The Social Architecture of Caracas

One of the most noticeable attributes of the city of Caracas is the contrast between social landscapes. Even the highway that was until recently the main route between the airport and Caracas gave the traveller a distant view of the barrios, the Do- It-Yourself neighborhoods , labyrinths of houses piled on top of eachother, built into the hills surrounding the city. Now, with the closing of the bridge on that main highway, the new route, La Carretera Vieja, the old highway, actually, rumor has it, a route first constructed by the Spanish 400 years ago, travellers now have an even more impressive entrance to the city. After a winding climb into the mountains, busses and taxis descend precipitously into the heart of Catia , the largest barrio in Caracas and, Ben says, the largest barrio/favela/slum in Latin America. Since the road has only two-lanes, and can often only accomodate one bus at a time on the hairpin turns, traffic has been backed up for hours.

From the bus, we watched motorcycles dash suicidally between the busses and taxis as we inched painfully along at 5 mph towards the lights of the city. We left the airport in the afternoon of January 19, but it was dark by the time we could see the lights of the city. Ben Dangl had described the barrios to me, so I could imagine them as we looked down into a valley of irregularly scattered lights. The pilot who was sitting next to us on the bus pointed out the window saying "every light you see there is a house." As we arrived in the barrio, the houses piled haphazardly on both sides of us had poured their inhabitants down into the street where they were gathered on sidewalks and stoops, talking, drinking, eating popcorn from the street vendors. The infamously dangerous barrios seemed more warm than threatening.

This morning, January 25, we met up with Ben Depuy, a Haitian journalist who will speak on our panel tomorrow. He said that the first time he came to Caracas, he also arrived in the night , and, having no idea what the city looked like, he looked out on the constellated lights of the barrios and thought how beautiful the city was. He arrived at the Hilton in the center of the city, where Aristide was staying in exile, and his stay was concentrated there. It was only when he left in the daylight that he realized what he had missed in the dark. "At least Haiti has the advantage of being flat, and you can’t see the slums" he said. "Advantage or disadvantage?" I asked him.

By day, the city presents itself in blatantly contrasting patterns: shiny skyscrapers frame views of the barrios, the red brick and concrete houses clinging to the hills like mushrooms. On our first day in the city, we visitied the revolutionary posterchild barrio, El 23 de Enero, or January 23. Our host, Gustavo Borges took us from a main road "inside" one of the barrios, and there truly was an "inside," we climbed up a thin staircase into a narrow street and were suddenly in the arquitecture of a different city. Though the barrio is built into a hill, this particular street was part of a maze that offered no view of the rest of the city from its alleys between block towers of houses.

In the five days that I have been here, we have walked all over the center of the city, and visited several barrios. Wherever we have been, we have been treated with kindness and welcome by pro and anti Chavez Venezuelans alike. Furthermore, in the barrios and the center, Venezuelans have gone out of their way to take care of us. The people we meet take us to and from the bus stop or subway entrances, telling us how dangerous the city is, telling the bus driver to " leave the gringos in the Parque Inca, please," telling us that we are safe with friends, making sure that they have sent us safely back towards our hotel in the upscale part of town, where the gringos can walk in the plaza at night without being mugged .

Maybe Caracas is blessed by the fact that it has to look itself in the face every day, that it’s inequalities can’t be hidden, that it can’t ignore the blatant visual juxtaposition of its social arquitectures, that by day and by night its citizens and visitors have to come face to face with the visual textures of the haves and have-nots, whose borders bleed together to create the city as a whole.