Santa Claus Aa Rahe Hai

Slum tourism in Dharavi

The following is an excerpt from If It’s Monday it Must Be Madurai: A Conducted Tour of India (Penguin India, December 2013).

In his book of travel essays Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, Geoff Dyer writes: “All visitors to the developing world, if they are honest, will confess that they are actually quite keen on seeing a bit of squalor: people living on garbage dumps, shanty towns, that kind of thing.” He goes on to describe meeting a Swede in Mumbai who had visited “one of the worst slum districts,” where a beggar woman had “shoved her dead baby in his face.” Dyer writes that the half dozen foreigners listening to the story were “all horrified and, I think, more than a little envious.” Of course, that baby probably wasn’t dead. It’s a common enough experience in Mumbai or in any Indian city: if you look like you have a rupee or two to spare, you can have a baby shoved in your face at any traffic signal. Sometimes these babies have been acquired on hire; sometimes they are sedated. It’s likely the Swede saw one of these babies asleep and believed what he wanted to believe, or was tempted to embellish the story to elicit exactly the sort of envious horror that Dyer describes. After all, competition among travelers is intense, and a story like this is a lifelong trump card at dinner tables in hostels and guesthouses across the world.

Near the beginning of the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire is that much-talked-about flashback from the protagonist Jamal’s childhood in which he is locked into a slum’s hanging latrine by his brother just as his idol Amitabh Bachchan’s helicopter descends in the vicinity. Jamal desperately wants Amitabh’s autograph and there’s no way out of the latrine except for jumping down into the pit. He emerges dripping with shit (simulated in shooting with peanut butter and chocolate) and makes his way through a gagging crowd to get the autograph. The events that lead to Jamal being locked into the latrine feel so contrived that the whole point seems to have been to somehow get a boy covered in shit into the film.

The Swede’s dead baby and Slumdog’s shit-covered boy are both instances of a gaze that transforms squalor into spectacle. The worse things are for the objects of this gaze, the better it gets for the spectator. Here, the dominant response to poverty and human suffering is not pity or sorrow or compassion, but a kind of self-enchantment with witnessing or depicting it. It might seem bad enough that babies are used as begging accessories, but to raise it to a delightfully horrific pitch, there’s nothing like stumbling upon dead babies in the street and being in the presence of poverty so abject that a mother in her grief will shrewdly hold up her dead child’s body to score a few rupees. And it’s a matter of concern that open defecation and manual scavenging are alive and well in India, but how much more fun it is to personify this state of excretory affairs in a boy who glistens with shit from head to toe.

The travel writer Paul Theroux writes in his 2008 book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, “In Mumbai: a tourist would have been in a temple or a museum. I had been in a slum.” The boast is one that an increasing number of tourists can make today. If visitors from the developed world are “quite keen on seeing a bit of squalor,” the developing world indulges them readily through slum tourism — pay money to go and look at the living conditions of those less fortunate than yourself. There are organized tours of the favelas in Brazil, of townships in Johannesburg, of garbage dumps in Mexico, of slums in Mumbai, Jakarta, China, and plenty of other places across Asia, Africa, and South America.

Slum tourism began in what is today the first world, when affluent 19th-century Londoners began venturing into the seedier parts of town for a Dickensian fix. It wasn’t long before the activity spread to the other side of the Atlantic. Here’s the New York Times of September 14, 1884: “‘Slumming,’ the latest fashionable idiosyncrasy in London — i.e., the visiting of the slums of the great city by parties of ladies and gentlemen for sightseeing — is mildly practiced here by a tour of the Bowery, winding up with a visit to an opium den or Harry Hill’s.” The post-slumming chitchat feels remarkably contemporary:

A quite well-known young English noble, returning from a tour of the east side the other night with some club friends, observed over his brandy and soda: “Ah, this is a great city, but you have no slums like we have. I have been in rickety condemned buildings that it was absolutely dangerous to go through! Found six families living in one miserably ventilated cellar — 24 persons, 16 of them adults, living in the one room. No such slums here!”

