Large-Scale Housing Projects: Bombardment in the Cities

by | 19 Mar 2012

San José, Colombia. We were searching for the only house in the street left standing. Jump by jump, we dodged so much debris that I began to imagine I was moving through one of those photographs of the bombing that took place during the wars in Europe. What surprised us most as we walked was to see so many children and teenagers climbing over what was left of the buildings. We noticed that they were pulling off, among other things, pieces of zinc roofing, clay tiles, doors that had already been worn away by the elements, and any metal they could find: door handles, taps, and even manhole covers. When we asked them what they were doing, some answered that these houses had been theirs and their neighbours’, and that they had come back to take anything they could; they wanted to sell it for a bit of money. They said that they would not leave a thing for the construction companies, that if they had already removed them they could leave with anything that might have some value. There were also some opportunists among them who had never had anything to do with the neighbourhood. They too took advantage of its abandonment to find things to sell, but judging by the smell you could tell that others had used it for other purposes, perhaps to defecate and urinate among the debris, behind the green canvas that had been used to try to contain and protect destroyed plots of land.

Finally we arrived. The house was the last tree that remained standing. Stubbornly, it stood upright, although it had already begun to die as trees die, losing strength from the inside out. We knocked on the door and Alicia opened it. She immediately pulled up some chipped chairs for us to sit on, in what had already begun to cease to be a living room. After serving the coffee she had made, she sat down and began her story.

She told us that San José was one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Manizales, located right in what is now the city centre. Around 28,000 people lived there. Some of the houses were old, built at the beginning of the 20th century, the city’s golden age. They were large, and were built in the region’s typical coffee plantation style. The “adobe” – a mixture of “guadua” (a bamboo-like wood found in the Colombian Andes), horse manure and plaster – with which they had been built made them spacious. It had never been a rich neighbourhood, but there was a certain sense of privilege to living there. However, as time went by many people moved further and further away from the centre of town, and the neighbourhood came to be occupied by other kinds of people, in particular those with fewer resources who had generally come from areas near the north of the city.

For the last fifty years, the neighbourhood had grown. Paved areas filled up with new, smaller houses, some made of concrete, others of wood, tin cans or even cardboard, depending on the resources people had available to them. It grew outwards so much that it got closer and closer to the hillside at the very edge of the city. Eventually another way of living was established that would endure until today. An informal economy grew up, with service garages and sales of spare parts for cars and home appliances, as well as brothels and “ollas” – drugs dens. The owners of the oldest, largest houses – which were largely still the same except that the owners no longer lived there – divided them into two or three apartments with the ground floor as commercial enterprises, in order to earn more in rent. As a result each big house came to be occupied by two or three tenant families, which seemed fairly numerous not because they had a lot of children, but because these wide nuclear families were determined by the number of people who were dependent on the heads of the household. Thus there would be grandparents through to grandchildren, with aunts and uncles and their spouses in between, all living in the same place. The same was the case in the newer, smaller houses too. On the other hand, she said, you could not forget that many of these families depended on the commercial enterprises downstairs, either because they were employed there or because they were the owners or lessees.

But “development” came, and she spoke this word with sarcasm. First the mayor appeared, telling them that the council would buy their houses from them, that there would be a great project for the benefit of everyone, through which they would have access to “decent housing” – again she spoke with sarcasm. Through radio and the newspapers they heard the government saying that San José was the main hotspot for criminality in the city, that it sheltered thieves, drugs users and pimps for child prostitutes. That it was also a high-risk zone for landslides, due to the steep terrain on which the houses had been built. Everywhere he spoke, the mayor said that with the help of the national government he would undertake a “large-scale housing project” to offer people better living conditions, to re-socialize the area, to attack delinquency issues, to solve mobility problems, and to recover the economy of this important part of the city.

