Brodwyn Fischer and Marco Garrido having a conversation

Brodwyn Fischer and Marco Garrido

What is a city? For two social scientists, looking beyond the urban centers of Europe and North America, that question has no easy answer.

Brodwyn Fischer is Professor of Latin American History and the College, and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies. Marco Garrido is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology. Through distinct lines of research, they’ve both found that the very effort to define and formalize urban life can often backfire and lead to unexpected social and political transformations.

Fischer is a historian of Brazil and Latin America whose research is focused the urban dynamics of inequality, law, race, poverty, and social movements. Fischer’s current work addresses some of the surprising  ways in which struggles for survival and social mobility have historically reinforced rather than disrupted larger inequalities within Brazilian society.

Garrido studies contention between the urban poor and middle class in Metro Manila, Philippines. A forthcoming book traces the processes linking segregation and populism.

Fischer and Garrido met recently to discuss their mutual interests, and we caught up with them to hear more about their research. Here are some excerpts from their conversation:


FISCHER: Cities are at the core of some of the most important modernizing narratives that shape how people think about history in the North Atlantic: the development of liberalism, the expanding rule of law, the growth of  capitalism, the evolution of political movements for greater equality. Cities are supposed to be the spaces where all of  that happens. When people talk about the urban ideal what they're talking about are cities that are mostly formalized — that is, places run mostly by formal institutions, on the basis of formal rights and rules, where issues of equality and inequality are mainly mediated by laws and markets. They are places, in general, that are relatively prosperous and “developed” along western lines. The problem with thinking of the urban that way is that most cities work differently, especially outside of the North Atlantic.

I see Marco’s work as connected with mine because we are each focusing on  urban forms that are significantly informal, and on the types of urbanism that are, in fact, most common across the globe. As we think about what urban studies are all about, as we think about how the University of Chicago ought to be conceiving and teaching urban studies, it’s important that scholars also focus on urban phenomena that play themselves out in ways that don’t fit our preconceived ideas of what a city is. I think your case in Manila is a great example.

GARRIDO: Urban sociology is particularly parochial, and I feel its limits keenly. For a long time, the paradigmatic city has been Chicago or perhaps LA. It’s important that we push the cities we study—Manila, Recife—into the center of discussion. This is the modal urban experience and it requires a particular set of analytical tools to make sense of. New ways of seeing the urban, new categories, new ways of thinking about the intersection between politics and urban space and poverty. Class relations look different! It’s been a challenge to talk about these cities in a way that's not misunderstood by people who don't know what they are like. Look, I’m interested in the relationship between the urban poor and the middle class in Manila. To even begin talking about that requires a lot of context. I’m not talking about workers and factory owners or about labor organizing. I’m talking about categorically unequal relationships that encompass feelings of mutual obligation as well as resentment and fear.

FISCHER: A lot of writing treats these cities as being disjunctive, dysfunctional, and somehow out of proper historical sequence. We are used to the trope that cities outside of the North Atlantic are uniquely problematic, and that their problems are caused by everything that is wrong with the contemporary world. That is why it is so important to think about these places historically. If you give these places a history, you take them out of the realm of emergency thinking. You come to understand the juxtaposition, say, of poor, self-built neighborhoods  and skyscrapers as more than a shocking image. That kind of inequality structures the city’s economic and political life, it's at the core of how this urban system has functioned over a very long period of time. Informal neighborhoods are vital to these cities, they resolve all kinds of tensions and problems and are  not  going to disappear without radical economic, institutional, and political restructuring. To eliminate the worst consequences of urban informality, you need to think about how it became vital to the urban system in the first place, and change things that run much deeper than the construction norms or property titles. I think all of the work that I've done is focused in one way or another on that problem.