The article goes on to defend New York’s honor by claiming that there are indeed such slums, places of “misery, multitude and vice,” and “of the same squalor and suffering as anything ever seen in the
English metropolis,” but the inexperienced guides simply hadn’t explored those routes. There’s mention of how slum tourism led to charity work in London. Only one specific work is mentioned, and that seems utterly cosmetic and almost apologetic: “The flower charities have done much good work among the poor in the tenements by distributing among them floral gifts. What a pleasure it must be to a sufferer imprisoned in one of these tenements to receive a flower, with its color and its green leaves and stems!”

One may want to go see a slum because it is edifying to see how people poorer than oneself live, or because it presents a more complete social picture of the place one is visiting, or because, like Gandhi, one may at times want to recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom one has seen and ask oneself if the next step one is contemplating is going to be of any use to that person. A survey conducted in Mumbai’s Dharavi by a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania found that most tourists who came to do a slum tour were motivated by simple curiosity, but though they were curious, they weren’t interested in interacting with residents. In other words: they came to gawk. As the report states, “the slum tourism experience was one of leisure rather than self-discovery.” The tour organizer was Reality Tours and Travel (RTT), founded jointly by an Englishman and an Indian in 2005 (and the subject of much media attention since).

RTT runs two tours of Dharavi — one long and one short. The Dharavi sections of the tours are identical, but the long tour starts in South Bombay and makes its way to Dharavi via the red light area of Kamathipura and the dhobi ghat at Mahalaxmi. The walking tour of Dharavi aims to emphasize the economic vibrancy of the community and dispel myths about poverty and slums. Criticism that it’s only a vehicle for first-world voyeurs crops up from time to time, but RTT counters this by saying that they use 80 percent of their profits for the benefit of slum residents. In 2009, RTT consolidated their social work by starting an NGO — Reality Gives. Between them they run a nursery school and a community center in Dharavi where locals can learn English and computer skills. They also support other education- and sports-related activities. (We’ve come a long way from the token absolution of handing out flowers.) Tourists may well arrive at Dharavi with a keenness for squalor, but RTT aims to show them a different side of the slum, and in a way that ultimately benefits the community.

I find myself standing one morning in front of Cafe Leopold on Colaba Causeway. An alarmingly lean man shrouded in grimy clothes eyes me for a while before approaching me: “Dope-shope? Marijuana? Hashish? I have right now.” No. I’m waiting here because this is the pickup point for RTT’s long tour of Dharavi. Leopold is a well-known hangout for foreign tourists in Mumbai, and RTT’s clientele happens to be almost entirely foreign. I will be disorientingly reminded of this at every step of the tour as I’m shown a part of my own country as if I were from elsewhere.

The RTT jeep is parked in the lane beside Leopold. Our guide is Dinesh, a hassled-looking young man of 20 or so. He has missed me in front of Leopold, perhaps because he wasn’t expecting an Indian, and when I find him he is on the phone to the office complaining about the member who hasn’t yet shown up. I get into the back of the jeep. Introductions follow. My fellow slummers are three women: Ulrika, a German woman in her thirties who lives in Australia; and Nina and Andrea, in their twenties, from the French Reunion Islands.

As we drive from Colaba, I’m finding that Dinesh’s commentary has a somewhat surreal defamiliarizing effect, given that I lived in Mumbai for eight years. At Churchgate station: “As you can see, people are bursting out. You can also see dabbawalas here later in the day.” Malabar Hill and Marine Drive: “Land here costs 2,100 US dollars per square foot.” Chowpatty: “Here you can eat a famous snack called bhelpuri.” Wankhede Stadium: “Cricket is like a religion in India.” Chor Bazaar: “If something of yours is stolen — come here.” Kamathipura: “This is the famous red light district of Mumbai.”

As we turn into Falkland Road, Dinesh paints a wretched picture of commercial sex work in the area. He talks of how traffickers bring women, and often young girls, from various parts of India and neighboring countries. “The women are beaten by the brothel owners,” he tells us. Ulrika fishes her camera out of her bag and takes position at the window. Huddled doorways come into view, open to varying degrees. “These are the women,” Dinesh says.

