The Culture Crush
Society Is Everybody's Business

What A Long Strange Trip It's Been


by Theo Panagopoulos

Throughout the course of history, the allure of foreign cultures have piqued curiosity and prompted international travel to destinations that present distinct ethnic populations, religions, traditions, and lifestyles. This perceived diversity and air of multiculturalism has curiously proven a marketable asset by providing an always unfortunately on-hand thematic attraction: poverty as entertainment, a truly authentic trip. And what a long strange trip it's been. 

What began innocently enough as an act of Victorian era wokeness, has now been commodified, packaged and sold. The first acts of slumming were perpetuated by the upper classes of 19th century London, who had the desire and curiosity to temporarily leave behind the polished squares of Hyde Park to experience first hand how those less fortunate lived in order to return to their dinner parties with their minds somehow more open. Open to what is the question. They felt it a kind of prerequisite to being politically and socially in the know. It let them speak with a certain authority and an air of superiority about the plight of the workers of the world who actually fueled the great Industrial Revolution in the first place.

Poverty has been molded into a touristic product for global consumption, through new social arrangements and hence, it now bears a monetary value. This modern-day paradox could not have been predicted by Karl Marx who writes in his theory of commodity fetishism: “Although under capitalism every single thing may be turned into a commodity, there is one thing which can never be bought or sold: poverty, for it has no use or exchange value.” That is hardly the case with slum tourism. But if poverty is indeed valorized, then who is really creating the value and with what purpose? And more importantly, if the slums are being consumed by tourists, who does this value benefit?

Though its linguistic origin remains unknown for any language, it seems that the “slum’’ has always been a symbol for the dark, low and unknown part of a metropolitan area, a place that exists in parallel way to the rest of the city and contains the other. The word slum itself may conjure up a picture that sometimes exceeds the physical reality of an urban space and enters the realm of imagination to draw a place that was left behind by progress, a place that does not conform with modern aesthetics, a place of questionable hygiene, a hub for crime and immoralism, a place of squalor and disorderly manners, a by-product of failed urbanization and poor town-planning, or even a place that is tolerated rather than given the opportunity to alter.

It is the same place, however, that launched a thousand geniuses and the imagination of thousands through Charles Dickens’ books, Jack London’s narratives and Rudyard Kipling’s stories, a place that emits a certain romanticism, the backstory to an adventure and real-life drama, a ‘spectacular’ place, a place through which people have chased change, lived, died, and fought for their rights, and a place where one can gaze upon ‘’the other half’’. Currently, this place is easier to reach than ever.

The concept of slumming is nothing new as it has been practiced for more than a century. It describes a certain social practice, according to which, members of the upper classes of a society decide to visit urban residential spaces of the poorer lower class citizens, in most cases for leisure purposes. The roots of this particular practice can be traced back to large cities of the Northern Hemisphere, who had their societies permanently altered from the Industrial Revolution, and where modern urban tourism also evolved.

One of the earliest written documents to refer to an urban space of slums in the nineteenth century is that of Friedrich Engels’ (1844), who describes his experience after visiting the slums of Manchester, England to observe the poor life conditions of the working class populations. Engels remarks that there was a visible geographic division between the working class and middle class districts of the city which was partly owed to an ‘’instinctive and tacit agreement between the two social groups.”

The birthplace of slumming however was early nineteenth-century London. During that time, the capital of the rapidly expanding British Empire developed into a demographic colossus, with its population expanding from one to six million inhabitants in just under 100 years, primarily due to a large number of immigrants from Ireland and other rural British territories.

Hence, the growing urban population resulted in high urbanization rates, a paralysis in regards to topographical dispersion and ultimately in an expansion of the gap between the rich and the poor of the society. During those times of industrialization and urbanization, a geographical separation between the social classes of London appeared like the spatial configuration of the deeply split social order of the time, thus creating imaginary borders within the city. This segregation, in turn, sparked the darkest flames of curiosity among the wealthier Londoners, who started exploring the other part of the town, and in turn, this new fangled voyeuristic day tripping came into vogue.

The practice of slumming was first observed among philanthropists, journalists and clergymen like William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, who would visit the slums on social expeditions that were wrapped in a cloak of concern, welfare and charity. Gradually, slumming turned into a popular pastime activity for the upper classes. In other words, it became a thing.

The more affluent upper and middle class citizens would arrange visits to poorer parts of the town, mainly in the East End, in neighborhoods like Shoreditch or Whitechapel, driven not only by their curiosity to see how the other half lives, but also by the belief that one had to experience the life of metropolitan poverty firsthand, in order to be in a position to claim any authority on social issues. And just like that, “wokeness” was born.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, large numbers of immigrants from Asia and southern Europe that had fled to the ‘’New World’’ in search of better life conditions, began occupying neighborhoods in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Five Points and the Bowery, marking their own territorial other within the confines of New York City.

