The Anxious Enchantment of Poverty

The Emoya Shantytown Hotel

The Emoya Shantytown Hotel

Westerners have long been fascinated by poverty, simultaneously enchanted by human resolve in the face of hardship and anxious about gross human injustices in the midst of affluence.  In 1896, for instance, traveler H.C. Bunner noted that “I have missed art galleries and palaces and theatres and cathedrals (cathedrals particularly) in various and sundry cities, but I don’t think I ever missed a slum.”  Bunner and many of the observers chronicling the lives of the poor often painted pictures of impoverishment that are patently ridiculous at best, and in many cases the representations of penury are simply reprehensible.

One of the most crass contemporary interpretations of poverty may be the Emoya Shantytown Hotel, a faux South African “informal settlement” in Bloomfontein borrowing the aesthetics of South African townships.  The hotel allows guests to “experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment of a private game reserve. This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless internet access!”  It is difficult to resist ridiculing such offensive enthusiasm for an overnight descent into poverty.  Gizmodo, for instance, mocked the resort’s effort to “recreate the joys of slum living without the nuisances of crime, disease, or poor sanitation”; Atlas Obscura concluded that “Unlike the atmosphere of struggle and danger that exists for the millions of people living in real South African shanty towns, Emoya’s Shanty Town attempts to foster a warm vibe of back-to-basics community,” which “may be the nadir of class tourism, a place where people can pay more to pretend to have less”; and Stephen Colbert dubbed the odd resort “glamour slumming.”

A newly married couple after an Emoya wedding.

A newly married couple after an Emoya wedding.  Zachary Levenson notes that  the room numbers are meant to mimic enumeration markings municipalities painted on shanty doors.

The resort’s “informal settlement” is of course simply a privileged imagination of impoverishment, a distorted imitation of a shantytown life that never existed.  Nevertheless, the media mockery of Emoya risks evading our uneasy enchantment with profound impoverishment and the gross inequalities illuminated by crushing blight.  The voyeuristic dimensions of “slumming” and “poverty porn” acknowledge our anxieties but typically display them in ways that temper our apprehensions of stark poverty’s injustice.  Rather than simply lament shallow popular displays of poverty, we might instead concede our fascination with impoverishment and probe how it might lead to new forms of activism and not simply legitimize penury.

By the late-19th century many genteel visitors considered slum visits a routine part of bourgeois urban life and tourism.  Charles Dickens blazed the trail in his 1842 American Notes for General Circulation when he toured New York City’s Five Points neighborhood, concluding that “as you glance about you in these dark retreats, some figure crawls half-awakened, as if the judgment-hour were near at hand, and every obscene grave were giving up its dead.  Where dogs would howl to lie, women, and men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.”  In 1884 the New York Times argued that slum tourism had its roots in the UK, where “the London ‘slumming’ has brought to the notice of the rich much suffering, and led to many sanitary reforms.”  The paper suggested that “the visiting of the slums of the great city by parties of ladies and gentlemen for sightseeing” will “become a form of fashionable dissipation this Winter among our belles.”  In contrast to the UK, though, “the mania here has assumed the single form of sightseeing—the more noble ambition of alleviating the condition of the desperately poor visited has not animated the adventurous parties.”

Many of the genteel slum tourists reduced poverty to an engaging aesthetic that symbolized racial, ethnic, and class diversity.  In 1899, for instance, Scottish traveler William Archer concluded that New York’s “slums have a Southern air about them, a variety of contour and colour—in some aspects one might almost say a gaiety. … For one thing, the ubiquitous balconies and fire escapes serve of themselves to break the monotony of line, and lend, as it were, a peculiar texture to the scene; to say nothing of the opportunities they afford for the display of multifarious shreds and patches of colour. Then the houses themselves are often brightly, not to say loudly, painted; so that in the clear, sparkling atmosphere characteristic of New York, the most squalid slum puts on a many-coloured Southern aspect.”  Archer’s suggestion that New York slums had an African-American aesthetic was repeated by Ray Stannard Baker in 1904 when he noted that in Southern cities, “The temperament of the Negro is irrepressibly cheerful, he overflows from his small home… and his squalour is not unpicturesque.”

The Birmingham community that hosts "Benefits Street" is James Turner Street in everyday life.

The Birmingham community that hosts “Benefits Street” is James Turner Street in everyday life.

