It’s a Big, Big World
Up Close With Urban Poverty
On Commercial Street, one of Bangalore’s shopping meccas, our group was on assignment to bargain for and purchase various items. While buying a pair of turquoise earrings, I felt a slight graze on my upper arm. I turned and faced a middle-aged Indian woman with a baby. She brought together the fingers of her free hand and raised them to her mouth, motioning an eating action. Then she cupped that hand, presented it to us palm side up, and looked at us pleadingly.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon, we encountered similar situations. Once we felt the graze on our legs. We looked down and saw a man who dragged his body and his non-functional legs along the ground. We were followed up and down Commercial Street by children trying to sell us plastic dolls and miniature chess sets. Sometimes the children had nothing to sell, because, as we quickly understood, they had nothing.
When my roommate and I finally returned home to our comfortable middle class residence, we nearly passed out from the experience. It was draining by all means: physically, mentally, and emotionally.
“In my life,” she said, “I’ve never seen so much poverty.”
As cities around the world are becoming centers of economic growth, they are also becoming the focal points of poverty. According to the United Nations Human Settlement Program, governments and local authorities use economic growth models that not only widen disparities between rural and urban populations but also between high- and low-income populations within cities. Many governments and international developers continue to treat poverty as a mainly rural phenomenon and neglect large-scale assistance to cities.
At 30 percent, India has the highest prevalence of urban poverty in Asia. News sources like Business Week and the New York Times preached Bangalore as the “Silicon Valley of India.” However, when I arrived in the city, I clearly saw that funds were lacking. Infrastructure needed improvement; holes in sidewalks proved hazardous. Trash was strewn in the streets. Rolling blackouts were common. The Market Day activity showed me how poverty affects some of Bangalore’s 6.5 million inhabitants.
It was relatively easy to see the deficiency of wealth in Bangalore. This was not the case in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was initially in awe of how the city looked and felt like Europe. The French architecture, ornate theaters and hotels, spacious plazas, outdoor cafes, and even the blonde hair (natural or otherwise) looked as if they were photocopied out of a European travel book. Buenos Aires isn’t nicknamed “Paris of the South” for nothing.
At the beginning, my classmates couldn’t get over how comfortable they felt. Most of us lived with host families in Recoleta, a chic upper class neighborhood where the shopping and nightlife kept everyone entertained. The jewel of the city’s new development, Puerto Madero, was a fantastic weekend hangout consisting of restaurants and retail along the waterfront.
Our first week of class quickly countered these first impressions. One site visit was to Villa 21, a villa miseria or “neighborhood of misery” located in the southern neighborhood of Baraccas. We entered Villa 21 as a group of 40 Americans and were appropriately stared at. Our guide heightened our paranoia by advising us to brace our bags, hide our cameras, and not make eye contact. Rain fell the day before, and as I was walking through the villa I kept my eyes on the ground to avoid puddles and dog droppings left by the strays on the unpaved roads. Most houses were single-story, roofed with corrugated tin, and built by hand.
One electricity line and one water line serve the 35,000-person settlement. Few people marry, but young people have children to receive government subsidies. Illegal activity is common, and informal markets range from real estate to drug dealing. Little social mobility is possible. The shantytown isn’t considered an official part of the city (residents have no mailing addresses), and there is tension over whether official city inclusion is beneficial. In the current situation, residents are living on government-owned land for free and don’t pay taxes.
When my roommate and I told our host mother that our syllabus did not include sightseeing of Buenos Aires’ top tourist spots, she was slightly angered. To show us how she experienced the city’s good life, she personally took us on a tour of the wealthy northern neighborhoods’ ritzy hotels, fancy promenades, and a new, glitzy international shopping mall.
My host mother liked to say, “Argentina is a rich country with poor people living in it.” Given the general trend of Buenos Aires’ development, I wonder how much longer she’ll remember that poor people live there. As the city pours more money into areas that will attract foreign investment (i.e. shopping malls and developments like Puerto Madero) while neglecting the poorer communities, well-off Buenos Aires residents will have more places that are geographically and psychologically distanced from the somber realities of their city.
The growing invisibility of the urban poor and lack of acknowledgment by their co-citizens unnerve me when I consider what could be done to ease urban poverty. In The End of Poverty, Jeffrey D. Sachs points out that problems in urban areas regard empowerment and finance. But if the wealthy are no longer attuned to the needs of the poor, how would they react to slum dweller organizations or to requests to contribute their tax dollars to service these areas? Fear? Dissent? Would political unrest be a problem? How much aid can realistically be implemented without the support of the entire population? These are all questions to consider as urban development and its counterpart, urban poverty, continue worldwide.