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Skyscraper Slum’ Brings Venezuela’s Poor to New Heights

This 45-story skyscraper in Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: it is a slum, probably the tallest in the world.

It boasts a helicopter landing pad, glorious views of the Avila mountain range, and large balconies for weekend barbecues.

Yet this 45-story skyscraper in the center of Venezuela's capital Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: it is a slum, probably the tallest in the world.

Jorge Silva / X90026
Gabriel Rivas, 30, lifts weights on a balcony on the 28th floor of the "Tower of David" skyscraper in Caracas February 9, 2014. It boasts a helicopter landing pad, glorious views of the Avila mountain range, and large balconies for weekend barbecues. Yet a 45-storey skyscraper in the center of Venezuela's capital Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: it is a slum, probably the highest in the world. Dubbed the "Tower of David", the building was intended to be a shining new financial center but was abandoned around 1994 after the death of its developer - banker and horse-breeder David Brillembourg - and the collapse of the financial sector. Squatters invaded the huge concrete skeleton in 2007, then-president Hugo Chavez's socialist government turned a blind eye, and now about 3,000 people call the tower their home. Picture taken February 9, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: SOCIETY POVERTY BUSINESS) ATTENTION EDITORS: PICTURE 17 OF 35 FOR PACKAGE 'VENEZUELA'S SKYSCRAPER SLUM' TO FIND ALL IMAGES SEARCH 'TOWER OF DAVID' Jorge Silva / X90026

Though many Caracas residents view it as a den of thieves and a symbol of rampant disrespect for property, residents call the "Tower of David" a safe haven that rescued them from the capital's crime-ridden slums.

It appears - at least for now - to have escaped the violence and turf warfare that followed similar building takeovers in Caracas over the last decade, often launched under the banner of the late Chavez's self-styled revolution.

Jorge Silva / X90026

Communal corridors are freshly-polished, rules and rotas are posted everywhere, and non-compliance is punished with extra "social work" decided by a cooperative and floor delegates who make up a mini-government.

"Without ethics or principles, all is irrational," reads one typically didactic poster in a public area.

Jorge Silva / X90026
Teenagers chat on the 10th floor of the "Tower of David" skyscraper in Caracas February 3, 2014. It boasts a helicopter landing pad, glorious views of the Avila mountain range, and large balconies for weekend barbecues. Yet a 45-storey skyscraper in the center of Venezuela's capital Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: it is a slum, probably the highest in the world. Dubbed the "Tower of David", the building was intended to be a shining new financial center but was abandoned around 1994 after the death of its developer - banker and horse-breeder David Brillembourg - and the collapse of the financial sector. Squatters invaded the huge concrete skeleton in 2007, then-president Hugo Chavez's socialist government turned a blind eye, and now about 3,000 people call the tower their home. Picture taken February 3, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: BUSINESS SOCIETY POVERTY) Teenagers chat on the 10th floor of the "Tower of David" skyscraper in Caracas Jorge Silva / X90026

"There is far more order and far less crime in here than out there," says 27th-floor resident Thais Ruiz, 36, exuding contentment from an armchair as her kids play and her husband fulfils the family's once-a-week corridor sweeping duty.

Like many inhabitants, Ruiz abandoned her shack in the violent Petare slum of east Caracas in 2010 to build a spacious four-bedroom apartment in the tower where she lives with her husband and five children.

The family paid a small fee for a space that was supposed to have been a fancy corner office with an amazing vista, and at first lived in a tent. But over the years, given the absence of elevators, they hauled bricks, furniture, water tanks - and even barbecue equipment - up 27 flights of stairs to build a home.

"I never lived in an apartment before. We're so comfortable now," she says. "We had to get out of Petare and the daily gang shootouts. Once we found a dead body on our doorstep. Now look, we can leave the door wide open."

Jorge Silva / X90026
Men salvage metal on the 30th floor of the "Tower of David" skyscraper in Caracas February 3, 2014. It boasts a helicopter landing pad, glorious views of the Avila mountain range, and large balconies for weekend barbecues. Yet a 45-storey skyscraper in the center of Venezuela's capital Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: it is a slum, probably the highest in the world. Dubbed the "Tower of David", the building was intended to be a shining new financial center but was abandoned around 1994 after the death of its developer - banker and horse-breeder David Brillembourg - and the collapse of the financial sector. Squatters invaded the huge concrete skeleton in 2007, then-president Hugo Chavez's socialist government turned a blind eye, and now about 3,000 people call the tower their home. Picture taken February 3, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY POVERTY) ATTENTION EDITORS: PICTURE 20 OF 35 FOR PACKAGE 'VENEZUELA'S SKYSCRAPER SLUM' TO FIND ALL IMAGES SEARCH 'TOWER OF DAVID' Jorge Silva / X90026

But it's the unique quality of "Tower of David", whose intended name was the "Confinanzas Financial Center" before the group went under, that has won it attention beyond Venezuela.