GARRIDO: I focus on the relationship between the urban poor and middle class and how it's changed over the last 40 years. I write about the proliferation of what I call—with a very bold asterisk—"slum areas" and, again with an asterisk, middle class residential enclaves. I use the word slum deliberately because it connotes stigma. Stigma is quite an important part of the story because it gets at how the middle class react to slum residents. Broadly, my claim is that economic restructuring in the 1980s has led to a spatial configuration I call interspersion. I mean that there’s a mix of classed spaces, slums and enclaves, throughout the city. This configuration affects class interaction. Enclave residents feel besieged and do their best to keep out the urban poor. Slum residents resent being excluded, especially if it means that they no longer have access to a particular throughway or resource within the enclave. So economic restructuring has led to urban fragmentation in the form of interspersion, and interspersion to a stronger sense of class difference, the sense that the people who live in these enclaves (they’re called “villagers" in Manila) and the people who live in the slums are different kinds of people entirely. Now there's a lot of interaction across these spaces, but it’s largely unequal interaction. It’s not always about discrimination. Enclave residents also seek to help slum the residents across the street or down the road, but these interactions are also unequal. Thus there’s an intensification of class feeling on both sides.

FISCHER: In the case of Latin America the wave of urbanization was earlier. That's part of why Latin America had so much international attention during the Cold War because it was one of the first places with really rapid rural to urban migration that was not driven primarily by  industrial or commercial growth but rather  by demand for the city iself from people that don't have an established place in a country’s formal economic and political structure. How does a poor city make room for enormous numbers of rural migrants who want the political and economic benefits of capitalism and  liberalism that they could not access in the countryside? And especially when a good part of the urban elite does not see those migrants as deserving of full equality? One solution is widespread, tolerated informality: you create a system of legal requirements that most people can’t afford to meet, and leave the outsiders to fend for their needs outside the boundaries of formal law. Elites tolerate that informality, and often portray that toleration as a form of charity. But they also benefit from it with cheaper labor, cheaper vote buying, easier political dominance. Informality is fundamentally a system of power that makes vulnerability and sub-citizenship the condition of poor people’s presence in the city.   In that way, inequality is very effectively perpetuated over time. It's not like somebody sat down and came up with this evil plot, but this is the way that informality works historically within these cities and it's why it's so durable.


FISCHER: The problem of the city and the problem of democracy are just interlocked from the beginning, I think. In much of what I've researched and written, the problem of informality is a way of solving what many powerful people in very unequal societies understand as the challenge  of egalitarian liberalism. The majority of many Latin American urban populations lived in self built housing before 1900. But shacks were suddenly defined as illegal and  problematic exactly at the time that you begin to see the possibility of equal citizenship emerge. Brazilian slavery ended in 1888, and within about 20 years the central social problem of the Brazilian city became the favela. And who lived in the favela? Well, a good many were the same people that used to be enslaved. There was this real difficulty with accepting the notion that such people should be urban citizens  in the same way that whiter and wealthier people were, even though that was what egalitarian liberalism required  One of the ways that problem was solved was to say, "Well, you can live here, but in a state of informality." It's similar to what we have said for decades  in the United States to people who come to this country undocumented. "Well, we're not going throw you out, because that would be too cruel, and you work for cheap, so that's convenient for us. But we're not going to give you citizenship or equality. We're going to keep you in this realm of informality." It's the same kind of idea within the cities I study.

The social power of everyday objects

In her latest book, Patina: A Profane Archaeology (University of Chicago Press, 2016), Shannon Lee Dawdy (Anthropology) examines what was lost and found through the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Tracking the rich history and unique physicality of New Orleans, she explains how it came to adopt the nickname “the antique city.” A study of the power of everyday objects, Patina demonstrates how sharing in the care of a historic landscape can unite a city’s population despite extreme divisions of class and race.

