Urban Space I first went to live and work in the Dominican Republic in 1989. I remained three years and have been returning for intervals of up to 9 months ever since. The barrio of La Cienaga has been my sometime-home and the site of both my MPhil and DPhil thesis research.
If you cross the suspension bridges, which span the eastern and western halves of the Dominican capital, the barrio is clearly visible below. 40,000 people live within a dense patchwork of rusting tin and open sewers, which stretch as far as the eye can see.
It is estimated that one and half billion people live in the world’s cities, of whom a quarter are living in poverty. Every city has its La Cienaga, places where few choose to live, places where the statistics, as well as the ground, are slippery.
The house where I stay with Amparo is low-down near the river, pressing up on one side against the canada [drainage canal] of Juan Bosco. On the other side our neighbours are less than an arm’s width away. It is a home of patchwork pink zinc with a lumpy earth floor. A door opens onto a latrine and a tap. Inside cardboard partitions separate off ‘rooms’ for Amparo and her husband, Maria Elena, their nineteen year old daughter, and her younger twin brothers.
Maria Elena cleared off one of her hooks and selection of the clothesline that runs across her bed, a barrio wardrobe for my things. I share her bed and her tiny space. Her day starts at 5.00 am: she is collected in a mini bus from the road at the top of the barrio to do a stint at the Hush Puppy factory in the north of the city. At midday she returns to the east of the city to go school. Her school shift lasts until 8.00 pm when her homework starts. She is determined to go to university. It is usually about 1.00 am by the time we crawl under her mosquito net, top and tail in her narrow bed.
There are holes in the roof through which I can see the stars. More often it is the rain, which drumming down on the zinc, drips through the holes; cold drops around your neck. It is at night that I feel the weight of this place. The barrio eventually falls still and in the silence I am more conscious than ever of the dense humanity that surrounds me: the rhythms of many breathings, babies who cry. There is the noise of the odd gunshot. Our house is wired with a crude alarm system meant to warn of any intruders. At last I sleep. And then with the dawn, the barrio wakes at once; a cacophony of conversation, merengue music, shouts, arguments, laughter. It seems an ancient process, an interminable round.
I first stayed in the barrio in 1993 to conduct research on women’s health and employment for my M.Phil. thesis The Death of the Clinic. In 1996 I returned to work towards my PhD thesis Zozobra: the tensions of urban space. My focus, determined by my earlier visits, was on the built spaces of the barrio and the city: the way in which design in the broadest context influences emotions and aspirations, and through this, social structures and economic outcomes.