Domestic Destruction: Violent Acts towards Self-Built Homes in Cairo and Los Angeles
This blog ‘Domestic Destruction’ on the violence around housing builds on the framings of violence in issue 40(3) Urban Violence and 37(1) Informal Urbanism, both guest-edited by our very own Editorial Board member, Yasser Elsheshtawy. Blog authors, University of Columbia Graduates Polina Stepanova (MArch) and Catherine George Weilein (MSc), present a striking and important study looking at Cairo and LA, which challenges the research and policy orthodoxies of how self-build homes are understood and foregrounds common forms of violence around them.
Domestic Destruction: Violent Acts towards Self-Built Homes in Cairo and Los Angeles
Such is President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s plan to make over Egypt’s capital, a neo-pharaonic campaign so ludicrous it would be dismissible if it didn’t actually involve the pillaging of Cairo as it has existed, in parts, for centuries, erasing whole swaths of the city’s urban heritage and ravaging everything in its path, from the living to the dead.
Yasmine El Rashidi, New York Review of Books (2021)
Politicians very loudly claimed that all displaced residents would be in stable permanent housing within a year. Echo Park Lake has become both the exemplar and blueprint of this kind of displacement.
Ananya Roy, Director of the Luskin Institute, UCLA
Self-built housing represents a unique typology of residential architecture. While many have been conditioned to think of self-built homes as outliers – an odd exception to those rented, mortgaged, and purchased – they are, in fact, not particularly rare. Many cultures not only have a centuries-old tradition of constructing their own homes, but it is often the main mode of dwelling production in those regions (Soliman, 2012). A prevailing misunderstanding is that citizens of developing countries are economically forced into self-building their homes, while democracies have grown beyond such an occurrence; one of the many detriments of the developed-developing dialectic. However, despite the hierarchical rhetoric, the phenomenon of the self-built home can be found globally across different contexts where governments enforce a top-down approach, ranging in visibility from apparent to imperceptible. Here we investigate two large, but very different cities which both showcase frequent incidents of self-built housing: Cairo and Los Angeles. While the two cities differ in terms of history, population, and governmental approach, both identify with the violence of home destruction and silenced voices.
In Cairo, building one’s own house is the principal mode of home formation. While this construction type is not unique to the Egyptian city – these structures exist in many other Arab countries and around the globe – the dominance and visibility of them here is, indeed, special. The income inequality plaguing the city, along with the insular wealth of the ruler’s family and friends, affords only a small percentage of Cairenes to live markedly lavish lifestyles. The rest of the residents either struggle to meet rent or, alternatively, construct their own shelter (figure 1). They design and build their own homes in whichever manner most properly suits them, building as they are financially able to, and expanding in unison with the expansion of their families. This construction of their own surroundings allows for a concomitant construction of personal identity. The unmatched autonomy allowed in this mode of home formation is a rare opportunity for the city dwellers. However, there are downsides to this freedom: many aspects of this living style are not ideal, with most variants of this typology being structurally unsound and lacking services as fundamental as water and sewage.
Image 1: A slum area of Cairo – many of the houses are clearly self-built.
While these self-built homes exist on a large scale, with many neighbourhoods comprised solely of this housing typology, they are technically illegal settlements. The Egyptian government’s approach in the handling of this illegality ranges anywhere from laissez-faire to dirigisme. Such inconsistency and erraticism stems from underlying interests – whether there is a potential financial or political gain involved in the eradication of the settlements.
Due to the illegal nature of the settlements, along with the unpredictability of the government’s dealing with them, residents’ homes may be torn down at any given moment without notice. This type of sudden home destruction occurs in other places besides Cairo. Albeit with differences, the self-built home can be found in many of Egypt’s neighbouring countries and beyond. They can be found, too, in the United States, especially in Los Angeles, where there is a large population of economically challenged individuals and a high volume of self-built shelters. While the self-built homes in Los Angeles differ from those in Cairo, they operate similarly in terms of their construction, location, illegality, confrontation, and identity-building. While Cairo’s self-built homes may often be easily compared to those of the same housing typology in Egypt’s surroundings, it is rare for them to be compared to those in a country that is as structurally different – in terms of economy, politics, society – as the United States. This is a innovative comparison precisely because of that. The seemingly wide schism between the two is arguably due to the semantics prescribed to the situations, rather than to an inherent diametric contrast. The differing journalistic treatments of the two situations result in skewed perceptions of the matter, with subjective jargon defining which body is the primary problem maker: the government or the individual.