The depiction of sex workers in Indian films has always seemed lazy and trite to me — the perennial combing of hair, the constant lounging about clad only in blouse and petticoat. On Falkland Road I discover that those films are accurate, at least as far as Kamathipura goes. There are any number of women wearing only petticoats and blouses — sitting, legs akimbo, on steps framed by narrow doors, or visible through the bars of windows. At one door there’s even a woman combing her long black hair. We drive past, taking only a couple of minutes. Ulrika clicks away with a predatory eagerness that I find annoying. She wants to know, “How much do the women charge?” Dinesh pretends not to have heard. Ulrika repeats her question and Dinesh is clearly offended. He replies curtly, “I don’t know. I have never gone.” After a while he turns around and adds, “Here we believe in having girlfriends.”

We move on to the dhobi ghat at Mahalaxmi. “This is the biggest open-air laundry in the world,” Dinesh says, adding, “Your hotel will charge you a lot for laundry, but it will be washed here.” Our view is from a bridge overlooking the vast basin of the ghat and its panorama of laundering. Men, bare-chested or in vests, slosh about in troughs of murky water, flogging clothes in concrete cubicles. Bedsheets, pillow covers, hospital gowns, uniforms, all dangle in orderly rows. It’s a lucrative business according to Dinesh, and as with everything else in Mumbai, there is much competition for being allotted one of the cubicles here.

We drive past Girgaum, Phoenix Mills, Dadar station. Dinesh points out markets for fish, flowers, and vegetables. Then there’s a lull in his script. After a short silence, the driver breaks in: “Reality khatam ho jaayega yaar ek-do saal mein.” Reality will be finished in a year or two. For a second I think he’s launching into a metaphysical discussion, but they’re only talking about their employer. They’re so used to having only foreign tourists that they’re entirely unself-conscious conversing in Hindi. I learn that several others have started Dharavi tours. The driver speculates that all this competition will ultimately shut down the company and tells Dinesh they better start looking for something else. Dinesh points out that RTT has begun to diversify by offering other tours — Indian village tours, Mumbai by night, Mumbai by public transport. “But the main thing is Dharavi, na?” says the driver. The conversation is cut short when the jeep pulls up to a pile of garbage. We’ve reached Dharavi.

Dharavi is an area of around 550 acres wedged between the suburbs of Mahim, Sion, and Bandra, contained by the tracks of Mumbai’s Central and Western local railway lines, and by the Mithi River to the north. It is roughly heart-shaped, which allows RTT to sell nifty I ♥ DHARAVI T-shirts with the outline of Dharavi serving as a jittery, wonky heart. Somewhere between half a million to one million people live here. (The floating population makes them hard to count.) The land on which Dharavi stands is prime real estate in Mumbai, but this is today. In the 19th century the region largely comprised disjointed islands and mangrove swamps, and was reclaimed by filling the watery parts with rubble. This being the farthest edge of what was then Bombay, the civic authorities were just fine if migrants or the just-rendered-homeless from freshly demolished illegal settlements in Bombay came to live here. The original inhabitants of Dharavi, the Koli fisherfolk, were soon joined by others — migrants from other parts of Maharashtra, potters from Gujarat, tanners from Tamil Nadu, craftsmen from Uttar Pradesh, and ultimately by anyone who hoped to make a fresh beginning. In this sense Dharavi is a concentrated image of Mumbai, and it is fitting that it now finds itself not at the periphery but at the heart of the city.

Perhaps it is the assiduous ones who migrate? Or could it be that the very act of moving to another place leaves one with a residual momentum? Almost everywhere, migrants have been known for their enterprising ways, and Dharavi is no different, being a hive of unregulated industry. Dinesh tells us even as we’re getting out of the jeep and stretching that the annual turnover of Dharavi is $665 million, and we are all suitably impressed.

Dinesh briefs us on how to behave and what to expect. “We have to respect the people of the slum,” he says. “So we have a strict ‘no cameras’ policy.” Some places may not be clean, and there may be strong odors at times. He addresses the women: “I must warn you that people stare. But they are harmless.”