BBC’s 2014 series Benefits Street is much like Victorian travelogues and bourgeois shanty hotels that revolve around our curiosity to see if not experience exceptional poverty.  Benefits Street follows a series of Birmingham residents in a neighborhood that Channel 4 described as “one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets.”  The five-episode documentary/reality show charts the everyday experience of poverty among a few individuals, observing the everyday tactics and desperation of the impoverished and painting the material and social landscape of poverty.  The ratings alone suggest that there is widespread curiosity about poverty and welfare in the UK: the 4.3 million viewers for the series’ first episode on January 6th made it more popular than any of Channel 4’s 2013 programs, and the subsequent two episodes drew 5.1 and 5.2 million viewers.  Nevertheless, the first episodes documented tactics such as shoplifting and the drug trade, leading some observers to complain that the series exploited popular preconceptions about poverty and was not a study of “neighbourly togetherness and community spirit,” as some residents believed it would be.  Using a similar formula to Benefits Street, BBC3’s 2013 People Like Us followed impoverished residents in Manchester estate housing.  The Guardian’s Fern Brady referred to People Like Us as a “pantomime” of poverty in which “every ancient stereotype of the working class is endorsed – obesity, sexual deviancy, alcoholism, chain-smoking, and antisocial behaviour.”

A media image of James Turner Street, where "Benefits Street" was filmed.

A media image of James Turner Street.

BBC suggests that Benefits Street and tonight’s live Benefits Street: The Debate will be part of a measured assessment of welfare.  However, these discourses willfully avoid audiences’ existing feelings about poor people and state benefits.  For some observers, for instance, the show confirms their deep-seated aversion to state welfare.  Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith concluded that the “shocking” series confirms “why the public backs our welfare reform package, to get more people back to work, to end these abuses.” Breitbart’s Raheem Kassan lamented that Benefits Street revealed “how some people on welfare in the UK forge or fake their inability to work in order to stay at home and receive taxpayer money in place of a salary.”  The head of the production company that filmed Benefits Street argued that “It’s a very honest and true portrayal of life in Britain and people are frightened of it.”  In contrast, The Independent’s Owen Jones deplored the shows’ “hunt for unsympathetic examples of unemployed people – in this case, on a street in Birmingham; they portray them in the worst possible light; and they fuel the pervasive sense that people on benefits are feckless scroungers.”  Jones’ prescient reading of Benefits Street concludes that “A healthy media would stand up to the powerful and wealthy.  Not ours, though: instead it stands up to the poor and voiceless.”

The intense response to Benefits Street and the host of curious tourists who have flocked to the neighborhood underscores the anxiety and fascination society has with its most materially marginalized members.  The degree to which we know anything about difference—poverty, racism, sexism—is profoundly shaped by our experiences with difference, and for many of us those experiences come through mass culture: a few minutes on the local news or perhaps five hours of a documentary filmed over a year provide inevitably selective pictures of everyday life.  Those media pictures in large part make places like Emoya Shantytown a believable fantasy on some level: that is, the Emoya slum hotel is experienced as a sanitized fantasy that openly imitates our own distorted caricatures of life in the most extreme poverty and racism.  Benefits Street is an interesting exercise, but it ultimately seems to make the same mistake as many other slum tourists by fixating on the idiosyncratic everyday moments in poor peoples’ lives and failing to turn an eye on the structural conditions that make impoverishment not just possible but absolutely inevitable.


William Archer

1899 America To-Day, Observations and Reflections. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Ray Stannard Baker

1904 Following the Color Line: An Account of Negro Citizenship in the American Democracy. S.S. McClure Company, New York.

H.C. Bunner

1896 Jersey Street and Jersey Lane, Urban and Suburban Sketches. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Robert M. Dowling

2001 Slumming: Morality and Space in New York City from “City Mysteries” to the Harlem Renaissance. Doctoral dissertation, Department of English, City University of New York.

Alex Jonathan Feerst

2005 Bowery Beautiful: Progressive Slumming and Ghetto Aesthetics, 1880-1930. Doctoral dissertation, Department of English, Duke University.

Chad Heap

2009 Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Zachary Levenson

2013 How About Booking a Night in This “Shantytown”?  Africa is a Country 11 November.

Alan Mayne

2007 Tall Tales but True? New York’s “Five Points” Slum. Journal of Urban History 33(2):320-331.  (subscription access)

New York Times

1884 Slumming in This TownNew York Times 14 Sep 1884:4.


Benefits Street/James Turner Street sign image from Wikipedia

Emoya Wedding Image from Africa is a Country

James Turner Street scene image from the Express

Posted on February 17, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I was sitting in a coffee place here in Memphis and some aged looking hippie in a tie-dye shirt was going on into his cell phone about how he had stayed at the Shack Up Inn ( the night before in Clarksdale, MS – and how it was like the real thing, and you could just “feel what it was like” but somehow I think not.

    Or consider the Follow The North Star program at Conner Prairie ( where you can “. . . come face-to-face with slave hunters, see fear and hope in the eyes of a fellow runaway and be encouraged by a Quaker family. Experience life as a fugitive slave during your journey through one of the most compelling periods in Indiana’s history.” all in a brief 90 minute adventure. So slavery is just about being yelled at and told what to do . . . I think not.

