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Photo by Bartlomiej Molga
El Carmel in December 2008
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Photo by Bartlomiej Molga
El Carmel intervieweesNuria Soler Gibert and Daniel Canyelles
When disaster strikes a city, there are unfortunately always those who will seek to exploit the situation for economic gain. One clear example was Hurricane Katrina, when the famed economist Milton Friedman recommended that the disaster was a perfect opportunity to privatise all the schools in New Orleans. And, of course, there surely isn’t a more textbook example of such a perverse hijacking of tragedy than the events of 9/11, and how the Bush administration manipulated it for their own agenda.
The disaster that befell the Barcelona neighbourhood of El Carmel on January 25th, 2005 has undergone the same cynical treatment according to many residents who were affected and now face the loss of their homes. That night, 12 families who lived at number 10 Pasaje de Calafell were urgently evacuated from their homes. The reason—their apartment block was suddenly on the verge of collapse. Forty-eight hours later, the garage adjoining it was simply swallowed up by the earth. Tunnelling work under the neighbourhood to extend Line 5 of the metro had unknowingly hit unstable clay, causing a huge chasm 35 metres deep and 30 metres wide, which made everything above and around it unsafe. However, as bad as ensuing events were for all those who lost their homes and were never even allowed to return to collect valuables, it was only the beginning of a nightmare for Carmel’s residents.
As a result of ‘el hundimiento del Carmel’ (‘the sinking of Carmel’), 1,276 residents were evacuated to temporary accommodations, or to live with relatives. Many did not have a chance to rescue their personal belongings and for some of them it would be almost two years before they would be allowed to return. Fifteen thousand others were affected due to the damage the collapse had done to surrounding buildings. Many businesses simply went bankrupt and two schools had to be closed down. On surveying the damage the tunnelling had done to Carmel, then Generalitat president Pasqual Maragall put the disaster on a par with the Prestige oil spill three years earlier. The official investigation pointed fingers at everyone from sloppy constructors to local government, especially the failure to conduct thorough geological surveys. Now though, what started as a terrible man-made disaster has turned into a turf war between constructors and government on one side, and Carmel’s long-suffering residents on the other.
“What’s happened here is tragic and scandalous,” said British resident Fay Shelton, who moved to Carmel just months before the collapse. “The local authorities and construction companies are combining to exploit this tragedy the best they can. They’ve been trying to declare the whole area as ‘unsafe’ for years so that they can raze large parts of Carmel and Horta-Gunairdó to the ground and rebuild it with luxury flats. The 2005 collapse has given them the perfect excuse to accelerate designs they’ve had on this area for a very long time.”
Developers could not have picked a harder target, if they do wish to harass Carmel’s residents out of their beloved neighbourhood. The Ajuntament’s urban redevelopment plan, or Pla General Metropolità (PGM), aims to raze in excess of 500 homes around Carmel over the next 12 years, galvanising the mainly working-class Andalucian residents of Carmel and Horta-Guinardó into an extremely active, vocal and varied protest movement of people whose homes are ‘afectat’ (scheduled for demolition). They are determined to block what they see as nothing more than the expropriation of their homes by commercial developers.
The marketing blurb promoted by the Agència de Promoció del Carmel i Entorns in charge of redevelopment sounds harmless enough. It states that its aims include improving public areas, increasing the number of green zones and building more parking space. However, Shelton said, the reality is very different. “What’s happening in Carmel is actually a microcosm of what’s happening across Barcelona and, indeed, Spain as a whole,” she said.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if they were going to destroy our homes to build more social housing, but 85 percent of the planned developments are luxury flats. I’m involved with the Asociació de Afectats de Carmel but there are about nine such associations covering 32 different areas stretching from Vall d’Hebron to El Clot all fighting similar sorts of battles.”
The worst shock for many residents was that many of them were totally unaware that their homes had been declared ‘afectat’ by the council and earmarked for future destruction. One such pair of unknowing victims were a Spanish couple, Nuria Soler Gibert and Daniel Canyelles, who paid €240,000 for their flat in Carrer Passerell, in July. Fifteen days later, they were informed by the Ajuntament that it was due for demolition as part of the Carmel PGM project. Neither the estate agent nor the notary had even hinted that their flat could fall within a plan to destroy 500 homes there.
“We think that the estate agent probably knew about the redevelopment plans,” lamented Nuria. “The first visit they gave us was incredibly quick and it was at a time of day when there weren’t many neighbours around to warn us. The second visit was equally quick—the estate agent told us that another couple were very interested so we were hurried into making an offer. We had barely a couple of days to enjoy our new home before this hit us and it’s not clear if we can prosecute yet—it’s a nightmare.”
The Ajuntament flatly rejects that there’s foul play involved in any of the developments. “The areas that we’ve designated for redevelopment have pure and simply been dictated by the terrain because geologically we can only build and re-house residents in certain areas,” local councillor Elsa Blasco told TV3.
The origins of the conflict can in fact be traced back more than 50 years when thousands of Andalucians arrived in Carmel during the Fifties to escape poverty in their own region. Many arrived to what then was just scrubland, and built their own crude homes in the hills of Carmel overlooking Barcelona, using any material on which they could get their hands. Many started without sanitation or electricity. Nowadays, most homes have been connected to basic services, but according to the Ajuntament most of the housing that has been condemned is because it does not comply with minimum health and safety standards.
Jordi Castella, a spokesman for the residents’ movement, acknowledged that remodelling is necessary in the area, but stressed that it needs to be done in accordance with the needs of residents, not the building firms. “The neighbourhood needs improvement, but not arbitrarily so. Any redevelopments in this area, like anywhere else, must be properly justified.”
Probably the only saving grace in the whole episode for the residents of Carmel has been the robustness of the property market following the sinkhole’s appearance, but those hoping to be paid the market value of their flat by developers have been severely disillusioned. “The compensation that’s being offered to those who are being asked to move out is derisory,” said Shelton. “For instance, someone who bought their flat for 12 million pesetas (€70,000) four years ago, will be offered around 10 million pesetas (€60,000) to move out now, which is obviously nowhere near the market value.”
One silver lining in the economic woes of 2008 for Carmel homeowners has been that the financial crisis has cooled down the construction industry, and may yet provide one final twist in the tale.