We set off down a road that really looks like it could have been anywhere in Mumbai — chai stalls, small hotels, vendors, a jumble of vehicles. The guide and I may well have been part of the scene, but clearly not the three women. “Aao, aao. Come, come,” drawls a young man who’s made himself comfortable on a parked motorcycle; the two friends chatting with him make cheeping noises. They laugh after we pass. All through the rest of our walk, there’s sustained staring and taunting. The comments aren’t overly aggressive, and many of them aren’t noticed by the women, being made in Hindi and usually just after we’ve passed. In fact, they feel almost obligatory, as if it’s a territorial reiteration of sorts for the young men and teenagers who, every day, watch foreigners walk so earnestly through their turf.

The first part of the walking tour looks at the recycling industry, one of the economic mainstays of Dharavi. The considerable waste that Mumbai generates is sorted by scavengers and brought here to be renewed or repurposed. In one low-lit warehouse, stacks of empty oil tins tower over the workers. Dinesh tell us these come from restaurants all over Mumbai. This unit readies them for reuse by dunking them in hot water and scrubbing them with soap. In other places we see piles of cardboard, sacks, plastic odds and ends, bottles. The units are closely packed and storage space is limited, so everything tends to overflow, gather in mounds on the corrugated roofs, or line the paths in a casually ordered jumble. The recycling units look like makeshift arrangements with hastily drawn electrical wiring and equipment strewn about, but everything has a black lint of cobweb and grime clinging to it, suggesting that this is how things have been for a while. From above, the zone feels like an urban analogue to one of nature’s awesome cycles: detritus from the city around will keep flowing in, and this landscape of variegated rubble will somehow keep regenerating itself into things new and useful.

We are being treated to a view from above because we have stepped over bags and climbed stairs so rudimentary as to count as a ladder to reach the tin roof of a plant that produces recycled plastic pellets. This roof is different from the roofs around it in that it’s been used less enthusiastically as a storage space, probably because it’s a viewpoint on RTT’s tour. The roof is also different because it’s the only one whose edge is cordoned off, with a sign that reads STOP. (In case someone decides to step off, either from claustrophobia or first-world guilt?) Dinesh orients us, pointing out the surrounding suburbs and the path we will take for the rest of the tour. From here it’s clear that there’s nothing homogeneous about Dharavi. The construction ranges from precarious hovels to high-rise apartments, the latter the result of redevelopment projects. These are still exceptions in the otherwise squat topography, but may become commonplace if a comprehensive redevelopment plan goes through. Such plans have abounded, but have usually been stymied by their inability to get Dharavi residents on board. Dinesh tells us that, in general, people are happy to be living and working in Dharavi as it is. There are even people who’ve been allotted apartments, but have chosen to rent them out and start afresh at ground level elsewhere in Dharavi.

It’s not long before one of us asks Dinesh, What is a slum anyway? He has a concise answer: “House owned by people, land owned by government.” But there are some who own their land here — the original Koli residents, and others who at various times have been granted ownership of land they’ve occupied for long periods.

We move on to other industries. “Can you guess what this is?” asks Dinesh, pointing to a tray with brown cakes. Ulrika, after some thought: “Brownies?” Dinesh: “No, it’s soap for washing clothes.” At an embroidery shop, a programmable Chinese machine is riddling patterns concurrently into several pieces of cloth. We stop by a bakery engaged in producing massive quantities of khari biscuits that none of us want to try. We see piles of tanned hides in a noticeably odoriferous quarter. Metalwork goes on in a room filled with heavy machinery. We enter a block-printing unit just as a family from the UK is leaving — a couple with a teenage boy wearing a “7, David Villa” jersey. “Isn’t this incredible?” says David’s mother as they pass. It is. No one thing here may be incredible by itself, but the presence of so many activities in such proximity conveys a sense of glorious vitality. It’s the real-life equivalent of a mural that compresses an epic human drama onto a single wall.

Some idea of Dharavi’s religious composition may be had from its places of worship. There are twenty-seven temples, eleven mosques, and six churches here (as Kalpana Sharma writes in Rediscovering Dharavi [2000]). Hindus and Muslims live in separate quarters of Dharavi. They’ve always coexisted in peace, Dinesh tells us, except for the communal riots that broke out in 1992–93 after the Babri Masjid demolition. We stop at a place where they make carved wooden altars that are used to hold images and statues of Hindu gods. This is in the Muslim area and all the workers are Muslim. Dinesh dwells on the irony for a bit, but I seem to be the only one who’s appreciative. Two boys of about 10 wearing skullcaps and carrying satchels point at us and shout, “Angrez! Angrez!” They stop beside us, make swishing sibilant sounds meant to imitate a foreigner’s English, and run off laughing.

