Fecal dust blowing off Lake Texcoco

A slum is characterized by poverty, informal housing, and lack of public utilities. Which means you’re hungry and sick, and you walk around in shit. You get a slum when hundreds of thousands or millions of poor people want to live in a city that has no room for them. Cities can only grow so fast. When they grow faster, you get slums.

Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums is a bird’s-eye view of the slum problem, full of facts and numbers. There are no individuals here, no sentimental stories. There are only masses of people, breaking like waves on the urban shore.

But it’s not a dry account. Planet of Slums is an angry book. Davis’s anger is a cold anger, aimed at everyone. He is angry with the colonial powers for leaving a mess, with Third World elites for making it worse, with the World Bank and the IMF for forcing ivory tower doctrines upon their debtors, and with global NGO’s for bulldozing local initiative.

It’s an interesting approach to popular sociology: Academic in content, moralistic in tone. One reviewer thinks Davis is too bleak, leaving no room for hope, and maybe he is. For my own part, I notice ignorance about the liberal policies he attacks. They may not have worked, but Davis finds even their purpose incomprehensible. He seems to think that market pricing, for instance, is a conspiracy to squeeze the poor.

But that doesn’t matter. This is an important book, and leftist outrage is more appropriate here than rightist pollyannaism.

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