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  • Squatters, Space, and Belonging in the Underdeveloped City
  • Ashley Dawson (bio)

City air makes you free. This medieval German maxim referring to the city as a haven from the harsh laws of feudal vassalage might serve as an ironic epigraph for Patrick Chamoiseau's novel Texaco. Near the beginning of Chamoiseau's third novel, his narrator, the so-called Word Scratcher, writes that "to escape the night of slavery and colonialism, Martinique's black slaves and mulattoes will, one generation after another, abandon the plantations, the fields, and the hills to throw themselves into the conquest of the cities."1 In Texaco the powerful matriarch of a squatter camp, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, recounts the epic battles she and her ancestors fought to gain a home in the city. This struggle has helped shape urban space, creating a highly cosmopolitan but also extremely polarized social geography in the Martinican capital of Fort-de-France. The fragmented geography of urban space described in Chamoiseau's novel ensures that the freedom of the city will be alloyed with suffering, its cosmopolitanism shot through with inequality and unrest.

In The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm argues that the most convulsive social change of the turbulent century that had just closed was not what one might expect.2 It was not the revolution in Russia, or the two world wars, or the development of the atom bomb and the cold war, or the decolonization of the third world. No, for Hobsbawm the greatest change of the twentieth century was the death of the peasantry. In 1900, the vast majority of humanity lived in rural areas. Of course, the percentage of rural residents was significantly higher in the third world than in the industrialized core countries. Yet by the close of the century, the majority of human beings lived not in the countryside but in cities. This change has been particularly wrenching in the third world. There, policies implemented by international development agencies such as the World Bank have pushed poor subsistence farmers off their lands by the hundreds of millions and forced them into the derelict squatter camps that ring the megacities of the developing world. Every year, a staggering 20 to 30 million of the world's poor leave their villages and move to cities.3 The last century has, in other words, witnessed a process of accumulation by dispossession on an unprecedented scale.4

The powerful global cities of the developed world are an increasingly [End Page 17] anomalous embodiment of the urban realm and public space. According to the United Nations, cities in the developed world are fast disappearing from the list of the world's largest urban sites. For example, Lagos is projected to become the third-largest city in the world by 2010, after Tokyo and Mumbai. Such predictions suggest the inadequacy of recent attempts to theorize globalization by focusing exclusively on cities in the developed world.5 Urbanization has for the first time become the predominant experience in many underdeveloped nations of the global South, with massive attendant transformations in the predominantly agrarian character of these cultures. Although cities in the underdeveloped world do not in general appear in the global city literature, they share many of the characteristics of such cities, including cultural and ethnic heterogeneity, transnational flows of labor and capital, and uneven spatial and social development. Indeed, the cities created by colonial-era urban planning actually anticipate many of the characteristics ascribed to the supposedly novel global cities. And, with the increasing internationalization of capital since the 1960s, peripheral and semiperipheral cities have grown important as industrial centers engaged in production for export to markets in core countries.6 Like their counterparts in the North, the global cities of the South have also become increasingly connected with one another, transforming the exclusive connection with the imperial metropolis that characterized colonial culture into a series of lateral connections with other sites in an emerging transnational urban system of the South. With populations swelling above 20 million, the global cities of the South literally embody the future of humanity.

Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco does not focus on one of these megacities: Fort-de-France is no Mexico City...


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pp. 17-34
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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