For more than a decade, the Torre David skyscraper — a 45-story carcass of unfinished cement, steel and glass — has loomed over the city.
Inside, more than 4,400 people call the building — the Venezuelan capital’s third-tallest — home. Outsiders call it the world’s tallest squat, a vertical slum.
Authorities begin relocating the building’s residents to public housing outside the capital this week. If they complete the task, it would bring an end one of the most potent symbols of the administration’s populism: a onetime luxury skyscraper that had become a labyrinthine village of dwellings and shops. It had basketball courts and its own evangelical prayer meetings.
On Wednesday, Ernesto Villegas, the government minister charged with Caracas’ redevelopment, was touring the site for the second day. He said the residents’ reaction to relocation was “absolutely positive” and that 160 families would be moved by the end of the week.
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He also denied reports that the eviction comes after Chinese developers had purchased the site — rumors bolstered by the recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the signing of 38 commercial agreements, including a $4 billion loan.
Villegas said the building needs to be emptied and thoroughly examined to determine whether it is still structurally sound after residents had used bricks and cinder blocks to create homes in the cavernous space.
“If someone very powerful, economically speaking, wanted to buy something from Venezuela it would be — what do I know? — an oil field, something attractive,” Villegas said of the reports of Chinese interest. “But a tower that no one knows how much it’s going to cost to repair or even if it can be repaired? It doesn’t make any sense.”
The real name of the building (actually, three towers) is Confinanzas, but it got its nickname from its chief financier, David Brillembourg, who died in 1993.
Construction of the award-winning design began in 1990, and there were hopes that the office block, luxury hotel and convention center would revitalize the city. There was a helipad for the banking executives who would enjoy commanding views of downtown Caracas. But work came to a halt in 1994 when a financial crisis swept the nation. The empty building — about 60 percent complete — became the haunt of vagrants and vandals.
The community’s real “birth,” however, came in 2007 when an ex-convict turned evangelical minister led an occupation of the building. The government either encouraged or turned a blind eye as about 2,000 squatters settled in.
Gladys Flores, 46, is a mother of five who moved into the building during that initial wave and became the de facto mayor of the 15th floor. She said she had come, like the others, in the hope of starting a new life in the city center, close to jobs.
The residents have put sweat and labor into the building, painting and furnishing their homes, she said.
“We came here when the building was abandoned,” she said. “We gained a sense of belonging, bringing life to the tower.”
While some residents have put money and work into their homes, complete with ceramic tiles and modern furnishings, others were sprawled on wet floors with old bedsheets for walls.
Like Torre David, hundreds of buildings in Caracas have been occupied by squatters, often with government consent. When flooding in 2010 left tens of thousands homeless, the administration put many victims in hotels, garages and construction sites.
Close to Torre David is the Sambil shopping center. What was intended to be an upscale mall was turned into a temporary emergency shelter in 2010. Four years later, it is still being occupied. However, Villegas says that Sambil, too, will be cleared in the coming months.
For government supporters, Torre David is a symbol of the 21st Century Socialism promoted by the late President Hugo Chávez, who preached social welfare over corporate interests. To others, it is an example of government mismanagement and dysfunction — one that let prime real estate become a ghetto.
“Imagine letting a luxury construction be invaded,” said María Matilde Requena, an architect and the president of the Juan Manuel Cagigal foundation of the College of Engineers. “This is an example of the debacle this administration has been and their lack of respect for investors.”
While Torre David has been sold abroad as a solution for the city’s homeless population, the reality is more complicated, she said. Requena and others said the building was run by pro-government gangs who charge residents to live in the space.
Moraima Augustina, 47, a bookseller who works less than a block from the site, called the tower “a den of thieves.” She says rumors of crime and drug dealing abound, and she points to constant police raids of the tower looking for kidnappers and their victims.
“It’s been horrible for the neighborhood,” she said. “They occupied the building and brought the crime with them.”
Residents of the tower, however, say it is practically its own city — and, like all cities, it has some bad apples.
“We’re an organized vertical community with the same social distortions that would occur anywhere else, and we try to control them,” said Flores from the 15th floor. “We’ve tried to improve not just the infrastructure but people’s lives.”
Over the years, the tower has become a celebrity in its own right. It has been the subject of hundreds of photo spreads and video shoots. Last year, in the television series Homeland, the protagonist, Nicholas Brody, took refuge in the tower depicted as being full of criminals, prostitutes and drug dealers. In 2012, an installation at the Venice Architecture Biennale about the Torre David won the Golden Lion for best project.
But for many of the residents, the building is simply home. And even as they say they are grateful for the new public housing, they are reluctant to say goodbye.
Maria Rangel, 43, moved into Torre David four years ago with her two children after she was forced out of her apartment by the rising rent. She lives on the 27th floor, and said she had grown accustomed to climbing up to her living space on foot.
“When you create something with your own hands, you love it more,” she said, recalling how she carried cement, bricks and materials up the stairwell. “For me, really, I don’t want to leave.”