We walk through a maze of narrow lanes in a residential area, an activity akin to some sort of urban spelunking. The paths are barely wide enough for a person to walk through, and sometimes not even that, necessitating adroit twisting and sidling. (Part of the fault no doubt lies with our party — I am of fairly strapping build, and Ulrika may even be considered hefty.) Steps of houses, parked two-wheelers, and ad hoc electrical and water fixtures add a further level of navigational complexity. One section in particular is almost entirely dark, being between the rear walls of houses, and one corner has a mass of water pipes at ground level and a tangle of low-hanging electrical cabling that takes some tai chi–style movements to get through.

It’s midmorning and there are few men about. Women are cooking, or sitting on the steps of their houses talking to neighbors, or washing clothes and vessels at nearby taps. Through open doors I can see homes created in the space of a tiny room or two — patterned floor tiles, TVs, steel utensils on wall-mounted shelves, beds, rolled-up mattresses. There are children everywhere — on doorsteps, at the corners of lanes. They constantly crowd around us, proffering their hands with delight and great ceremony. Mothers and elder siblings sometimes push kids forward, saying to them, “What should you say?” The kids say “hi” or “hello” and stick their hands out. The foreigners shake hands and reach for their bottles of hand sanitizer.

Maybe it’s the concentrated quality of life here, but surrounded by these homes I’m reminded of my own. I grew up in a larger house with more amenities, but it’s a difference only of degree. These are middle-class homes, a world I know well: the steel vessels, the televisions, the clutter of odds and ends hoarded because they might come in use one day; the sounds of pressure cookers going off, pans being scraped with a piece of brick, clothes being rinsed by hand. These are part of my consciousness. In a sense that the foreigners on the tour cannot possibly share, I am among my own.

More precisely, I appear to be on some kind of safari among my own, an observer in the midst of spaces that feel private. Most of the women here are wearing the national dress of the middle-class homemaker: the baggy nightgown. When they squat to wash vessels or clothes, these gowns are rolled up to mid-thigh to avoid getting them wet. I feel as if I shouldn’t be here, but the women are oblivious to us as we pass. Two women sitting on steps across a lane continue their conversation as we walk between them. In one Muslim household there’s a group of women sitting on the floor, watching TV, who hardly glance at us as we crowd the doorway and peep in. This may be from the conditioning of living in a place as densely populated as Dharavi, but I suspect it has more to do with being inured to tour groups passing through, as well as the realization that these groups consist almost entirely of foreigners. Such frictionless passage can occur only between people who are sufficiently remote. If Indian tour groups started passing through these lanes with regularity, Indians with the cultural bases to judge and slot and appraise, I doubt the people here would be as unconcerned. I’m here only because my being with the group turns me into a foreigner.

We’ve seen no real squalor so far (if we ignore a wide drain of slow-flowing dark sludge that is a choice blend of human and industrial waste). There have been flies, smells, people working and living in cramped conditions, but nothing remotely abject. I’d noticed earlier that Ulrika furtively got out her camera and took pictures of the aforementioned drain, and she seemed impatient when Dharavi’s industrial achievements are recounted. So when she asks Dinesh if there’s a toilet she can use, I can’t help wondering if she’s really angling for some Slumdog-level squalor. If she is, she’s disappointed. Dinesh conducts us to a solidly constructed public toilet connected to a municipal sewage system. Not far away is a clearing that seems to be used as a local garbage dump. A few children are using it as an open-air toilet. People here use either a public toilet, of which there aren’t enough to go around, or defecate in the open.

Municipal water connections are available, as are ‘private’ ones — illegal operations that draw from the main municipal water pipes. Both can be unreliable, and water is hoarded, usually in big blue plastic drums.