Soon enough, wealthy Londoners traveling to New York would take the time to explore these poor neighborhoods in order to compare them with “their” own slums at home. The travel guides of the time even included some popular walking paths through the immigrants’ residential areas. The slums were a must-see. Thus, the trend of slumming emerged in New York, following the ‘’latest London fashion’’, an idea that fell on fertile ground. Not much later, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, the first travel tour companies and agencies that specialized in guided slum visits were set up in Chicago, San Francisco and Manhattan, resulting in the first stage of the “touristification” of slumming.

The idea of slums as touristic attractions was only enhanced by the imagery of the ‘cosmopolitan metropolis’ which was gaining in popularity at the time, a concept that found expression in the trend of slumming. Suddenly, in order to be truly cosmopolitan the act of slumming had to be in your repetoire; as if their eyes had been opened to multicultural diversity, urban heterogeneity, and its variety of contrasts: wealth and poverty, modernity and obsolescence, equality and spatial classification. Culture itself played a significant part as a prevalent mode of observation for these woke tourists; they loved seeing these urban spaces, as long as they were separate from their own communities.

These representations, combined with a rise in xenophobia and racism that greatly affected urban planning, resulted in the creation of a new form of “immigrant quarters”, similar to the one Engels observed in Manchester in terms of spatial differentiation, poverty and poor living conditions, but with a focus on ethno-cultural differences rather than economic status. New “immigrant colonies” appeared in several major cities in the USA, urban spaces that were characterized and named by the ethnic groups they were populated by, places like ‘’Little Italy,’’ ‘’Chinatown,’’ ‘’Russian Quarter,’’ “Jewish Quarter,’’ and so on.

From a touristic perspective, these places were colorful, exotic attractions that emphasized the cultural otherness of the metropolis. Slumming in the USA, consequently, focused on exploring different cultural identities, resulting in ‘ethnic slumming’, as the slum was also perceived as a place of the ethno-cultural other. This ethnicization empowered both international and local tourists to explore aesthetically distinct areas of a city, different cultures within them and the living conditions of their residents.

However, in order to satisfy the tourists’ demand for authenticity and meet their expectation for accentuated cultural differences, the tourist representations of the immigrant quarters heavily relied on stereotypes. Hence, this notion of culture in the context of urban tourism led to a racist-evolutionist mentality, as the slum was no longer perceived as a reflection of social inequality but rather as a cultural spatial arrangement of the modern city, in which every group was assigned to their place (at least for a time) both economically and socially. Ultimately, ‘ethnic slumming’ contributed to de-problematizing social disparities and reaffirming the social distance rather than reducing it.

Reasonably, in the context of tourism, the concept of otherness has been critiqued as a representation that is ‘’Western-produced’’, with westerners identifying themselves as the norm and reflecting upon anything else outside the western realm as the peripheral other. This notion of otherness contributes to the establishment of a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority, with the other being generally frowned upon as something inferior; something to be gazed at from afar.

Indeed, the slum has become a symbol for a threatening, dark side of a city, a cause for concern and fear of the sanitary conditions, the loss of public control and the decline of civilization. Yet at the same time the slum is an ‘’urban terra incognita’’ that promises excitement and adventure. Like a day trip to Disney World.

While the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa gained in popularity through global media in the early ‘90’s, travelers from around the planet began visiting the places where the movement was born, the infamous ‘’non-white’’ townships of Cape Town, in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the situation. During the same period of time, slum tourism made its appearance -in altogether different conditions- in another southern continent. In Latin America, and specifically in Brazil, activists and journalists were presented with the chance to be the first to visit Rocinha, the largest favela of Rio De Janeiro during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development that was held there in 1992. The event marked the beginning of a whole new commercial tourism branch, which was soon to be named ‘favela tourism’.

Slum tourism also emerged in many other places of the global south, including Kenya, Philippines, India, Jamaica, Argentina and Indonesia to name a few. Whether known as Shantytowns, Barrios, Favelas, Bidonville, Kampung, or Ghettos, odds are your city has their own version of a slum. In a similar vein, slum tourism has gotten so popular that it’s also known other ways, like Poverty Tourism, Reality tourism, Poorism and Dark Tourism. But no matter what you choose to call it, it remains the same nonetheless. Today, poverty is being rediscovered with slum dwellers portrayed as the new noble savages and their lands revamped through marketing strategies. However, these new forms of slumming in the Global South no longer concern the other side of the tracks in our your own city, but rather the whole world, which signifies the emergence of a New World Order societal other and a new worldwide universal destination type: the global slum.

