When it comes to wealth, human cities have always been places of extremes. The rich are extremely rich, and the poor are extremely poor. Interestingly enough, this divide has often been illustrated based on height: rich people at the top of the tall skyscrapers in their expensive condos with amazing views, poor people stalking the dirty, dangerous streets down below. Of course, the reality is more complex than that – the more expensive apartments actually tend to be near the bottom of the buildings – yet it serves as a useful literary symbol of poverty in urban environments.
But once, there was a place that defied this idea. In Caracas, Venezuela, there was a time when the poorest members of society were situated at the top of the skyscraper. Or “skyscraper”, as we will see.
The Tower of David
In 1990, a tower began construction in downtown Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. It was named the “Centro Financiero Confinanzas”, which translates to “Financial Center Confinanzas”. Informally, the structure was called “The Tower of David”, named after its main investor, David Brillembourg, a Venezuelan tycoon. The building itself is actually a complex of six structures – the lobby and conference rooms, two towers A and B, Edificios K and Z, which literally means “Buildings K and Z”, and a 12-floor parking garage.
By all accounts, this tower was intended to be a glorious display of material wealth, meant to serve the world of high business; Tower A even has a helipad on it to allow important individuals to skip any downtown traffic. Brillembourg envisioned the tower as the headquarters for his bank. But, as you probably guessed by the title of the video, that isn’t what happened.
David Brillembourg didn’t live to see the tower completed, as he died in 1993. A year later, Venezuela was hit by a massive banking crisis. 17 of the 49 commercial banks in Venezuela failed, accounting for about 53% of assets in the Venezuelan financial system. In a prelude to what would come later, the Venezuelan government took control of the failing banks, as well as the unfinished tower. After the banking crisis, work never resumed on construction, and it has remained in its half-finished state ever since.
In 1998, four years after the government took over the structure, a man by the name of Hugo Chavez was elected president of the country, and he began implementing a series of populist economic reforms often referred to as socialist. One of these policies involved expropriations, also known as “nationalization”, of privately owned land. Now, nationalization terrifies businesses, and this policy had the knock-on effect of causing all private home construction to stop virtually overnight, leaving the government with the task of building housing for its residents. Chavez didn’t mind this; in fact, it was partly what he wanted. Unfortunately, the government couldn’t build houses fast enough, and soon Venezuela was in the grips of a full-blown housing shortage. In response to this, residents who needed a place to live began to turn towards an unlikely place: the half-built Tower of David.
At first, living in an unfinished skyscraper seems like madness. The tower was a skeleton of a functioning structure. It had no electricity or running water, it was full of garbage and rubble, and most importantly, it had no safety precautions whatsoever. Some staircases were simply free-standing with no walls or guardrails, a problem shared by many of the balconies. This place was a safety inspector’s nightmare.
Humans, however, are adaptable, and they made this place their home like any other. Of the 45 floors on the tower, 28 were inhabited, and the population of the tower varied over the years from 2,000 people all the way up to 5,000. These were not barren lives like one might expect – these were people who worked in the surrounding neighborhoods, brought their kids to the ground floor to make sure they caught the school bus, and everything else you’d expect from someone not living in an unfinished skyscraper. Some of the residents living in the tower were educated professionals or civil servants, well-off individuals who nevertheless made their home here. The tower even had its own businesses, run locally by its residents. There were grocery stores, beauty salons, and even an unlicensed dentist. Residents improved the utilities, finding ways to get electricity to some parts of the tower. They beautified the residences, turning hovels into homes. Some better-off residents managed to completely renovate their rooms in the tower and turn them into what were practically luxury apartments – jacuzzis, marble tops and walls, and fresh paint. Some residents owned cars, which they kept in the conveniently located parking garage.
Even the organization of the tower was beyond what one might expect. Living in the tower required families to follow rules. These were your standard neighborhood ordinances, like keeping the area clean, noise regulations, etc. Each inhabited floor had an individual in charge of it, with the responsibility to ensure that all the residents behaved. There was an informal property tax that went to the heads of the community, who would then put the money back into improving the tower – buying anything that was needed, paying cleaners, and other things. One resident remarked in a documentary, “I think this tower is better organized than the country”.
This person had a point. The residents of the Tower of David took something industrial and ugly and made it something resembling a neighborhood. They even had leaders and representatives that they used to negotiate with companies and government organizations on behalf of the entire community, including when the government invariably ordered them to move out.
Village Ghetto Land
For obvious reasons, the Venezuelan government was uneasy with thousands of people living in an unfinished building with little safety regulations. They also, however, acknowledged that the residents of the community had built lives in the tower and had invested a great deal of personal effort and resources into making it a better place to live for everyone. With that in mind, and after negotiations with community leaders, the government announced in 2014 that it would create new housing for all the residents in Cúa, a city one hour south of Caracas. Though many were sad that they would be saying goodbye to the place they had made their lives in, they all understood that they wouldn’t have been able to stay there forever and that, ultimately, it was unsafe. The moving out took place three floors at a time until, in June of 2015, the last residents left, and the Tower of David was once again empty.
Since its residents were forced to vacate it, the tower has remained in its unfinished state, and its future is uncertain. There was a brief period where it seemed like Chinese banks might be interested in buying the tower and completing it for its original use, but that fell through in 2016. The Venezuelan government has been in a self-inflicted economic and political crisis for the last few years, and as such is in no position to address the issue at the moment. As a final nail in the coffin, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck Caracas in August 2018, causing the top five floors of the tower to tilt a full 25 degrees off its axis. It seems that moving the residents out was a prescient move. Though it remains empty and will most likely collapse or be demolished at some point, the fond memories will, at least, remain unblemished by catastrophe. And though it may still be named after the tycoon who first began building it, the legacy of the Tower of David will, in a way, always belong to the people who built something else with it.