    One of my Anthro Profs once proclaimed that with the intimate engagement of their work in an urban Appalachian community, it was “difficult to tell the anthropologists from the community residents” but again, I think not. In this instance in particular, the anthropologists got into their SAABs and SUVs at the end of the meeting and drove to their homes, on the other side of town.

    The great trivialization of the other.

  2. Great discussion of a difficult aspect of tourism culture. I am encouraged that the British are having a conversation about poverty within their borders, even if the discourse is still dominated by distorted, affluent perspectives of the marginalized. Maybe there will be a few moments that highlight humanity, not just difference.

  3. It’s perturbing the extent to which we glorify so many terrible or even mundane actions or concepts in today’s world. By the way, that shanty would be a full-blown dream to a large portion of people in our world. Thank you for shedding light on this, superb article! 🙂

  4. Reblogged this on and commented:
    It’s so true. As a photographer and documenter my interest is strong in poverty and I have often wondered why. I guess its the unusual aspect plus the poverty stricken are often vulnerable to be photographed, ie privacy is not a right the poverty stricken can protect well.

  5. Reblogged this on A Blog About Culture and commented:
    What a provocative post. I think its author, Paul Mullins, covered a lot of ground on the topic of “the anxious enchantment of poverty” (and what a title! Much better than I could have come up with). I’m left with a variety of [unanswerable] questions.

    I wonder what it is about modern privileged society that romanticizes slum life. A reminder of one’s fortune? Seems too simple. A solution to a guilt complex that arises from that fortune? Perhaps more likely. People just don’t care about others and feel no qualms about gawking? I would like to think not, and I’d like to blame that on misunderstanding.

    I was struck by one quotation that Mullins pulled — a description of Southern slums — “The temperament of the Negro is irrepressibly cheerful, he overflows from his small home… and his squalor is not unpicturesque.” This is reminding me of Snow White bursting out of a cottage in singsong. This is also reminding me terribly of the way I felt about the general tourist approach to visiting Nepal.

    [I want to make a note — I don’t want this entire blog to be about Nepali representation. I am aware of the fact that I feel defensive about it, and it is certainly problematic for me to be introducing dialogue on it as if I were a citizen, when in some ways I am almost an academic tourist myself.]

    While I was in Kathmandu, I made several notes of the tourism industry’s tendency to focus on cultural heritage as a current reality. I wrote about those observations in my thesis last summer — I believe that nostalgia created rosy-yet-false cultural markers for representing modern Nepal (in a nutshell). But I guess I believe, too, that it happened out of well intentions, not some sort of devious Capitalistic greed that might have been depicted in Soviet propaganda.

    I think that nostalgia created different worlds… and perhaps there’s where it becomes okay to be a slum tourist. I think nostalgia took over, in a way, and muddled the lines of cross-cultural communication.

    In 1983’s Simulations, Baudrillard wrote, “When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity. There is an escalation of the true, of the lived experience; a resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared” (2). I think that if nostalgia can be indeed so powerful, then certainly it can blur the lines of common decency. There it is — “common decency” relies on common ground, points of interpersonal connection. Nostalgia takes hold, and the well-to-do find some kind of reason for being there. They think it’s cute, or something, to have their wedding in a shanty town and prove that they don’t need money because they’re so in love. They’re ignoring, of course, all the other issues that come with real poverty. They’re just seeing Snow White.

    Not sure that this post made sense. Paul Mullins wrote so much in his post that I had many thoughts on this subject, and I think I may have just tried to consolidate them all into one cohesive thing… unsuccessfully. Well, I know what I mean, and that is what matters on this blog.

    • Sorry, didn’t know my whole response would show up as a comment on your account as well. Highly enjoyed your post.

    • I probably cannot do justice to your thoughtful comments (and I wish I had thought of Baudrillard, which is an interesting and spot-on comment), but perhaps your central anxiety with “slum tourism” is a desire for “common decency,” which illuminates the ethics of observing impoverishment as something exterior to a tourist’s life. I believe that slum tourism really can work toward activist ends (and maybe even produce profit along the way) when impoverishment and inequality are recognized as structural realities and part of our lives as observers/tourists.Thanks for the thoughts, they are more than cohesive enough.

      • After I read your post, I first thought of the photography of Jacob Riis, whose eye seems to be shared by the author of the comment above me. Riis is generally considered to have been able to capture the reality of tenement living — and his work contributed to social reform, as it exposed conditions that the bourgeois either ignored or were blissfully ignorant of. But now we do know about it. Do you think that modern appreciation of “How the Other Half Lives” could be considered a form of “slum tourism?” I think that it could be, but a kind of socially-activist interest, as you bring up. More thoughts. 🙂

  1. Pingback: O Encantamento da Pobreza | Livre Opinião - Ideias em Debate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: