Aug. 29, 2006
I've lived for at least a year in each of ten cities in the United States, to wit, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, San Diego, Tucson, Albuquerque, Honolulu, Atlanta and Miami. I've also lived in some small towns in Texas and California. And I've at least passed through about 90% of the other major cities of the country: Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and on and on. You name it, I've been there.
But I've seen little of what I now call "slums". For years, I used the word "slums" in reference to certain neighborhoods that were somewhat neglected, because this is what many people call them. But looking at them more critically, I realize that they are far from being true "slums", at least if we consider "slums" on a worldwide basis. Black people also use the word "ghettos" to mean "black neighborhoods", which is fine with me, if that is the word they prefer to use, but many a black person would go further and say that a "ghetto" is a "slum" where black people live. The only trouble is that most so-called "ghettos" are not "slums", at least if we define "slums" by reference to a worldwide standard.
The same might be said of the "barrios", if it is suggested that "barrios" in the US are Hispanic "slums". No they are not. Native Hawaiians also sometimes act as if their communities are "slums" too, but, no, they are not "slums".
I certainly wouldn't try to pass off Harlem or the lower east side of New York, for example, as delightful earthly paradises, to be sure, but basically most of the buildings in those districts are sound brick buildings with lighting, running water and sanitation facilities. Some may be 50 to 80 years old, but that's not terribly old for a well-built house. In fact, in some ways, workmanship and materials in those days were superior to what they are now. Some people prize those older buildings and restore them.
I walked through Harlem many, many times, back in the early 80's, and, after having heard so much about what a horrible place it was, I couldn't believe how many sturdy, handsome apartment buildings there are there.
Something that does tend to make a neighborhood look slummy is the proliferation of signs, posters, billboards, newspaper boxes and garbage that tends to accumulate on major streets like Broadway from 110th Street north. Meat markets and groceries have their windows full of trashy signs. Most of the businesses have ugly neon signs. Seats at bus stops are covered with ads. Sometimes drunks and beggars are loitering here and there. Derelicts break open trash bags looking for useful items. But the buildings are mostly in good shape, if one could only get rid of all the unsightly accretions.
The average American, unless he has been out of the country could nost possibly imagine the slums in places like Cairo, Egypt; Bangkok, Thailand; Lima, Peru; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There are terrible slums out on the countryside in Central America and Western China. Mexico too has dreadful slums, and there are some pretty squalid slums here in Asuncion, Paraguay.
Here's a picture of a Brazilian slum, which is called a "favela":
Here are some shacks built on a sand dune in Peru:
The worst slums of all may be in Cairo, but this picture hardly conveys the tremendous squalor:
Here are some Chinese slums:
Now take a look at a typical block in Harlem, the notorious "ghetto" in New York City, and tell me whether you'd rather live in a favela in Rio de Janeiro or in a tenement in Harlem:
About the author Thomas Keyes: I have written two books: A SOJOURN IN ASIA (non-fiction) and A TALE OF UNG (fiction), neither published so far.
I have studied languages for years and traveled extensively on five continents.
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