The degree of the problem differs between the two cities, with Cairo’s metro population sitting at about 20.5 million and its self-built home residents at around 12 million. In Los Angeles, the metro population is about 13.2 million, with its respective self-housed population estimated to be 66,000. However, many Angelenos struggle to pay rent, with many large families crowding into small apartments or making similar sacrifices in order to have a roof over their heads. While fewer of these Americans resort building their own homes, there is still a large percentage of the population which – like to many Cairenes – cannot afford to live in the city in which they are residing.
The two settlements are understood to be mostly, if not entirely, illegal. As stated earlier, the self-built housing typology in Cairo has no legal standing. In Los Angeles, residing on public property is almost completely illegal (Municipal Code 41.18 Anti-camping). It is also illegal for unhoused peoples to dwell in privately owned property, unless specifically allowed to do so by the landowner. These laws are extremely convoluted and ever-changing, so what is legal one day could quickly be rendered illegal the next.
Maspero Triangle, Cairo
Ahmed Soliman in his article ‘The Egyptian Episode of Self-Build Housing’ published in Habitat International introduces the reader to the shocking poverty statistics: ‘Of the world’s 6.7 billion people, there are still 2.6 billion who live on less than $2 a day’ (Soliman, 2012). The slum population of Egypt has often had to engage in self-help by constructing their own homes in informal settlements, and Soliman argues that it is not a novel idea. Self-built structures have been around for thousands of years and, for a large portion of the population, erecting their shelter was often the only viable way to obtain one. Despite the apparent need for those of lower economic status to self-build, the Egyptian government has started shifting their views on the practices of self-built housing and using its power to evict inhabitants regardless of their will.
Cairo, one of the largest cities of the Middle East region, has been experiencing overcrowding for decades. An acute issue of overpopulation has driven many urban planners and government authority figures to develop the resettlement designs and to free space in the Cairo metropolitan area through demolition. The government strived to accomplish two goals in one go: follow Dubai’s lead in building a megacity as well as provide housing for the lower socioeconomic classes. However, the seemingly noble ambition has not yet been satisfied as the plan has gone sideways. In her article ‘Shelter as Capital: The City as Prison/The Housing Question in Egypt’, Sheetal Chhabria mentions the puzzling contrast that has emerged as a consequence of the authoritative effort: ‘Egypt has the largest number of empty homes on a per capita basis worldwide while at the same time having a significant proportion of its population sheltered under the threat of constant eviction’ (Chhabria, 2020). The authorities, in a chase after the Dubai futuristic aesthetic, have over the years prohibited building renovations in certain districts and have later catalysed active demolition of entire neighbourhoods. One of such unfortunate districts is Maspero Triangle that is now just a pile of debris, rubble, and post-destruction dust (El Rashidi, 2018).
Maspero Triangle has a long and rich history spanning many centuries. Despite always being owned by either the wealthy upper class or government authorities, it provided housing for their servants from the late 1800s (El Rashidi, 2018). When the land was sold in the middle of the twentieth century, the residents were guaranteed permission to stay in their apartments and to have stable rent prices. However, once the government took over the land in 1968, both the policies and those reassuring guarantees were ignored. Maspero Triangle eventually became one of the primary demolition sites in Cairo while the former residents were forcefully relocated to Asmarat – a model housing project for slum dwellers and low-income families (figure 2). While on paper the newly constructed neighbourhood might sound appealing, in reality the architecture feels cold, unwelcoming, and inhumane. These physical attributes are seen socially, too. Despite being promised the right to live at Maspero Triangle, that right was impudently violated as former inhabitants of Maspero Triangle were moved to Asmarat without their consent after their homes were demolished.
Image 2: Asmarat – the bleak government-constructed housing development to which those living in the Maspero Triangle were forcibly removed
Echo Park Lake, Los Angeles
As in Cairo, the government of the City of Los Angeles commits violent acts towards self-built homes forcing their removal. The living styles and forms of psychological harm, however, are quite different. In Cairo, the government’s demolition of what are seemingly permanent residences is central to the violence; the destruction is carried out by an operative in a bulldozer machine towards a built structure. In Los Angeles, the cruelty is embedded in forced nomadism and an ephemerality of living quarters; the destruction is committed face-to-face, between police officers and citizens. By removing tented homes, the city is able to make these individuals instantaneously erased from space.
There are various reasons for people to experience homelessness in Los Angeles, and it has been a part of the city’s story since the 1880s, with much of it rooted in redlining, prohibitive rent, and mass migration. Some of the key reasons for the continuation of such living circumstances, however, are poverty, lack of affordable housing, employment discrimination, substance abuse, mental health challenges, domestic violence, lack of familial ties, and young people leaving foster care. However, perhaps the most forceful factor is the mass incarceration that exists in the United States; it has been found that 60 per cent of L.A.’s homeless population has passed through the criminal justice system (Ward, 2021).
