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The Slumdog Effect

A look at how Slumdog Millionaire has changed the way people look at — and visit — slums around the world.

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Last month, Slumdog Millionaire took home eight Oscars. The big-name star in this unlikely winner was not a Hollywood celebrity or a famous leading lady. It was Mumbai, India. More specifically, it was the slums of Mumbai. The unexpected success of the Danny Boyle-directed love story set against a rapidly changing urban landscape has not only inspired seemingly endless newspaper articles about the cute child actors swept out of their own real-life slums to stardom but has also drawn sharp criticism for its romantic and sometimes caricatured portrayal of Mumbai. Alice Miles, a columnist for the Times of London, recently coined the term “poverty porn“ to describe the film, disapproving of its voyeuristic and exploitative look into slum life. One farcical scene in which the young lead takes a stereotypically naive American couple on an impromptu tour of a local slum is not too far from real life. Last March, the New York Times reported on the growing—and controversial—trend of slum tourism, or “poorism.” From Mexico to Johannesburg, tour operators are offering a close-up look at life in the crowded, bleak corners of urban areas across the world—all for a fee, of course. For a nine-hour, five-person tour of Dharavi (the slum featured in Slumdog Millionaire), including a visit to the red light district and an open-air laundry area, you can expect to pay 5,400 rupees, or the equivalent of about $135. Since the film’s release, Reality Tours and Travel, the company that operates the “Slum and Sightseeing Tour” through Dharavi, reports seeing sales jump 25 percent. At the very least, even if the average movie-goer would prefer the razzle-dazzle of the film version to the real-life dirt and grime, Slumdog Millionaire has created a new forum for discussion on urban slums. The Boston Globe recently reported on the need to reconsider and redefine slums, or “informal settlements”, even suggesting looking to them for ideas on urban planning and design. While it is impossible to overlook the obvious disadvantages to slum-dwelling, some urban thinkers (including the U.K.‘s Prince Charles, who founded the Foundation for the Built Environment) argue slums should not be ignored for their potential contributions to urban development. They can offer modern cities lessons on how to plan high-density, mixed-use developments with tight-knit communities, say slum supporters. It is not a glorification of slum life, but it is not a complete dismissal either. But not everyone is entirely convinced. In preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver is desperately trying to clean up its most notorious Downtown Eastside slum, throwing over $1.4 billion at the problem to no avail. Rather than looking to the drug-ridden neighborhood as a model for city design, Vancouver has been hoping to review, revitalize and completely rework the area since the national, provincial and city governments all signed on to the Vancouver Agreement in 2000. But if the landmark development initiative wants to reach its goal by its March 2010 deadline, Vancouver will have to step up its efforts. Time is running out for the Downtown Eastside, and Vancouver is hardly looking to add slum tourism to its Olympic schedule.

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