So is this exploration or exploitation? Curiosity about the slums has been subject to suspicion from the first appearance of the phenomenon; because often behind lofty intentions advertised, less noble motives were of course suspected. The preeminent accusation directed towards slum tourists is that of voyeurism. It would be logical to argue that poverty, being the main quality associated with slums, is also the main attraction. Correspondingly, slum tourism is met with heavy criticism in academia, media and the public sphere in general, as terms like “poorism’’ “poverty porn’’ and “people safaris’’ make their appearance in articles and reports, underlining the morally controversial ‘socio-voyeuristic’ angles of the phenomenon.

This curiosity is being transformed into touristic capital by the travel industry. In this manner, poverty-stricken populations and their “habitats” are becoming new commodities to be consumed and fashioned as an exotic experience, which is then showcased in Instagram (much to Karl Marx’s dismay). Through this development, the economic periphery of the Global South is being moderately embodied to world neoliberal economies as both a producer and a product of poverty.

Naturally, this supposed desire to witness poverty first hand has raised concern regarding the morals of slum tourists and has been in the center of an ongoing ethical debate among academics and media; a debate which is in a lot of ways analogous to the debate regarding the creation, proliferation and mitigation of the slum itself. And while critics of slum tourism seem to focus on voyeurism, social exclusion and the fallacies of the rhetoric of poverty reduction, the other side speaks of a ‘’valuable learning experience’’ through cultural exchange.

There is actually no evidence in the entirety of the academic slum tourism literature to back the accusations and thus its rejection on moral grounds is unjustifiable in the academic world. Ergo, the matters of superfluousness and subjectivity bring forth the need of the reorientation of the debate in furtherance of the cerebrations.

Slum tourism supporters recognize that popularizing poverty may be fertile ground for the proliferations of voyeuristic activities, yet at the same time argue that engaging in such praxes is unavoidable when witnessing foreign surroundings, regardless of one’s motives and acclimatization. In this concern, one could argue that slum tourism is not much different than tourism itself. The tourism industry is in some regions the most prominent generator of wealth. It monetizes and commodifies landscapes, objects, culture, art and populations alike in a process of simultaneous production and consumption, in the same manner as slum tourism is supposed to commoditize poverty. Therefore, dismissing slum tourism as a means to poverty alleviation by reason of questionable ethics, while at the same time advocating other forms of tourism for serving the same purpose seems entirely illogical.

According to slum tourism advocates, the practice should be rather examined as an engine of economic development, visibility, and social empowerment. The newly constructed tourist attractions of slums should be viewed as ‘’contact zones’’ where slum tourists might see a solution to the challenge of inequality in themselves and where local populations that were historically economically debilitated are now somehow enabled to participate in an emerging industry.

Supposedly, this newfound process of othering that actually places value on the slums, could enable governments and policymakers to acknowledge and in some cases approve slum tourism, inducing the need to confront poverty and tackle issues that sustain it. Even though the magnitude of the benefits for local communities is still under debate, an absolute repudiation of slum tourism may eventually lead to overshadowing the prospect of gaining a better understanding of urban poverty and its dynamics, and the ways in which this extraordinary form of tourism could potentially contribute to its eradication. However, if one accepts the role of slum tourism as a new kind of pro-poor tourism and an instrument for poverty reduction, then a paradox is inevitable; slum tourism is actually trying to overcome its own attractiveness.

The question that resultantly arises is whether slum tourism intermediaries are providing any additional value that would morally legitimize their positioning in the supply chain and if so, whether their participation is benevolent to local populations in the form of financial gain, educational opportunities, political empowerment or social visibility. The answers seem to have been missing for centuries now. These disputed points are still relevant today and apply to most modern slum tourism destinations, no longer limited to barren districts of massive Western European cities, but expanded on a global scale to include whole cities, regions and even countries in the developing world.

Contemporary slum tours can be viewed as the continuation of centuries old practices of social transactions between the powerful and the powerless, the wealthy and the wretched, through which, according to its proponents, slum dwellers will somehow benefit in terms of economic progress (and the dreaded awareness) and the slum tourists themselves achieve new levels of self-esteem by exploring the uncharted global other. In that sense, slumming appears to have been relatively unaltered by the course of time, since it still represents a transaction in which the poor enable the rich to finally feel like they have achieved narcissistic nirvana. At least according to their followers.