Instead of crafting space through composing various solid elements as in Cairo, the self-built homes in Los Angeles are ready-mades (figure 3). The Cairenes’ constructions look, more-or-less, homelike; or they at least appear similar to what a child would draw as a home, and they are made of durable home-construction materials. The Angelenos’ homes within this typology, on the other hand, are tents. These homes are prefabricated plastic assemblages of bright colours and thin materials, the same makeshift shelter one would take on a camping trip; they are as easily built as they are punctured and moved. Those who are unable to come into possession of a tent create a framework out of metal poles or wooden stakes and then place a tarpaulin on top, collaging their own water-resistant shelter.
Image 3: Homeless people in Los Angeles, living in makeshift tents.
A case study of the eviction in Los Angeles can be found at Echo Park Lake (figure 4). Amidst the arrival of the coronavirus in 2020, the park morphed into a settlement for over 200 homeless individuals, with tents erected everywhere. In fact, the space was so heavily populated that the new residents made the space into a commune of sorts, ‘complete with community gardens, makeshift showers, a food pantry and phone-charging station’ (Schrank, 2022). As the park became almost entirely covered in personal belongings, the government decided to close it for ‘repairs’ and forcibly removed the residents, with many of them – along with protestors – being arrested (Smith, 2022).
Image 4: Echo Park Lake, Los Angeles – no place for homeless tent dwellers
The city invested $1 million in repairs – reseeding grass, disposing of waste, installing security cameras – and tied it all off with a chain link fence with only four access points, as opposed to the previous open access around the entire periphery of the park (Schrank, 2022). After the renovations, the entire park is now under surveillance, with security systems and a privately contracted security company, in partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department, monitoring every grass on the land. The fence remains, and its few entry points are closed from 10.30pm to 5am in order to enforce anti-camping laws; it has become an unquestionably defensive architecture (Denkmann, 2021). The residents were told they would be moved out of Echo Park Lake and into permanent housing, but for the vast majority that never happened. In fact, a UCLA study found that of the roughly 200 individuals who had lived at the Echo Park Lake encampment, only seventeen received long-term housing (Roy et al., 2022).
The case studies of Cairo and Los Angeles highlight social issues that are globally perpetuated by an authoritarian approach. Despite the democratic regime promised in both countries and by both governments, those in the lower socio-economic classes struggle to claim their rights or to have their voices heard. The legally unhoused residents of both cities are yet to receive adequate assistance from their governments, instead often receiving violence. Regardless of whether a temporary tent is torn from the ground in Los Angeles or a decades-old building is left in ruins in Cairo, the psychological aftermath of the demolition is devastating – families lose their homes and all the memories embedded in their fabric. The dilemma persists: how can governments justly respect all socioeconomic classes while working towards idealized aesthetics? And the answer is still out there – not found.
Chhabria, S. (2020) Shelter as capital: the city as prison/the housing question in Egypt. Borderlines, 19 November. Available at: https://borderlines-cssaame.org/posts/2020/11/18/shelter-as-capital-the-....
Denkmann, L. (2021) Fencing and private security: Echo Park Lake has reopened, with some big changes. LAist, 26 May. Available at: https://laist.com/news/politics/fencing-and-private-security-echo-park-lake-is-reopening-with-some-big-changes.
El Rashidi, Y. (2018) Why do we destroy what makes us? New York Times, 5 November.
El Rashidi, Y. (2021) Sisi’s new Cairo: Pharaonic ambition in ferro-concrete. The New York Review of Books, 16 October.
Roy, A., Bennett, A., Blake, J., Coleman, J., Cornfield, H., Harrell, L. et al. (2022) (Dis)Placement: The Fight for Housing and Community After Echo Park Lake. Available at: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/70r0p7q4.
Schrank, A. (2022) What happened to Echo Park Lake’s homeless residents? KCRW, 24 March. Available at: https://www.kcrw.com/news/shows/greater-la/homelessness-theater-weed-2/e...
Smith, E.D. (2022) He had to leave Echo Park Lake and he’s still homeless. Is this what L.A. wants? Los Angeles Times, 26 March.
Soliman, A. (2012) The Egyptian episode of self-build housing. Habitat International, 36(2), pp. 226–236.
Ward, E. (2021) Understanding LA’s homelessness issues. LAist, 9 September.
Image 2: Asmarat – the bleak government-constructed housing development to which those living in the Maspero Triangle were forcibly removed. (Source: © Yasser Elsheshtawy)