Slum in the sky

Slum in the sky

It boasts a helicopter landing pad, glorious views of the Avila mountain range, and large balconies for weekend barbecues.

It even showed up as backdrop to an episode of US TV drama Homeland, with on-the-run terrorist-suspect character Nicholas Brody held there.

Yet this 45-storey skyscraper in the centre of Venezuela's capital Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: It is a slum, probably the tallest in the world.

Dubbed the Tower of David, it was intended to be a shining new financial centre, but it was abandoned around 1994 after the death of its developer, financier and horse-breeder David Brillembourg, and a massive run on Venezuela's banking sector.

Squatters seized the huge concrete skeleton in 2007 and then-President Hugo Chavez's socialist government turned a blind eye.

Today, about 3,000 people call the tower their home.

Though many Caracas residents view it as a den of thieves and a symbol of rampant disrespect for property, residents call the Tower of David a safe haven that rescued them from the capital's crime-ridden slums.

For now, it appears to have escaped the violence and turf warfare that followed other building takeovers in Caracas over the last decade.

Communal corridors are freshly-polished and rules are posted everywhere. Anyone who breaks the rules is punished with extra "social work" decided by a cooperative and floor delegates who make up a mini-government.

Work was sufficiently advanced by the time the tower was abandoned for the first 28 floors to be habitable, though the squatters have had to brick up dangerous open spaces, and put in their own basic plumbing, electrical and water systems.

Families pay a 200 bolivar (S$36) monthly "condominium" fee, which helps fund 24-hour security patrols.

'SAFER INSIDE THAN OUT'

"There is far more order and far less crime in here than out there," said 27th-storey resident Thais Ruiz, 36.

Mrs Ruiz abandoned her shack in the violent Petare slum of east Caracas in 2010 to build a spacious four-bedroom apartment in the tower. She lives there with her husband and five children.

The family paid a small fee for a space that was supposed to have been a fancy corner office with an amazing vista, and at first, they lived in a tent.

But over the years, they have hauled bricks, furniture, water tanks and even barbecue equipment up 27 flights of stairs to build a home. It took years because there are no lifts.

She said: "We had to get out of Petare and the daily gang shoot-outs. Once, we found a dead body on our doorstep.

"Now, look, we can leave the door wide open," Mrs Ruiz added.

But the conditions can be dangerous.

A few years back, a young girl fell through a hole in the wall to her death and a drunk motorcyclist rode off an edge and killed himself.

Police have raided the building a number of times searching for kidnap victims, adding to its notoriety. But residents are not concerned.

On a 27th-floor terrace bathed in the setting sun, a group of men played dominoes on a recent evening.

"Who needs to go the Hilton?" one of the men said.

This article was published on April 7 in The New Paper.

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