As someone who first visited Barcelona only a few years ago, my mental image of the city is much the same as its current reality. I notice small changes, but in general the overly bright Desigual advertisements lining the Ramblas, the gelato shops on every corner, the mishmash of nationalities and tastes and economic backgrounds, the restaurants, bars, hotels, and discotecas… It all looks like Barcelona to me. But this is the view of a newcomer, an outsider, not of someone who has watched the microcosm of her community change day by day over a period of decades.
I spoke to three dynamic women who have each lived adventurous lives, and have each seen her neighbourhood transform itself over the years.
Clorinda—elegant, eloquent and equipped with a quick wit—has lived in Eixample for half a century. She was born in 1938 during the Civil War. While her mother was pregnant, her father was hiding out in an old pasta factory for political reasons.
Before the war, Clorinda’s grandfather was the head of a large insurance company in Barcelona, and was able to afford to rent a spacious apartment on Passeig de Gràcia in the early Thirties. Clorinda and her parents also came to live in the apartment in 1950, which by then had been converted into a large pension with rooms rented to guests, after her grandmother was suddenly widowed.
Clorinda remembers that after the war was a time of hardship. “I was very young, but I remember the ration cards we had to use for food. After 1944, everyone was poor. We had bullet-holes in the front of our building, we had used a pair of the shutters from the house for firewood.” Where Clorinda and her family still live in Passeig de Gràcia, the façades are protected by the city. But, she says, “in the beginning it was just about recovering from the war and post-war years. Later we would start taking care of the neighbourhood and building it back up again.”
When Clorinda met and married her husband Ramon, the young couple went to live in Germany, while he studied medicine. When her grandmother died, Clorinda’s mother Carlotta, recently separated, was left all alone in the big house. So Clorinda, with two babies in tow, moved back into the apartment on Passeig de Gràcia, which she and her husband eventually purchased in 1976. The apartment would be a permanent home for the three of them, plus she and Ramon’s five children, as well as his medical despacho (office).
She says that Eixample has changed immensely since she was a child. “Before, all the stores were run by people who knew you. The man who ran the egg store, for example, would bring the eggs to your house personally. When you saw him in the street, he knew you and your family, and you knew his.” Their family all had their clothes made by the neighbourhood tailor.
Now, she says, that personal touch has all but disappeared. “You might bring a pair of shoes to be repaired at what used to be a neighbourhood shop, and then you stop by the same store the next day, and the guy who is there that afternoon doesn’t know the name of the guy who works in the mornings, and the person who is there on Tuesdays doesn’t know who works on the weekends… this ‘temporary’ kind of attitude undermines the sense of security and community that used to exist in the neighbourhood. You used to be able to do business with a handshake, but now a person’s word of honour doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
Most of Passeig de Gràcia has been converted into offices and luxury stores. Clorinda says that the influx of these companies has been good for the economy of Barcelona in general. “I’m not saying that there haven’t been positive changes,” she admits. “When you compare yesterday to today, there have been good things. But there are aspects of life that we thought that we were modernising, but we ended up sacrificing some important values [for], and it’s changed our neighbourhood and our city. I’m a citizen of Eixample first, then Barcelona, then Catalunya, then Spain, then Europe, then the World. It’s important to appreciate where you come from.”
Margarida (known as Marga) is the quintessential mother hen, always at the ready to refill your glass, and to provide guests with a spread of delicious leftovers at any hour. She has lived in Poble Sec for almost 50 years, 46 of those in the same apartment as she lives in today.
When Marga was a child, her parents moved from the neighbourhood of Sants to Carrer Rosal. In exchange for her father acting as maintenance man and doorman, the family lived for free in a small, dark porteria under the stairs. Later, the residents in the building decided they didn’t want the extra expense of a doorman, “so they threw us out,” she says flatly. “But then my father convinced them to let us stay in the tiny apartment for free in lieu of giving him some kind of severance pay.”
After getting married, she and her husband moved in with her husband’s mother in an apartment on Paral·lel. “Living with your mother-in-law is not easy,” she recalls with a look of mock horror. Two years later, they moved to Carrer Cabanyes with their two children.
She says that 50 years ago, the apartments in Poble Sec were large and comfortable, the rents were low and the community mostly consisted of Catalan families. The waves of immigration within the last 20 years have changed all that. “It used to be,” she says, “that people who had been born in the neighbourhood still lived in the same house that their family lived in. Now it’s not like that at all.”
