introduCtion
Brodwyn Fischer
Most Americans south of the Rio Grande live in cities that have never re-
sembled a North Atlantic urban ideal. One in four Latin Americans lives
in an underserviced, poor, legally precarious neighborhood, part of what
has come to be known as the informal city.1 Many of Latin America’s other
urban residents know that their cities would not function without such
places. Poor, informal neighborhoods are often dismissed as slums, as un-
fortunate and accidental scars on the urban landscape. But they are in fact
thoroughly entwined with formal urbanity, and with more privileged itera-
tions of informality. The formal city profits economically and politically
from the slum’s illegality, and much “urban” culture originates in poor, ille-
gal neighborhoods. The informal city provides a refuge from utopian urban
regulations that would otherwise exclude many poor Latin Americans from
city life. Neither city could exist without the other; the relationship between
them defines the Latin American urban form, and does much to shape Latin
American law, politics, and society.
The informal city is not exclusive to Latin America, or to the world’s poor-
est countries. Informality itself extends far beyond the reaches of poverty.2
Slums have been written about often, even incessantly, an instantly recog-
nizable emblem of almost every perceived social ill. Much of this writing is
vivid, lustrously repelling, enthralling enough to be termed slum pornogra-
phy and sweeping enough to articulate theories of universal injustice. Why,
then, have we chosen to write another, less sensational book, focusing on
Latin American manifestations of a supposedly global problem?
The answer lies in two paradoxes. The first is that, while poor informal
cities are often described, discussed, debated, or deplored, the places them-
selves are not always the point of the conversation. Slums and shantytowns
are magnetic because they disquiet outsiders and contrast so sharply with
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