10 Cities Within Cities That Became Their Own Hidden Worlds

In cities all over the world, there are neighborhoods that are "hidden," literally or figuratively. Some of them are blatantly ignored by their own government; the Kamagasaki district in Osaka, Japan, isn't even included on official maps of the city; while for years the government in Caracas, Venezuela, turned a blind eye to the fact that thousands of squatters were living in an abandoned, partially built high-rise nicknamed the "Tower of David."

Others - like Ras Khamis in Jerusalem, the artificial island of Dejima located in Nagasaki, and Venice's Jewish Quarter - were physically cut off from the rest of their respective cities in order to segregate and control a specific segment of the population. One (Vatican City) even eventually became an independent country.

Many of these "hidden" cities are known for their crowded living quarters, poverty, and crime. But a much more positive thing also existed in many of these districts - a true sense of community.


  • At Its Peak, Hong Kong's Kowloon Contained More Than 33,000 People Packed Into A Single City Block
    Photo: Ian Lambot / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    At Its Peak, Hong Kong's Kowloon Contained More Than 33,000 People Packed Into A Single City Block

    When Hong Kong was ceded by China to Great Britain in 1842, the British government allowed the Chinese to remain in the area known as Kowloon as long as they didn't interfere with any political affairs.

    China regained full control of Kowloon in 1947, but neither the Chinese nor the British government spent any effort on policing the area. This allowed squatters to move in; by 1950, the population in the walled city had grown to 17,000.

    Sitting on just two hectares (or 4.9 acres) of land, Kowloon was connected by a series of damp, dark subterranean corridors with tiny apartments built on top of one another. Some of the streets and alleyways were so narrow that  one had to walk sideways through them. There was also a network of passageways in the upper levels that allowed one to get around Kowloon without being on ground level. Because of the cramped living and working conditions, Kowloon had the feel of a village culture.

    Illegal and unregulated businesses like opium dens and brothels sat side by side with more legitimate businesses (such as restaurants, doctor's and dentist's offices, and factories that made fish balls) and the residents' apartments. As Greg Girard, a photographer who collaborated on a book about Kowloon entitled City of Darkness, explained to Business Insider:

    There was never any top-down guidance or planning about how the place should be. It grew as an organic response to people's needs.

    With neither the Chinese nor the British paying attention to what went on within the walls, Kowloon soon became known for its gangs, drugs, and other crime. It was actually the Chinese Mafia (AKA "the Triads") that tried to bring some organization to Kowloon's combination of energy and chaos. Working as a sort of city council, the Triads organized rubbish disposal and resolved conflicts between competing businesses, among other things.

    At its peak, this walled city was home to about 33,000 people, making it the most densely populated place in the world. But in the 1980s, the Chinese and British governments decided that the overcrowded, unregulated area was too much of an embarrassment and decided to tear Kowloon down.

    The residents - who were given monetary compensation - were evicted between 1987 and 1992, with demolition of the walled city beginning in 1993. The site was then turned into a public park.

  • Located on about 100 acres of land on the west bank of the Tiber River in Rome, Italy, Vatican City is the world's smallest country. It was made a sovereign nation with the signing of the Lateran Pacts in 1929.

    Of course, the Vatican was the seat of the Catholic Church long before the area became its own country; this history dates back to the fourth century when a basilica was built over St. Peter's grave. The site was abandoned in 1309 after the Papal Court moved to France, but was revived after the Church returned in 1377. 

    The Sistine Chapel and a newer St. Peter’s Basilica are among the landmarks located within Vatican City. The pope's permanent residence is the Apostolic Palace; construction of the palace, which is approximately 162,000 square meters in size, took place mainly between 1471 and 1605.

    Until the 1870s, popes controlled regional territories known as the Papal States. When the Italian government claimed most of these lands, a standoff between the Church and government ensued. This standoff ended with the signing of the Lateran Pacts in February 1929. In addition to establishing Vatican City as an independent country, these pacts granted the Church $92 million in compensation for the loss of the Papal States.

    Vatican City currently has about 600 citizens. That includes the members of the Swiss Guard, a security detail that has had the responsibility of protecting the pope since 1506.

  • Taipei's Treasure Hill Began As An Anti-Communist Enclave
    Photo: Spitewrote / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Located in the Gongguan District of Taiwan's capital city of Taipei and overlooking the Xindian River, Treasure Hill is currently home to only about two dozen families; the rest of the area has been converted into various types of artist spaces.