Students and other young people new to Barcelona started looking to Poble Sec because of its cheap rents and relative proximity to the centre of the city. As more moved in, new bars and restaurants opened to cater to the younger, hipper crowd, which then made the area even more attractive. This started to drive rents up. Marga says that the apartment companies take advantage of the extrañjeros, in that “people pay inflated prices because they don’t know any better. The problem for the original residents of Poble Sec is that this affects the market in general, rent becomes unaffordable for the people who have lived here all their lives.”
She says that the neighbourhood’s newfound ‘coolness’ is just one side of the immigration issue. The number of illegal immigrants in Barcelona has also been on the rise in the last 20 years, and many have settled in Poble Sec. She says that the families and individuals who are here illegally exist within a “secondary economy”, which operates under the radar of the tax system and, as such, doesn’t help the neighbourhood or the city.
But not all the changes have been bad, she says. The new bars do pay taxes, after all. “It’s been a resurgence of the barrio,” Marga says. The nightlife in Poble Sec has boomed since Carrer Blai was turned into a pedestrian street lined with bars, which in turn serves to make the neighbourhood seem even more attractive to people not originally from the area.
In addition, Montjuïc has been cleaned up since the they turned it into a park in the Eighties. “Before, it was like a jungle of drug dealers and vagrants, living in improvised housing and with very little control. Now, it can still be dangerous, but the worst that will probably happen is that you’ll get your wallet stolen,” she says.
The theatre district, which had experienced a major decline during the financial crisis, is also slowly reviving. Former Republican gathering-place El Molino reopened a few years ago, and while she says that the culture of theatre-going is not the same as it was 40 years ago, “at the least, the culture of actors, artists and comedians is still alive, and probably always will be here.”
Rose is a tiny powerhouse of a woman, originally from New Jersey, who moved to Barcelona over 40 years ago. She was born in 1924, eventually got married and went to live in the rural town of Succasunna, NJ. The town had one general store, no doctor, and built a school only when the inhabitants eventually had enough children that it became necessary.
When her husband John passed away, friends urged her to start travelling. She visited Italy, France and Spain for the first time. “I decided then that I was going to change my life,” she says. “I didn’t want to die having done nothing interesting!” She visited Barcelona and instantly fell in love with the city. She took early retirement and moved here permanently.
Then, in an unexpected turn of events, she became an actress. Bigas Luna, a Catalan film director, was making a movie in Barcelona called Angustia, and the production team approached the school where she was working as an English teacher to ask if any of their instructors wanted to be extras. “Well,” Rose laughs, “it turns out that every teacher happens to be a frustrated actor! I started out as an extra in that film, and have since done bit parts, for Spanish, English, French, Italian, Dutch, American films. Also TV and a few commercials. I’ve gotten a lot of work as the old lady chasing the young man,” she winks. Rose was living in the neighbourhood of Sants at the time, but she eventually moved to an ático in Gràcia, with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean.
Rose says that Gràcia was, and still is, a working-class neighbourhood. “It’s full of places to go for normal people,” she says. “Maybe it’s not as vibrant as parts of town like the Gotico, but it has its own charm.”
She too has seen certain aspects of her neighbourhood change in the name of progress. The former greenery of Plaça Lesseps was sacrificed for an as-yet unfinished metro line. “And then of course,” she sighs, “there was the Olympics. After that Barcelona became an international city. Before, it had the atmosphere of a big, lovely pueblo, and Gràcia was a smaller pueblo inside of it. Rose says that tourism is fine, as it is good for the economy. But like Clorinda and Marga, she agrees that, as a result, “you lose something of the character of the neighbourhood.”
“It’s hard to explain the changes, really,” she explains. “It’s a feeling you have, watching the atmosphere of the place you live change to cater to people from outside, instead of the people who live here.”
Park Güell is only a few blocks away from Rose’s apartment. “And the tourists have multiplied! It used to be a few here and there, who would wander out of the centre of town in search of adventures. Now,” she says, “it’s an endless stream, just a river of people.” There are tour buses that stop on Travessera de Dalt, only a few blocks away. She says that at times, it is physically difficult to make it out the front door because there are so many bodies on the street. Now, Park Güell has become so famous that, at the end of this month, the city will start charging an entrance fee.
She perks up when she starts to describe one personally satisfying change she has seen in Gràcia over the last decade or so. “A long time ago, we didn’t have the varieties of ethnic restaurants that we have now. I love food from all over the world, so I’m happy that the influx of different nationalities has also had this culinary side effect!”
One thing that Rose says has not changed is that the people she knows have always been very welcoming. “The people in this neighbourhood —actually, the Catalans I know in general—have always been so kind to me. I’ve never felt like an outsider here. I don’t think that aspect of Gràcia, or Barcelona, will change, even if many other things do.”