Tower of David is the World’s Tallest Slum

For eight years it stood, 45 stories of skewed symbolism casting long shadows over Venezuela’s capital city of Caracas.

The skyscraper, known to all now by the popular moniker Tower of David (or Torre de David by locals), started being built in 1990 by a group of investors lead by David Brillembourg.  Venezuela was in the midst of a financial boom, and Brillembourg intended for the building, then known as the Centro Financiero Confinanzas, to be the new, shiny centrepiece of Venezuela’s thriving success on the global trade markets.

Devil of a view (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

By 1993, it was beginning to be a very different outlook for the Centro and the Venezuelan economy.  Brillembourg died suddenly, and without him the steam behind the construction of the building all but ran out.  The following year, Venezuelans found themselves buried neck-deep in a devastating financial crisis, the worst the country had ever seen.  The Venezuelan government stepped in, and as a result the building sat unfinished.

What was intended to be seen as a pillar of economic strength began a slow and depressing decay, becoming a concrete and glass behemoth that loomed over the entire capital city.

A resident of Torre David pumps iron on the 30th floor of the skyscraper. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

Enter then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.  In 2007, when Venezuela found itself yet again dealing with another major crisis (this one centred around the collapsing housing market that left thousands without a roof over their heads), Chavez gave a government-backed thumbs up for homeless residents to start squatting in any of the 150 abandoned buildings scattered around Caracas as a temporary relief measure.  From that presidential decree the Tower of David was born.

The Tower became home to approximately 1200 families, and anywhere from 3000 to 5000 people.  The building itself was a structural mess, with construction never being finished in the first place and over a decade’s worth of damage being done by both weather and people.  Of the 45 floors, the first 28 were the closest to being completed, and that is where the majority of new residents set up camp.  Even before the squatters officially moved in the Tower already had a sketchy reputation city-wide for being a home to violence and drug use, and that reputation ballooned as the building’s population grew.

The lobby of Tower of David (Image by Iwan Baan)

Over time, residents began to create a system of self-government that allowed them to maintain some semblance of order.  There were missteps in the early years of the Tower, including a mob-like presence that was rumoured to be forcing new tenants to pay up to $4000 for a place to build a shelter.

Shops eventually began to open in the Tower to service the residents’ needs, and people willingly paid a monthly $32 fee to help cover 24 hour security watches.  You still had to be careful where you went inside, since it was common to see motorcycles zipping up and down ramps that extended up just past the 20th floor.

And since some of the exteriors were never finished, reports of tenants (including children) falling to their death from the Tower were common.  Residents did their best to address the unfinished areas of the Tower, building walls where needed in an attempt to make things safer.  They also installed electrical, plumbing, and water systems, however crude they may have been.

The tower has several shops and grocery stores.
The tower has several shops and grocery stores (Image by Iwan Baan)

In 2014, facing pressure from local authorities and numerous politicians, current Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro announced the impending eviction of everyone who called the Tower of David home.

Citing concerns because of the declining structural stability of the building and frequent police raids on the property, Maduro ordered Tower residents to pack up what belongings they had and be bused to surrounding towns Cúa and Zamora City with the promise that every family would have a house of their own.

With that promise came no guarantee that the former Tower tenants would have a better life, and many of them continue to face the hardships and squalor associated with a life lived below the poverty line in Venezuela.

Check out this 3 minute documentary from the Telegraph on the Tower of David. This highrise slum was also made famous by the American TV Show Homeland. The Telegraph goes to the tower and learns that the violence depicted in the TV show is rare at the real-life Tower of David.