Book Club Selection: Barrio Rising

Alejandro Velasco's in-depth historical investigation of the iconic 23 de Enero neighborhood in Western Caracas.

El ventitrés

I’m pleased to announce that the first book we will be reading in our book club is “Barrio Rising: Urban Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela,” by Alejandro Velasco.

The book is an in-depth historical investigation of the iconic 23 de Enero neighborhood. The author is a Venezuelan historian who currently teaches at New York University. From what I can gather, it’s a lively, well-written account of a crucial microcosm of Venezuelan public life.

I have little more to say about the book, because I have not yet read it. But the preface hooked me.

Drawing on the story of the Tower de David – until recently, the world’s tallest slum – Velasco talks about how el veintitrés became the blueprint for modern Venezuelan urban politics. The building, once the pride of modern design, fell victim to the forces shaping the nascent democratic Venezuela.

This is a phenomenon that has deep roots in Venezuela, and it permeates the way we live, argue, and decide. He writes,

In January 1958 thousands of apartments lay vacant in still-unfinished fifteen-story superblocks built by the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez to house the city’s poor. It was his grand plan for a modern Venezuela where sleek high-rises would replace ramshackle barrios – slums in Venezuelan parlance – and turn a long-chaotic Caracas into a model of order and progress, no matter who or what stood in his way. He built them in the heart of the capital for all to marvel. In time, his uncompromising vision spawned calls for his ouster, and on 23 January 1958 a group of military officers and civilians, buoyed by the public at large, overthrew Pérez Jiménez and promised to usher in a democratic revolution. As word spread, twenty thousand people across Caracas and its surroundings rushed to the empty superblocks. Two days later, they had occupied every vacant apartment in sight, 3,000 in all.

Today, from the rooftops of the 23 de Enero it is easy to spot the Tower of David just over a mile away due west. It is a short distance as the crow flies, but embedded in that space is a history marked more by continuities than by ruptures, nevertheless masked and distorted by layers of amnesia and hysteria. What the Tower of David represents is a small-scale version of what the men and women who occupied thousands of vacant apartments here fifty years before undertook, in search of better lives for themselves and for their families, drawing on a revolutionary discourse that held the promise of greater participation, of greater democracy. This book tells that story.

That … is a story I’m itching to read. I hope you come along for the ride.

Please buy the book through our link to show your support for the Book Club:


We’ll check back in this spot in two weeks, after we’ve completed half the book.

Happy reading!