Shadow Cities: the untold lives of squatters

I've just finished Robert Neuwirth's "Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World," a nonfiction account of Neuwirth's travels through squatter cities and shanty towns on four continents.

The parallels between the squatter story and the copyfight are fascinating. Last month, I gave a talk at a Berkeley law class and one of the students pointed out that when we talk about orphan works and the problem of discovering who has the right to authorize the use of old or obscure creative works, we treat this as a major difference between "intellectual property" and real property; but in the developing world, the ownership of physical land is anything but clear-cut; where you have squatters who've been sold deeds to their land by unscrupulous bureaucrats in exchange for votes, or where politicos have issued deeds to their cronies selling title to land that has been occupied for decades, or squatters who are granted title to their land, but who then have to resolve whether the squatter whose home is on the ground floor gets the title, or whether it's the squatter who's built her dwelling on the roof; or where you have squatters who've built and then rented out their squats to tenants who've occupied them for years — who owns that land?

All real-estate begins as "squatting." Most of the Bay Area's title deeds represent claims filed by squatters during the gold rush. At some point, every titled parcel of land belonged to no one, but was then fenced in and declared property.

Neuwirth's crusade in Shadow Cities is to prove that squatter cities are often better than the alternative: that many are safe, clean, and provide better housing for millions of economically marginal people than the state could provide. His evocative tours of the beehive-productive squatter cities in Brazil are very convincing — though his admission that the law-and-order of these cities derives from the iron discipline of ultraviolent drug-dealing gangsters detracts a little from the idyllic picture. There you have marginal commerce and construction that enables workers to improve their lives and the lives of their families and neighbors. Particularly heartening are his descriptions of "savings circles" organized by women to pool small sums of money in a mutual aid society, and of the tentative — but wildly successful — gestures by cable operators and power and water authorities to run professionally installed utilities to squatter homes.

As heartening as these are, Neuwirth is also careful to let us in on the problems of shantytown life. Not crime and filth (it is his thesis that shanty towns are cleaner and safer than the low-income housing that would be the alternative, and he has stats going back for centuries to back this up, including the tenement cholera epidemic in NYC that all but skipped past the squatter city in Central Park) — but corruption, boondoggles, and unintended consequences of poorly thought-through state-imposed improvements. From the donated ambulance that's too wide to fit down the shantytown lanes to the water pipes laid but never connected and eventually dug up for scrap to the efforts to replace shanties with high-rises that end up being unaffordable to the shanty-dwellers; Neuwirth's accounts of incompetence, venality and greed are maddening.

The question at the center of Neuwirth's book is not whether squatting is illegal (it is, of course), but whether it should be. He's looking to discover whether the prohibition of squatting (rather than a limited accommodation of squatting as a recognition that these people have to live somewhere) leads to more problems than it solves.

As I read it, I kept coming back to the questions I keep on asking of rightsholder organizations, questions like:

What's the way to go from suing your customers by the thousands to turning them back into customers again?

Is it really socially beneficial to set up a world where network neutrality and privacy are sacrificed to protect your rights? Should universities really have to wiretap their whole network just to keep from being sued out of existence by you?

Does it really benefit artists to live in a world where 80 percent of recorded music isn't available for sale because no one can figure out who owns it?

Does it benefit creation to declare remixing, mashing up, and sampling illegal? Are the people who make those works creators, too?

This is the sort of conundrum that Neuwirth is after resolving. The squatters are illegal, but what's the alternative? Why were anti-squatting laws passed, and have they fulfilled their objectives? Neuwirth is a powerful advocate for the rationality of permitting squatting. It's not only made me re-think my position on real property, but on "intellectual property" as well.