Documentaries and analyses of it have showed up at trendy art festivals around the world: one exhibition about the tower won a prize at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Jorge Silva / X90026

The sometimes romantic view of the tower tends to overlook criminal activity associated with "invasions," which were common long before Chavez but proliferated early in his rule.

One woman dubbed "Commander Manuitt," a self-described pro-Chavez activist, helped lead a wave of invasions in Caracas in 2003. She was arrested in 2004 on charges of inciting violence, resisting authority, and illegally carrying firearms.

That year, a rival "invasion" leader who frequently clashed with Commander Manuitt was shot in a hit-man style murder.

Jorge Silva / X90026
A woman looks out of a window at her shop in a corridor inside the "Tower of David" skyscraper in Caracas February 6, 2014. It boasts a helicopter landing pad, glorious views of the Avila mountain range, and large balconies for weekend barbecues. Yet a 45-storey skyscraper in the center of Venezuela's capital Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: it is a slum, probably the highest in the world. Dubbed the "Tower of David", the building was intended to be a shining new financial center but was abandoned around 1994 after the death of its developer - banker and horse-breeder David Brillembourg - and the collapse of the financial sector. Squatters invaded the huge concrete skeleton in 2007, then-president Hugo Chavez's socialist government turned a blind eye, and now about 3,000 people call the tower their home. Picture taken February 6, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: BUSINESS SOCIETY POVERTY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) ATTENTION EDITORS: PICTURE 25 OF 35 FOR PACKAGE 'VENEZUELA'S SKYSCRAPER SLUM' TO FIND ALL IMAGES SEARCH 'TOWER OF DAVID' Jorge Silva / X90026
Men rest after salvaging metal on the 30th floor of the "Tower of David" skyscraper in Caracas February 3, 2014. It boasts a helicopter landing pad, glorious views of the Avila mountain range, and large balconies for weekend barbecues. Yet a 45-storey skyscraper in the center of Venezuela's capital Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: it is a slum, probably the highest in the world. Dubbed the "Tower of David", the building was intended to be a shining new financial center but was abandoned around 1994 after the death of its developer - banker and horse-breeder David Brillembourg - and the collapse of the financial sector. Squatters invaded the huge concrete skeleton in 2007, then-president Hugo Chavez's socialist government turned a blind eye, and now about 3,000 people call the tower their home. Picture taken February 3, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY POVERTY) ATTENTION EDITORS: PICTURE 22 OF 35 FOR PACKAGE 'VENEZUELA'S SKYSCRAPER SLUM' TO FIND ALL IMAGES SEARCH 'TOWER OF DAVID' Jorge Silva / X90026
Paola Medina, 29, packs as she prepare to leave her apartment after living in the "Tower of David" skyscraper for almost a year in Caracas March 25, 2014. It boasts a helicopter landing pad, glorious views of the Avila mountain range, and large balconies for weekend barbecues. Yet a 45-storey skyscraper in the center of Venezuela's capital Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: it is a slum, probably the highest in the world. Dubbed the "Tower of David", the building was intended to be a shining new financial center but was abandoned around 1994 after the death of its developer - banker and horse-breeder David Brillembourg - and the collapse of the financial sector. Squatters invaded the huge concrete skeleton in 2007, then-president Hugo Chavez's socialist government turned a blind eye, and now about 3,000 people call the tower their home. Picture taken March 25, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY POVERTY) ATTENTION EDITORS: PICTURE 33 OF 35 FOR PACKAGE 'VENEZUELA'S SKYSCRAPER SLUM' TO FIND ALL IMAGES SEARCH 'TOWER OF DAVID' Jorge Silva / X90026
The city is seen from the 44th floor of the "Tower of David" skyscraper in Caracas February 9, 2014. It boasts a helicopter landing pad, glorious views of the Avila mountain range, and large balconies for weekend barbecues. Yet a 45-storey skyscraper in the center of Venezuela's capital Caracas is no five-star hotel or swanky apartment block: it is a slum, probably the highest in the world. Dubbed the "Tower of David", the building was intended to be a shining new financial center but was abandoned around 1994 after the death of its developer - banker and horse-breeder David Brillembourg - and the collapse of the financial sector. Squatters invaded the huge concrete skeleton in 2007, then-president Hugo Chavez's socialist government turned a blind eye, and now about 3,000 people call the tower their home. Picture taken February 9, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: BUSINESS SOCIETY POVERTY CITYSCAPE) ATTENTION EDITORS: PICTURE 29 OF 35 FOR PACKAGE 'VENEZUELA'S SKYSCRAPER SLUM' TO FIND ALL IMAGES SEARCH 'TOWER OF DAVID' Jorge Silva / X90026