Slums Clearances by Fire

Every year, mostly in summer, thousands of nice comfortable houses, complete neighborhoods, are burnt to the ground in California. Supposedly, all homeowners would have an insurance, relatives and friends somewhere in USA ready to help. The sadness and anguish is deep, but the victims are not abandoned. These are not the worst cases.
Overcrowding plus poverty is the best combination for fires. This is a longstanding problem that has not been resolved yet. Shack fires put young children and old and disabled people at particular risk, they result in the loss of identity documents, HIV medication and getting additional supplies is sometimes almost impossible. They also create acute stress for children, many of whom are tortured by recurring nightmares about the fires. (Imraan Buccus).
In 1912, Dr. Architect Werner Hegemann’s, who was a city Planner and a former houses inspector in Philadelphia, started a popular campaign for a more decentralizing system of housing and transportation and more playgrounds and forest reserves in greater Berlin, zoned for tenements. He covered the city with posters claiming that “600,000 inhabitants of Greater Berlin live in tenements at the rate of from 5 to 13 people per room”. As a result of his action, he was prosecuted by the Prussian police, for “inciting of class hatred”, an attitude punishable by law. In the following years, Hegemann was planning advisor for many cities in Western Europe, Middle East, also Sudamerica (including Buenos Aires and Rosario where he was invited in 1931). He declared that we only had to replace the word “slums” for “slaves” to have a condition –at least by that time- almost identical to that of the Civil War period when Lincoln suggested to indemnify the slaves holders; a similar proposition could be chosen to idemnify slums’ owners. But, “if compensation is impracticable, that impracticability ought not to be an obstacle to a clearly essentially reform”. (Alexander Hamilton, cited by Ruth Nanda Anshen).
Hegemann’s book “City Planning, Housing” denouncing the consequences of the incipient urban sprawl and poverty, was published in 1935. His analysis indicated that New York Region could hold twice the population of the globe if built up to the legal full extents of the New York Region Zoning Code; his comparison between Paris and London is clear about city’s congestion: Napoleon III-Haussmann’s urban operations, instead of taking London’s garden suburbs as an example, did not decentralize Paris, instead, they succeeded in concealing the overcrowding and misery by building new beatiful high facades along the avenues. For Napoleon III, slum clearance was a way to fight Socialism.

Le Corbusier: Plan Voisin in Paris. “Since 1922 (for the past 42 years) I have continued to work, in general and in detail, on the problem of Paris. Everything has been made public. The City Council has never contacted me. It calls me 'Barbarian'!" (Le Corbusier’s writings, p. 207)

Le Corbusier, re-elaborated this thought in his proposal of clearing completely the heart of Paris, 800 acres on the right bank of the Seine river. Each new tower would dwell 30,000 to 40,000 people, population that would be approximately 8 times more than the existing in the urban fabric of narrow streets and dark patios in the Post War period.
Clearance of slums has its even more Utopian point of view in Herbert G. Wells’ novel, “In The Days of the Comet” (1906). A comet smashes into the Earth and a green vapor is released putting everyone to sleep, until three hours later when the change in the atmosphere has dissipated. Then, the world awakens in an altered state. Humankind has a new socialist view on life and strives now to create a utopian order by righting the wrongs of the past. The war between Germany and Britain is immediately ceased. Soldiers can't even remember why they are lying on the ground with rifles next to them. Slums are being torn down to make way for safe and humane housing for the poor under-class. (From David Fletcher’s book review at ).

“In the days of the comet”. Artistic interpretation by Alan Perry.

“It was inevitable that the old idea of purification should revive with the name, it was felt to be a burning of other than material encumbrances, innumerable quasi-spiritual things, deeds, documents, debts, vindictive records, went up in those great flares. People passed praying between the fires….Endless were the things we had to destroy in those great purgings. First, there were nearly all the houses and buildings of the old time. In the end we did not save in England one building in five thousand that was standing when the comet came. Year by year, as we made our homes afresh in accordance with the saner needs of our new social families, we swept away more and more of those horrible structures, the ancient residential houses, hastily built, without imagination, without beauty, without common honesty, without even comfort or convenience, in which the early twentieth century had sheltered until scarcely one remained; we saved nothing but what was beautiful or interesting out of all their gaunt and melancholy abundance. The actual houses, of course, we could not drag to our fires, but we brought all their ill-fitting deal doors, their dreadful window sashes, their servant-tormenting staircases, their dank, dark cupboards, the verminous papers from their scaly walls, their dust and dirt-sodden carpets, their ill-designed and yet pretentious tables and chairs, sideboards and chests of drawers, the old dirt-saturated books, their ornaments--their dirty, decayed, and altogether painful ornaments--amidst which I remember there were sometimes even STUFFED DEAD BIRDS!--we burnt them all. The paint-plastered woodwork, with coat above coat of nasty paint, that in particular blazed finely………. We burnt and destroyed most of our private buildings and all the woodwork, all our furniture, except a few score thousand pieces of distinct and intentional beauty, from which our present forms have developed, nearly all our hangings and carpets, and also we destroyed almost every scrap of old-world clothing. Only a few carefully disinfected types and vestiges of that remain now in our museums.” (Excerpt from “In the Days of the Comet”. Book III, Chapter III).
Though in 1906 it must have seen as a fantasy novel, the years of the World Wars showed that the big scale devastation of slums and public historical buildings was a reality. After the wars, the construction of 2,500,000 modern apartments were not enough and most people were compelled to remain in the old obsolete tenements that were not destroyed, or they had to live in shanty towns.

