(Re)constructing (In)formality: The Politics of History, Urbanism, and Resettlement in Santo Domingo's Barrios
This dissertation traces the history of urban informality in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. Concurrently, it examines the resettlement of La Barquita, a large barrio (local term for informal settlement) that occupied flood-prone land for over four decades. As the oldest existing city in the Americas, Santo Domingo is an ideal setting to investigate the largely untheorized intricacies between historical and contemporary informal urbanization and interventions aiming formalization. There, extreme climate events and longstanding political legacies rooted in colonialism, imperialism, authoritarianism, and neoliberalism have converged to perpetuate a culture of socio-spatial exclusion spanning over five centuries.
La Barquita became Santo Domingo's most infamous barrio, a site at the intersection of poverty, informality, crime, and environmental risks. In 2012, in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, the central government announced the resettlement of this community. Replacing the old barrio, La Nueva Barquita (the new Barquita), with over 1700 apartments distributed across 54 hectares, was the result of a design competition juried by a panel of local and international architects. As the apotheosis of interventions in the city's barrios, the state promoted this project, completed in 2016, as a 'historic' event and as a model to be replicated across the country.
Using data obtained from surveys to 102 resettled households, this study discusses respondents' perceptions of their new community and the impacts of the relocation on their socioeconomic standing. It is found that while respondents largely endorse their new built environment, the resettlement resulted in reversed economic mobility and significant disruptions to community ties. To mitigate these negative impacts, residents are turning to subtle modes of informality, challenging the neoliberal formal order imposed upon them.
Several arguments are advanced in this dissertation. First, challenging local hegemonic narratives that informal settlements are places with no history, I demonstrate that Santo Domingo’s barrios have been permanent and vital communities for over five centuries. As places of everyday life for a large part of the city's population, their urban history is irrespective of negative comparisons to the planned city. A second argument, by way of La Nueva Barquita, is that, in resettlement sites, high-quality architecture and urban design alone are unable to ignite socioeconomic progress. Third, I argue that it is only through historical analysis that we can fully grasp recent interventions in Santo Domingo's barrios. This study reveals how the state used historical narratives to advance the intervention in La Barquita, how residents' place-based memories facilitated and hampered their adaptation in the resettlement site, and how the name La Barquita metamorphosed from being associated with planning failure and environmental vulnerability into a national brand mediating how barrio interventions are approached.
The socio-spatial actuality in Santo Domingo's barrios, and in La Nueva Barquita, cannot be dissected through binary interpretations of good or bad, positive or negative, formal or informal. These are complex territories where the politics of history, urbanism, and resettlement often come together in unexpected ways. At the crossroads of multifaceted discourses within the fields of architecture, urban studies, history, and Dominican studies, Santo Domingo's barrios and La Nueva Barquita tell us a lot about how questions of urban development, citizenship, and nationhood are constantly shaped and interrogated—through formal and informal built environment developments—in postcolonial cities of the Global South.