CARACAS, Venezuela – In episode three of the third season of Showtime’s hit show Homeland, the main character, Nicholas Brody, is held hostage in Venezuela’s “Tower of David.” After being shot on the Colombian border, Brody is taken to the Tower, nursed back to health with heroin as his painkiller and kept hostage by the Tower’s leader, El Nino. Though this story line is fictional, its images and representations are uncannily parallel to the Tower’s reality.
Often described as the world’s tallest slum, the 45-story skyscraper known as The Tower of David has come to represent the ultimate failure of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s economic reform plan. Named after its creator, David Brillembourg, the Tower was originally designed as a high-end financial center and began construction in 1990. After Brillembourg’s death in 1993 and Venezuela’s devastating banking crisis in 1994, construction was halted at 60% complete.
The building remained vacant until the born-again former gang member, Alexander Daza, most commonly known as El Nino, led an invasion of the building in 2007. In the shadow of Venezuela’s chronic housing shortage, El Nino and 300 recently evicted squatters invaded the building and quickly organized a complex community structure, eventually developing a three-tiered management system. These tiers are divided into the health services, recreation and security departments.
Currently, around 2,500 people occupy the building, all living within the partially completed barriers of a Tower lacking basic amenities, such as an elevator, a sewage system, guardrails, some walls and windows. The families occupy 28 of the floors, each paying a monthly fee of 150 bolivares to help cover basic maintenance costs. The building supplies its inhabitants with illegally sourced electricity, makeshift plumbing, security guards and rationed, lorry-delivered water. Much like any other city, the Tower has corner shops, cybercafés and hair salons to serve its inhabitants.
Each inhabitant of the Tower of David is a registered resident, with one representative delegate on each floor assigned to attend to the residents’ issues. Issues that cannot be solved at the floor level are taken to a bi-weekly council meeting, led by El Nino, who serves as the evangelical pastor and leader of the Tower of David. El Nino also acts as the head of the Tower’s disciplinary board, which evicts serial offenders of Tower rules from their housing.
While residents of the Tower of David claim that the Tower is a strong example of self-determination and that its housing situation far surpasses that of most other informal living arrangements in the city, critics argue that the Tower is a hub of crime and serves as a stark example of massive government and civil society failure. Among a variety of opinions, the Tower of David still stands, 45 stories high, as a stark example of the human will to thrive in a chaotic world.
For an inside look of the Tower of David, check out global social news network Vocativ’s rare footage of residents and their living spaces.
– Tara Young
Sources: New Yorker, The Guardian, New York Times, New Yorker
Photo: Based on Nothing