GARRIDO: When I did my fieldwork back in 2010, I was struck by how disenchanted the middle class had become with democracy. And it wasn’t just the middle class but also the urban poor, even though the substance of their grievances was different. For the urban poor, it’s “rich people keep milking the state to get richer” and “no one pays attention to us.” For the middle class, it's, "squatters are taking over the city. Nobody's stopping them from building in my backyard. We need stronger enforcement.” The common ground is that "this democracy thing isn’t really working out." In the late 1980s, after the Marcos dictatorship had been overthrown, democracy was celebrated. People looked to the United States as a model of "this is how we want to be run.” That’s much less so now. For the first time, people are talking nostalgically about the Marcos period. They’ll tell me, "well, at least there was order.” And so I can't help but think that somebody like Duterte, despite all the extra-judicial killings associated with his administration, remains popular because there’s a constituency for order above all else. So there’s a link between the city and politics, between the city and democracy. It’s important to make that link.

FISCHER: I think that urban informalities have a real role in the disenchantment with democracy, which is something that Brazilians are also experiencing. In most places with a lot of informality, there's not a sense that democracy has made institutions more responsive and more fair. If you're going have a democratic society, you have to accept as a kind of ethos, shared among the whole society, that institutions can fairly mediate social conflict and allocate resources, your trust has to be in institutions. That is actually what some of the best movements in Brazilian politics were all about after the end of the military dictatorship ended in the 1980s. The idea was that real, institutional democracy was in and of itself a form of revolutionary change. But that ideal has been completely undermined in Brazil, not just by the corruption and violence that we hear so much about, but also by the failure of institutions to provide quick, comprehensive, viable solutions to the problems of poverty and inequality. Urban peripheries and favelas have become poster children for those shortcomings.


Criminal Governance as a Threat to State Authority

Benjamin Lessing (Political Science) studies "criminal conflict"—organized armed violence involving non-state actors who, unlike revolutionary insurgents, are not trying to topple the state. His last book, Making Peace in Drug Wars: Crackdowns and Cartels in Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2018), explained why some state crackdowns trigger and exacerbate cartel-state conflict, while others curb it. A new project confronts the emergence, from San Salvador to Chicago, of prison gangs that project power beyond prison walls in ways that pose a serious challenge to state authority and that call into question mass incarceration policies. With support from the Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR), Lessing will visit multiple field sites in Brazil to witness the ongoing expansion of sophisticated Brazilian prison gangs, and document the consequences for states that have come to depend on gangs to govern not only sprawling prison systems but under-served and violent urban peripheries.

FISCHER: For me, the informal city is  one in which relationships that are outside of formal laws and institutions are as important as the ones that are inside of formal laws and institutions. Informality is not illegality, it's not something that is criminal. It's just a way of doing perfectly normal things — living, working, shopping, forming families — without legal regulation or protection.   Informality is also usually very organized, with intricate rules that most people follow. But it is rarely a kind of utopian legal pluralism, there is a lot of hierarchy and exploitation and vulnerability and violence that comes with a lack of legal protection.

GARRIDO: Let’s think about it in terms of institutions. In Manila, people are feeling that institutions have eroded under democracy. That urban life has become more disorderly. And you know, what you said reminds me that a big part of the issue is how the middle class regards the informal city. From their point of view, it threatens the notion of private property. How do we deal with the fact that a substantial segment of the urban population is squatting? This is a problem that goes to the heart of what a city like Manila not just looks like but is. So I agree when you say that the problem of democracy is inextricably tied to the problem of the city. The very question of informality relates to the strength of institutions and, therefore, to questions of moral and political order.