    But the area began its life in the late 1940s as a fortified area designed to protect the southwestern side of the capital city from Communist air attacks. In the beginning, the area consisted of just six households, but when military restrictions on construction in the area were lifted in the 1970s, many military families began moving in, often building their homes from stones taken from the river. Immigrants from China and rural Taiwan, as squatters seeking low-income housing, also moved in; at its height, there were approximately 200 households in Treasure Hill.

    But many of the structures were declared illegal, and in 1980, the Taipei city government announced plans to demolish the Treasure Hill community and turn the land into a park. A huge public outcry ensued. It look years of negotiation before the area was granted protected status in 2004.

    After a period of redevelopment, Treasure Hill was turned into an artist community in 2010. 

  • Now Located In One Of Asia's Richest Business Centers, Dharavi Originated As A Humble Fishing Village

    Located in the heart of Mumbai, which is the financial and entertainment capital of India, is a densely populated slum known as Dharavi. Somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million people reside in the neighborhood, which is less than 5 square kilometers in size and was the inspiration for the award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.

    The neighborhood is made up of narrow lanes, rundown buildings and open sewers. Around 80% of the residents use the community toilets. But Dharavi also houses approximately 15,000 single-room factories that produce some of the high-end goods one might find for sale in malls and showrooms in the United States and Europe.

    Dharavi wasn't always an overcrowded city slum. Its original incarnation, in 1884, was as a fishing village. At that time, it was a swampy area. But when the swamp started to fill in, migrant workers from south Mumbai and the rural areas of India began to move into the neighborhood.

  • Ras Khamis Was Literally Walled Off From The Rest Of Jerusalem In The 2000s

    In 2010, the neighborhood of Ras Khamis was cut off from the rest of Jerusalem when Israel erected a concrete wall in and around the West Bank that they claimed was a barrier against Palestinian suicide bombers.

    A bus driver named Yehia Tamimi told NPR:

    People are separated by a gate from the Jerusalem community. Sometimes they open this gate, sometimes they don't open this gate.

    The Israeli government began constructing the barrier in 2002, but the wall cutting off Ras Khamis didn't go up until 2010. Abu Issa, the head of the neighborhood's local council, told NPR:

    We woke up in the morning and found this checkpoint, with all its structures, surrounding us. We protested, but they did nothing. They are suffocating us completely.

    Pointing out that there haven't been any suicide bombings in the area in the last two years, he claimed that the barrier was meant to confine the Arab population in Jerusalem in order to strengthen Jewish claims to the city. He also claimed that Palestinian families were being relocated to Ras Khamis from other east Jerusalem neighborhoods in order to better control the Arab population in the city.

    In 2010, about 40,000 residents lived in Ras Khamis - a neighborhood that had no schools, hospitals, or medical clinics, and where the houses almost appeared to have been built on top of each other.

    Conditions in the neighborhood got worse over the next few years. Once the concrete wall was up, the city of Jerusalem stopped providing most of its services to the residents of Ras Khamis; for example, there were few roads in the neighborhood and the city only provided partial water supply and garbage collection.

    So in 2016, the residents took matters into their own hands, raising around 2 million shekels (approximately $530,000) to pay for the construction of a new road - complete with drainage and sewage infrastructure.

  • Following A Banking Crisis In Caracas, The Abandoned 'Tower Of David' Became Home To 3,000 Squatters

    Construction began on the Venezuelan office high-rise called the Centro Financiero Confinanzas in 1990. But the combination of the passing of the building's main investor and a banking crisis in Caracas halted the construction in 1994.

    The 45-story building then remained vacant until 2007, when squatters started moving in to the complex. It was nicknamed the "Tower of David" after the complex's late primary investor David Brillembourg. By 2014, approximately 3,000 squatters called the partially completed skyscraper home.

    According to reports, although the complex was sometimes referred to as a "vertical slum," it was actually a well-organized community with corridors that were cleaned daily, well-kept apartments, work schedules, and even its own in-house rules. On the other hand, some reports said people had fallen to their deaths from unprotected areas, there were no working elevators, and the power and water service was erratic.

    Beginning in the summer of 2014, the squatters were peacefully evicted from the complex, with many of them reportedly being relocated to the town of Cua, south of the city.

    In 2018, the abandoned complex suffered significant earthquake damage.