Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bolivia. El Alto. Senkata

On my first day back, I went on some house visits with one of the nurses at the local health clinic, and spent the day looking at some rooms where I could stay for a month. Wandering around Senkata, it still feels like a ghost town. Is this what was recently considered the fastest growing city in Latin America? Where is everyone? Knocking on doors, it became very clear that many people were away, working….somewhere. Probably in La Paz. Returning to La Paz from El Alto, we passed a massive line of people waiting for transportation back to El Alto. The people have to live so far away to make a living in the modern metropolis. It is a taxing journey packed into small vehicles, dodging traffic and everything else. Even though, people are hidden behind the walls of their homes. The nurse told me that people are afraid of thieves. I wonder what applications Jane Jacob’s ‘eyes on the street’ has here. If the public and private realms were more permeable and people focused their attention on the street instead of exclusively on the interior courtyards of their homes, would it change the activity on the streets? Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that the streets are still dirt, with only curbs built into to define the areas. But, it is also the culture, as the Spanish courtyard housing typology still exerts a strong influence on the built environment.
The streets and the public transportation stops are a mess. The commercials zones are huge, full of empty space waiting to be filled. La Ceja (the central part) is congested madness and an intense experience all around. One day I passed a street hawker selling alternative medicines to deal with all kinds of worms that find their way into people’s bodies. After looking at the worm samples in the bottles, I was almost tempted to buy some.
Almost every single home is under construction. It almost reminds me of Beijing, but at a much smaller scale, with all the construction being undertaken by the people themselves instead of the state, corporations, developers, and certainly without the use of architects. It is a totally self built city, almost the entire thing. In that regard it is pretty extraordinary. But, it is also a self-regulating city, for better or worse. Violence and robberies are pretty common. When the state does not provide adequate security, the people take care of it themselves. Most neighborhoods you go through will have a stuffed dummy hanging from a telephone pole, a clear sign to possible thieves that they will be lynched if caught. And they will, last year 18 people were lynched in El Alto.
In a weird way, it is as if the local municipal government has set up the extreme minimums in which people can operate. They set the streets (in a minimal, mathematical fashion with public spaces allocated). They set the curbs. They set the electricity, but hardly anything else. They will get to the rest of it later. Is this place really providing agency for people, more so than other places? How is the minimum planning able to keep up with the explosive growth, more so than other cities?
But, density, density, is the big question. The amazing thing about Bolivia and El Alto is the amount of people that own their land, and the amount of space they have to build upon. A common lot size is 250 s.m.. I think I read somewhere that 70% of Bolivians own their own land. But, in El Alto, that is coming at great expense as much available and arable land is being converted into urban land. With such a low density and unlimited space as long as people are looking for land near the big city, the future implications are scary. Water, food, transportation, and quality of life will all be at risk. But, it doesn’t seem to matter to most people. They want their dream, their hope of making money, of getting a better home, of having a better life for their children. It is hard to think beyond that, or even expect people to. Most Bolivians are stoic and strong and make with what they have but work very hard to improve their lot, often against tremendous odds.
The plot sizes are set, often determined by the municipality, but employed through both legal and illegal means. Loteadores (black market sellers) had illegally subdivided a lot of the land and sold it to willing people. They were smart about making sure space was left over for streets and stuff. When there is enough of a critical mass, the municipality eventually has to no choice but to provide basic services. Such is the norm these days in most of the developing world. But, corruption is rampant and most people can pay off city officials for most of what they want.
One big problem is the incredible cost increases in materials, especially steel (for cement reinforcement), cement, and tin. Some of these materials have doubled in cost in the last three years. Most people do use banks to get loans to do the construction. This is because they can get more money than with the microcredit, even though their interest rate is higher. Just down the road from my room in Senkata, the new banks are doing a bustling business with lines out the door every morning. But, a life of debt with high interest rates…..hmmmm. I think I have heard of that before. What if people can’t pay? What if the minbus they are gaining most of their income from is wrecked and they can’t pay their loan? There is an extreme desire to build more and bigger here, and possibly at a great expense, not just monetary.

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