FISCHER: The basic problem is that the rule of laws and institutions can only work if everyone in a society has the resources they would need to meet the laws’ basic requirements and have a decent life. I think that is why so many solutions that have targeted so called “slums” —which are the emblems of informality, but not it’s root cause — have failed. If   The most recent example is the financialization of low cost housing has spread across Latin America. There are a number of these programs, in Brazil there is one called Minha Casa, Minha Vida. We have a terrific anthropology Ph.D. student named Inés Escobar González who is studying the phenomenon in Mexico. The basic idea is that if you can give poor people access to credit and relatively low-cost housing, you will eliminate slums and informality. The government usually organizes these programs, but most of the capital and construction are private. It sounds good in theory. But all of the incentives lead companies to built very low-quality structures in extremely undesirable locations. This means that they solve the problem they are specifically required to solve — they provide a greater supply of credit and low cost housing — but they don’t pay attention to a whole range of other dilemmas that urban informality has traditionally resolved pretty effectively. Most very poor people still don’t have steady enough incomes to make monthly payments or pay utility bills. They need the social networks of the so called slums, which resolve problems like childcare, unemployment, or domestic abuse. They don’t have time or money for long commutes, and their self built homes are often sturdier and more private than the developments. It just doesn’t make sense to leave a “slum” for something worse, just for the promise of a property title. As a result, there are acres and acres of housing projects that in the middle of nowhere, without good transportation or infrastructure or anything, that are mostly empty or abandoned.

GARRIDO: It’s too far away.

FISCHER: Most people want to live in the actual city. They might sign a contract and pay for a while, either as an investment or because they hope it will be a better life. But then they get behind on payments, or refuse to pay because the place is shoddy. Or they just move out. Or they flip the place before they are legally allowed to, which begins a new cycle of informality. Of course this is not the whole story, there are some places where these programs have worked well. But in the worst case scenario you end up with half-empty, deteriorating exburbs that are very alienating for their residents. That illustrates how difficult it can be for liberal, market based solutions to do a better job than informality itself does in easing the impossible contradictions of poor people’s lives.

GARRIDO: Yes. That's a good way to put it. You're seeing the same thing in Manila, with the exception that it's the lower middle class or even the middle class that buy these houses. And it's because they have cars and so they can commute to the city. Whereas it's the job that matters for the urban poor and so proximity's crucial. You can't spend half your salary on taking the bus. You have to live near where the job is, and the jobs are around the central business districts. But you can’t afford to live there. And so even if you can afford the nice house along the outskirts, you’re not going to take it.


GARRIDO: I'm excited by the prospect of thinking about cities in terms of a new, more global framework. I’m looking forward to clearing the space to forge such a framework. It doesn’t have to be created out of scratch. We just need to bring people together who are already working on these cities in the Global South and get them to talk about common ways of thinking about these cities. I'm glad to have made a connection with Brodie, and I am excited about developing ways of seeing cities on the basis of Manila that can also apply to Chicago. I talk about how segregation is different in Manila, how it's not concentrated in one area and how it's not about social isolation but about unequal interaction. Let’s use that lens to rethink how we understand segregation in Chicago. It's traditionally studied in terms of concentration and isolation, but there's also a good deal of unequal interaction taking place. There’s a case to be made that the proximity of unequal neighborhoods—Hyde Park next to Woodlawn—leads to worse relationships, not always better ones. We see it in Manila. Aspects of the Manila case may be present but more obscure in a place like Chicago. So let’s use Manila to help us better grasp similar dynamics in Chicago.

FISCHER: I share your optimism. There are so many people, and particularly people who actually live outside of the North Atlantic, who are starting to think in very sophisticated ways about how you create a set of words and concepts and references that make it possible to talk comparatively about what this kind of city is and also about how it's present even in the global north — once historians start looking into it, they realize that informality is as much an integral part of North Atlantic cities’ development as it is in the kinds of places that we look at.

But the question is, how do we get people at a university like UChicago, where so many of the North Atlantic urban paradigms were developed, excited about  understanding  cities differently, in ways that take into account the realities of urban life in the rest of the world?  Informality poses a particular challenge, because it is always present but especially hard to grasp or measure. It’s a complex thing to describe the ways  that cities  run, on the basis of private power and relational networks that are by their nature below the surface. In order to make sense of it, we need people to think more deeply about these issues in all kinds of geographic contexts, and we need new urban analytical methods and policy initiatives  — and perhaps especially those that depend on the reliability of big data and the hegemony of institutions — to overcome their blind spots.