We stop for chai. I ask Ulrika how she’s finding the tour. She’s not impressed. “This is like a residential area,” she says. “There are buildings here.” And there are computers and televisions and air conditioners, too. There’s even a BMW that belongs to one of the factory owners. Ulrika visited another slum, near Colaba, just yesterday. “That was like a real slum,” she says. “It was right next to where Shanty-ram lived.” (That conflation of Shanti, Shantaram, and shanty might serve as the perfect example of a certain kind of tourist-speak in India.) How did she learn about the place? From a taxi driver. Apparently some taxi drivers in South Bombay offer foreign passengers an informal slum tour. She signed up for Dharavi expecting more, but is now disappointed.

I ask Dinesh if there are others who conduct slum tours in Dharavi. “After Slumdog others have started,” he tells me. Some of them used to be guides with RTT who saw the increased interest in Dharavi and decided to start their own tours. “But they don’t do charity work.”

We move on. Dinesh points to a woman flattening dough with a rolling pin and trimming it into neat circles. “She is making poppadum,” he tells us, something many women in Dharavi do to supplement their household’s income. Dinesh gives us a compressed sociological account of Indian womanhood: “Women are not allowed to go out. Cook, marriage, children. Little bit allowed now, but Muslims are still same.”

As we pass through a lane my attention is drawn to a scattered group of obviously affluent teenagers. They’re wearing sneakers and colorful T-shirts and shorts that stand out in these surroundings for being ruthlessly unfaded. At one door three of them talk to a harried-looking boy wearing a school uniform of navy-blue trousers and an indigo-smudged white shirt. “Aapke paas bijli hai, paani hai? Do you have electricity, water?” one is asking. Another: “Textbooks ke liye koi problem hai? Any problems getting textbooks?” I surmise they’re on one of the school visits that RTT organizes. I ask one of the boys and learn that they’re from Bangalore International School, here on a class project. They watched a documentary on Dharavi as part of one of their classes and felt they should go to Mumbai and see the slum firsthand. He tells me, “We just wanna find out what their needs are, why they don’t wanna move, and why they’re not into development.” Then, with a shrug, “And maybe do something about it.”

By the time I’ve scrawled down some notes the others have moved out of sight. I rush down the lane and catch up with them. We will visit a preschool run by RTT, make a quick stop at a potter’s house, and end the tour at RTT’s community center and office, where we will receive a cold Coke to help us recover.

The preschool is a single room, cheerful with charts and streamers. Around twenty kids, age 3 or 4, are being taught rhymes. A group of young women are present — trainee teachers, according to Dinesh. David Villa and his parents are already inside. The room is full and we cram in at the door. The teacher doing the training tells us that they try to get the kids learning English as soon as possible. One of the ways they do this is to teach them English rhymes as well as the Hindi translations of those rhymes. Right now they’re learning “Jingle Bells.” A woman is singing in a clear, loud, high voice, one line at a time. The kids repeat indistinctly after her:

Ghanti bajao, ghanti bajao
Saare raaste mein
Santa Claus aa rahe hai
Khulli gaadi mein

I’m sure the school is doing a fine job in general, but I find the selection of rhyme so dismaying that I stagger away from the cluster at the door and wait for the others some distance away. Who is Santa Claus and why is he coming? Why should I sound a bell (as the Hindi words exhort)? In the absence of a culture in which Santa Claus is a keenly awaited bearer of presents, asking kids to learn this rhyme makes about as much sense as riding a sleigh in Mumbai. Worse, when the first units of one’s formal education turn out to be bewildering things with no relation to the world around, they send the message that education really isn’t about very much, just a series of sounds or symbols to be memorized. If English must be taught here to toddlers, it might make more sense to translate Hindi rhymes into English, not the other way round.

But then, maybe an early familiarity with bewilderment is a good thing if the kids are going routinely to have strangers from distant lands peeking into their homes. And maybe it makes sense that this part of their education is being sponsored by those very tourists. If slum tourism must exist at all, this model — the Santa Claus model? — would seem the way to go. There’s something for everyone: the tourists have their curiosity sated, their minds broadened; the slum residents benefit from the proceeds in various ways; and a few enterprising enablers make a living.

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