Billy rolls out a blueprint of the entire squatter community on an outdoor stage floor. It’s a makeshift stage for various social events and rallies. At the top of the stage, above a long row of skinny neon lights, hangs a plaque:
THE PEOPLE’S STAGE
Khanita – Billy’s boss – climbs up the stage stairs
to take a glimpse at the blueprint. She has a porcelain skin and a face
that one usually finds in a Japanese or a Korean. She has been with the
Community Organization Development Institute (CODI) for over 10 years.
“Let me see,” she says; staring at the blueprint for sometime; rubbing
her chin with her thumb. The blueprint shows the existing and the proposed
plan. An abandoned railroad track runs beneath the middle section of the
community. The State Railway Authority still owns the land around the
buried railroad tracks; and they have other development plans in mind
other than allowing it to remain - according to their economic development
advisors - a slum. And this is where the conflict started.
The squatters want to continue living along the tracks, but the State Railway doesn’t want them there. Billy and his architect team from CODI are trying to convince the State Railway that there are alternatives to evictions. The new plan, as proposed by Billy, shows the location of the existing houses in relation to the railroad track. It divides the houses into 3 parts.
Part A shows all the houses within 15 meters of the track and are marked with two red lines on each side of the track. Part B shows all the houses beyond 15 meters of the track. And Part C shows the houses that situated right on the red 15 meters cut-off line.
“We are trying to give them some flexibility,” says Billy. “Those people in the ‘A’ category will have a short term 7 years lease with the Railway Authority, while those in the ‘B’ category will have a longer 30 years lease with the Railway Authority. Part C could choose between going for a 30 year lease, or a 7 year lease depending on the actual location of the houses.”
“Who came up with this idea?” ask Khanita calmly.
“Well, we talked to the people in the community, and this is what they’ve suggested,” says Billy.
“Are there more people in the ‘B’ category?”
“Yes, most people are in the ‘B’ category; only a few houses lie right on the railroad track.”
‘That’s why they came up with this proposal, I see. When you tell the folks to take a vote, this kind of proposal always crop up.”
“What do you mean?” asks Billy
“Voting is not always the best tool in community organizing,” says Khanita. “When there is a threat of eviction, the method of voting - democratic as it may seem - could actually split apart the entire fabric of the community.”
Billy looks dazed.
“The folks beyond the red line obviously would care less about the people whose houses lie within the red line; so they would vote them off the site; out of selfish reason, which I can understand,” she continues.
“But this is what they wanted,” says Billy.
“Not if we boycotted the plan!” says Khanita in a serious tone.
“We could tell the folks that unless we go together as one community into the negotiation room, the State Railway would rip us apart. According to this plan, there would be one faction of people who could stay on and another faction of people who must leave within 7 years,” she continues. “There will be internal fighting within the community, and that is certainly not to our advantage.”
“I could tell the folks that unless they agree to go for 30 year lease for all households, we will not take part in assisting them,” says Billy.
“We could also ask the folks if the houses within the red line could be moved to other locations within the site; or perhaps some larger houses could make room for the people that have their feet within the red line. This way, the community will need to work together to solve a common problem. They will have to think about the new plan, the new layout, some people with large houses will need to make some sacrifices. They could discuss this together in a public forum,” says Khanita.
“I could draw up some initial plan and do some movable paper models for the forum, so that the folks can play around and design the new layout together,” says Billy.
“That would be one idea. You can do whatever you like, but the main point is to create unity through the process of designing and building. We want a more socially cohesive community at the end of the process.”
“I agree,” says Billy as he looks around the stage. It’s now 11:20 AM; almost noon time. The place is suddenly crowded with people; they emerged from out of nowhere. The folded umbrellas on steel poles - which moments ago, appeared like sleeping crows - now opened up into a bustling market with fresh fish, eggs, meat, and myriad of fruits and vegetables.
People have been living here for over 30 years. There are a total of 750 households which covers 25 acre of land. Half of that land belongs to the State Railway Authority. There is a mixed of Muslim and Buddhist in the community. The word “Gu Bor” has an Arabic origin; it means ‘cemetery.’ But no one knows why this site is called ‘cemetery.’ It would not be a surprise if the site used to be a cemetery, since most cities tend to grow outwards in rings – like a tree trunk. And in doing so, part of the city that used to lie on the outer ring – such as cemeteries - now becomes part of the inner ring.
Billy and Khanita rolled up the blueprint and put a rubber band around it.
“I have to go,” says Khanita as she carefully treads the steps the PEOPLE’S STAGE down to the walkway below.
“Ok, I’ll see you back at the office,” says Billy as he thanks her again for coming.
Billy walks along the alleyways of the colorful market. Several office workers can be seen drinking ‘chak tea’ – a type of southern tea that is made by acrobatically throwing a mixture of tea and condensed milk in the air so that the whole process appears like ‘pulling’ (chak) a string of liquid.
There is a childcare center behind where the ‘chak tea’ vendor is standing and doing his acrobats. A health center is right across from the childcare center. It is a small community clinic run by the Songkla Hospital. It hours of operation runs from 8:30 AM to 4:00 PM, Monday to Friday. To the side of the clinic’s entry doors, one could see a large poster with a list of common diseases that are found within this community.
1. LUNG AND BREATHING RELATED DISEASES 41.70%
An attractive young doctor – probably in her late 20s – arrives back from her lunch break. She turns away towards the door and takes out a key. “Please come in,” she says “The clinic is open.”
“Thanks, but I’m not here for the diagnosis,” says Billy.
“You are an architect?” she asks looking at a large roll of blueprint in his hand.
“Yeah, a community architect,” says Billy proudly as he glances at her fine and healthy figure which contrasts sharply with the posters of various grisly diseases behind her.
“A community architect,” she repeats.
“Yeah, I do the same work as you do with your clinic here,” says Billy. “Making improvement to the living conditions of the people.”
“It’s a very important work,” she says. “People who live in bad environment often got sick. Poverty and diseases are bed fellows, you know.”
“People are just as healthy as their environment,” Billy agrees.
“You guys should make people aware of the poor people’s plight. Not too many people know about the real conditions here in the slums; they all think that we’re bunch of drug addicts. In truth,” she raises her finger. “We’re a vibrant community of artists, writers, civil servants, plumbers, masons, electricians, doctors and now…”
“Yes…..architects,” says Billy.
“Want anything to drink? I’ve good coffee,” says the doctor.
“Sure, why not!” says Billy; glancing at his watch. His boss, Khanita, would simply have to wait.
In 2008, the Community Organization Development Agency (CODI) has given the Gu Bor community a grant of 20,000 baht per household to do infrastructure upgrade such as sanitation, water supply, and electricity. CODI is now in the process of negotiating a land lease from the State Railway Authority.