The people of the neighbourhood managed to organize themselves to protest, but they were easily made invisible by the media and the government; she said that some people in the district were assassinated in order to do so, but they never knew what came of the investigations. Today the neighbourhood has begun to be demolished in parts. Alicia’s house is right in the place where Avenida Colón (Columbus Avenue), a street that forms part of the project, will pass; it is surely no coincidence that the government has decided to start with a street by this name. Her house has apparently not been pulled down because of a problem with the compensation they must give her. She is, at least, the owner of the house and will certainly receive something, although she does not know if it will be enough to buy one of the new apartments they will build. Many families around there are not the owners of the houses and so they will not receive compensation; the government has promised them help in paying rent in another area. Alicia has sent four of her five children to other parts of the city to stay with relatives, so that they do not have to put up with the dust from the demolished neighbourhood, nor the demolition of the only history they have known. She waits with her daughter for company. She no longer has water and the electricity only works on and off; she wonders occasionally if this is to force her and others to get out as soon as possible.

Although the project’s name includes the idea of “housing”, most houses in the neighbourhood are to fall to make way for a shopping centre, something called a drug-dependency rehabilitation centre, and call centre facilities – with the latter being not just the city’s main commercial activity but also the former mayor’s main private business interest. At some point the buildings they claim will provide 5,500 housing units in the form of apartments, which they say will be no larger than 100 square metres, will also arrive.

Alicia complained that all the project’s justifications should have forced them to intervene in the whole city, or at least the majority of it. Delinquency and drug addiction occur in many neighbourhoods, even the richest ones. There are dozens of districts with more serious problems – was it not the mayor himself who had admitted a few days ago that 60% of the city lived in poverty? So why San José? They simply branded the neighbourhood as the worst example of society, just as one constructs a public enemy who must be eliminated. She says that San José may not be a place of complete peace, but that she never had to build a barrier around her yard before the demolition crews arrived. Beforehand her yard had always been open, with no fence, as around here she shared food, cleaning products and local gossip with her neighbours. She says that the neighbourhood was one of good people; that the majority of people were good. She thinks that the worst dangers are what they will face in the most difficult neighbourhoods of the city, those to which they will have to go to live as outsiders.

If the justification were the danger of landslides due to building on hillside areas, they would have had to focus on the whole city. What can really be said when an entire city has been built at the top of a mountain? During the rainy season it was other neighbourhoods that suffered the most, including those where the people were richer. She said that San José was the place where least ground was touched for construction, as it was done according to the type of houses that people most needed, the land conditions were respected, and there was no need to make large-scale changes, which was not the case it other areas of the city. So then why San José? She had an answer: it was the neighbourhood with the most flat land in the city; it was a great booty for the building contractor or the investor that got hold of it.




The “large-scale housing projects” in Colombia were a legal invention of Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s government. It was thought that they would allow the national government to develop “housing” projects directly in any region of the country, bypassing regional governments. Despite Colombia having been a unitary state for more than a century, the 1991 Constitution had won administrative decentralization for municipalities, through which, among other things, the municipalities were allowed to determine the planning and usage of their land in an autonomous and independent manner. The “large-scale housing projects” were in this sense a counter-reform; they were a resurgence of the most recalcitrant form of state modernity in which it is believed that the centre, the national “union”, knows what suits the peripheral areas it controls. Thus it is thought that the centre is more prepared, more specialized, more technical, more apolitical, and so it solves the regional disputes on territory configuration which occur in different municipalities.

Throughout Colombia’s history – including in the current republican era – the impetus of domination has been from the cities towards the countryside. The main purpose of the former, since Spanish colonization, was to guarantee the conquest of rural territories, either because they were empty, or because they were defending autonomous lifestyles. From the city they provided everything needed for the “violent transubstantiation of localism” – as Zizek put it – of rurality: first, the weapons and provisions for the armies, but afterwards the laws for the judges, lawyers and landowners who were arriving. Thus the cities had fulfilled a vital role in the consolidation of the national-state project in Colombia: to function as satellites of the dominant central nation.

However, the case of “large-scale housing projects” in Colombia has highlighted another route that the forces of domination are taking. The issue in question is an intra-urban movement of people, which, although it may have been hidden for most of history, is more noticeable now that the cities are growing to take in thousands of people forced out of the countryside and smaller settlements. This occurs either through the experience of armed conflict or due to globalized economies that can only support themselves by abandoning the peripheries and strengthening urban industry. In short, the peripheries are returning many years worth of insults to the central areas. The cities, especially the capitals, are overflowing, and the fear is centred on the force that these displaced people who are arriving represent. It has begun to establish itself as a force that breaks with their planning – that is, with the project of life that they are defending or claim to defend.

As we see in the case of Manizales, in the San José neighbourhood – although there are other large-scale housing projects underway within the country – it is no longer just a matter of a centre wanting to take away the autonomy of a peripheral municipality. The autonomous powers within the city are also alibis for an elite group belonging to the same municipality acting in perfect synchrony with national interest. An elite linked to this national-centralizing desire through political parties and public power, or through financial organizations and real estate speculation. An elite that desperately defends the project of a city that little by little it has seized for itself, and in which it can no longer find the same benefit in dominating.

The “large-scale housing projects” have drawn up the road map. With them the national government can bypass land management mechanisms that the municipality has implemented in its planned autonomous regulation. This means that it can relax obligations and controls for building contractors and urban land investors – who are generally businessmen from that city and members of the described elite – making it easier to build social housing but at the highest permitted price. But at the same time, the local government, under the control of the municipal elite, on the one hand synchronizes the discourse by speaking of “decent housing”, “re-socialization of deprived areas”, and “risk mitigation” for housing built on hillside land in order to give legitimacy to the project in front of the city. On the other hand, they also use local law to open doors and change regulations, such as those regarding land use. They thereby reduce the symbolic impact of the national government’s intervention.

This occurred in Manizales. In 2007, when the national government’s interest in developing the project in the city was beginning to burgeon, the Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial (POT) – the local regulation for land planning – was modified. Overnight, the city council changed two aspects of the land regulations that applied to San José: 1) they determined that the area at risk of landslide was larger, and 2) they increased the density of commercial use. Undoubtedly, the first change reinforced the idea that it was being done for the best and for the protection of the neighbourhood’s inhabitants, without making it known that the area of greatest relevance to the project was the flat sector of the neighbourhood. The role of the second change was to make the interest already hovering over the area clear.

Beyond the veiled interests of the national government and the local elite, their desire to rule and the local people’s demand for autonomy has come up against the concept of “decent housing”. What is decent housing? Who decides what decent housing is? This is what Alicia wondered several times during our visit, when she was able to leave the sarcasm to one side. It seems as though she is only able to tell her story through questions: Is it decent for them to shut me and my five children up in an apartment, when I have enjoyed so many years in a house? An apartment of 100 square metres, when in my house I’ve had over 300? Do rich people really think that living decently means living like them? With no patio, no yard, no door onto the street? With a tiny kitchen? What kind of kitchen will I have to use to make food for five children? As well as the fact that around here there are families of more than ten people: what kind of apartment will they live in, and in what kind of kitchen will they cook for everyone? And what will the families who made a living from the commercial properties do? Don’t they see that that gave them some economic independence? What now? Begging the government for jobs? Alicia finishes by recognizing that perhaps if they had listened to them, if they had sat down to speak with them when everything was being planned, it might have been possible to find some agreement, some middle ground. “People around here let themselves speak”, she says. The annoying thing, the painful thing, is that everything was done as if they had no voice. They didn’t let them speak about what living decently was for them.

A desolate dusk had already fallen, with a cold that reached you from every side, when we left her house. I trod through the debris again, and those European wars that we learn to see in Colombia through photos and images on the television came back into my head. As I walked onwards I wanted to work out why that idea kept coming back to me; it wasn’t difficult to find the answer: Although we believed for a long time in Colombia that war scenes were just the jungle and the fields, for a while now the people of the cities have had to put up with bombardment that negates their souls and takes away their lives while they are still living.

Mi historia no se vende” (“My history is not for sale”) documentary (in Spanish) on the San José neighbourhood (Manizales – Colombia). Carried out by the department of visual anthropology of the University of Caldas, Manizales.

The Spanish version of this article is published with our friends Democracia en tu Cara. Many thanks to Alex Higson for this translation.


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