By 1935, some cities began to awaken to the public conscience of the cruelty in some methods of slums clearance. The Chairman of the New York Housing authority, Langdon W. Post, declared on the radio that 81 men, women and children were burnt to death in tenement houses/slums fires. They were living in fire traps.
If New York’s slums fires had been systematically started, the conflagration would have been much greater than the one in emperor Nero’s Rome, considering more than a million and a half people lived in houses unfit for human habitation in New York Region. (W. Hegemann, 1935).
Nowadays, slums fires are still an omnipresent trap. In Mike Davis’ words, the mixture of inflammable dwellings, extraordinary density, and dependance upon open fires for heat and cooking is a superlative recipe for spontaneous combustion. A simple accident with cooking gas or kerosene can quickly become a mega fire that destroys thousands of dwellings.

Slums fires are not always caused by accident. Davis explains that rather than afford the expenses of courts procedures or endure a long wait for an official demolition order, landlords and developers frequently prefer to start a fire on purpose. Manila has a notorious reputation for suspicious slum fires; there were eight major burnings between February and April 1993 (Jeremy Seabrook, cited by Davis). Erhard Berner recalls the method of “hot demolition”, as the Filipino landlords’ favourite one: a kerosene drenched burning live rat or cat –not dogs, they die too fast- is pushed into the annoying settlement; a fire started this way is very hard to fight as the unlucky animal can set plenty of shanties aflame before it dies.
In August 2009, a fact-finding team that was formed to investigate accidental slum fires in Chennai (India), said these slum fires, which claimed five lives and destroyed over 400 huts, could be politically motivated. The 12-member fact-finding group, comprising journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and doctors, added there’s more than meets the eye with these accidental fires, which occurred in Shenoy Nagar, Nandambakkam, Vyasarpadi, Perambur and JJ Nagar in the last months. What is surprising is that in all these slums where the fire accidents happened, the slum dwellers were being forced by the government to vacate the place. This eviction proposal was for various developmental projects. The team demands a No Displacement Ordinance to raise financial relief to people, and also a Rehabilitation Bill to resettle slum dwellers in a new location (From Express News Service. Fire in slums politically motivated?. Published August 8th 2009). The healing news, Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services and the Tamil Nadu Corporation for Development of Women Limited, have jointly introduced a scheme to train the women under the various Women Self Help Groups, in the area of Fire Prevention and Propagation of the messages of safe-fire-practices. They constitute a ready target group of women who can easily understand the messages on Fire Safety and Safe Fire Practices.
Life in slums has been very well documented in the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”; but Destiny wanted even more awareness of these terrible procedures and accidents. The movie’s child stars Azharuddin Ismail and Rubina Ali narrowly escaped a massive fire that destroyed a section of their Mumbai slum. More than 200 slum homes were gutted and 15 people injured in the blaze. According to the residents, gas canisters used for home cooking exploded every few minutes in the intense heat, helping the fire spread and hampering rescue efforts. (From Slumdog Millionaire kids escape slum fire. At Indian June 19th, 2009)
The news about this event spread around the world. Maybe it helps in the understanding that before planning the destruction of massive urban agglomerations, authorities and developers should undertake serious larger scale house planning operations that liberate people from these fire traps.

Slum fire .From

Hegemann, Werner. City Planning, Housing. USA, 1937
Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. USA. 2006
Slum fire in Kenya
Fire in slum India
Express Buzz
Tamilnadu Corporation for Development of Women Limited. (TNCDW, Chennai).
Buccus, Inraan. Slums built on the ashes of the Apartheid.
Safe Creative #0911234952143

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