(p. 82) Babylon, London, and New York all had teeming ghettos of unwanted settlers erecting shoddy shelters with inadequate hygiene and engaging in dodgy dealings. Historian Bronislaw Geremek states that “slums constituted a large part of the urban landscape” of Paris in the Middle Ages. Even by the 1780s, when Paris was at its peak, nearly 20 percent of its residents did not have a “fixed abode”–that is, they lived in shacks. In a familiar complaint about medieval French cities, a gentleman from that time noted: “Several families inhabit one house. A (p. 83) weaver’s family may be crowded into a single room, where they huddle around a fireplace.” That refrain is repeated throughout history. A century ago Manhattan was home to 20,000 squatters in self-made housing. Slab City alone, in Brooklyn (named after the use of planks stolen from lumber mills), contained 10,000 residents in its slum at its peak in the 1880s. In the New York slums, reported the New York Times in 1858, “nine out of ten of the shanties have only one room, which does not average over twelve feet square, and this serves all the purposes of the family.”
San Francisco was built by squatters. As Rob Neuwirth recounts in his eye-opening book Shadow Cities, one survey in 1855 estimated that “95 percent of the property holders in [San Francisco] would not be able to produce a bona fide legal title to their land.” Squatters were everywhere, in the marshes, sand dunes, military bases. One eyewitness said, “Where there was a vacant piece of ground one day, the next saw it covered with half a dozen tents or shanties.” Philadelphia was largely settled by what local papers called “squatlers.” As late as 1940, one in five citizens in Shanghai was a squatter. Those one million squatters stayed and kept upgrading their slum so that within one generation their shantytown became one of the first twenty-first-century cities.
That’s how it works. This is how all technology works. A gadget begins as a junky prototype and then progresses to something that barely works. The ad hoc shelters in slums are upgraded over time, infrastructure is extended, and eventually makeshift services become official. What was once the home of poor hustlers becomes, over the span of generations, the home of rich hustlers. Propagating slums is what cities do, and living in slums is how cities grow. The majority of neighborhoods in almost every modern city are merely successful former slums. The squatter cities of today will become the blue-blood neighborhoods of tomorrow. This is already happening in Rio and Mumbai today.
Slums of the past and slums of today follow the same description. The first impression is and was one of filth and overcrowding. In a ghetto a thousand years ago and in a slum today shelters are haphazard and dilapidated. The smells are overwhelming. But there is vibrant economic activity.
Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.
(Note: italics, and bracketed “San Francisco” in original.)