Spotlight on Barceloneta
Video by Lua Bustos
Photo by Aron Penczu.
Every day, more tourists crowd the beachfront promenade; every weekend their tide swells into a flood. Manteros at their trade play cat-and-mouse with the police. Locals with weather-worn faces hunch over dominos, deaf to the seasonal hubbub, or strip off to swim in the sea. This is Barceloneta—the modest, residential winter barrio that transforms into the city’s playground come summer. If its idyllic Mediterranean seascape is its main asset, it’s also a façade. A stone’s throw from the lively beach hangouts lies a complex, disputed neighbourhood undergoing profound change. For some locals, the seafront’s redevelopment has brought only fear and worry. Short-term tourist lets place upward pressure on property prices and drive the gentrification and cultural shift heralded by surfing shops, bicycle rentals and smart cocktail bars. Grassroots protests in recent years have symbolised a deep-rooted conflict between residents and holidaymakers, although Barceloneta is hardly alone in that regard. The struggle to reconcile a rich culture and history with the imperatives of burgeoning tourism is symptomatic not only of Barcelona but of an entire class of modern cities.
Barceloneta was created in the 15th century. Until then, its triangular contours contained mostly seawater; the barrio was born when the island of Maians, little more than a reef, was linked up with the rest of the city in the construction of Barcelona’s first port. Over the subsequent centuries, natural sand deposits and re-construction enlarged the peninsula, and a fisherman’s shantytown sprang up, inaugurating an association with seafood which continues to this day. Later, in the 18th century, a significant engineering project was undertaken to accommodate inhabitants of La Ribera displaced by the construction of the Citadel—a star-shaped fortress built by Philip V following the 1714 siege of Barcelona, in order to maintain control over a city in turmoil. This expanded version of Barceloneta remained a largely working-class district that made its living from a modest fishing fleet. Eventually it would play host to a number of factories that gave it the industrial character it only recently shed, among them the important Maquinista Terrestre y Marítima, which fabricated all kinds of machinery and metalwork and once employed over 3,000 workers. During the Civil War, the area suffered extensive damage during the air raids carried out between 1937 and 1939 at the hands of Franco’s fascist allies—a horror that presaged what was to come elsewhere in Europe throughout World War II. Targets of military significance—the great Maquinista complex among them—were spared destruction by the Italian pilots, who targeted civilian areas and circumvented the air-raid alarm system with continuous bombing waves. Reconstruction was slow and irregular.
The neighbourhood entered living memory in a precarious state. Sister Pilar García, a 93-year-old nun who has taught disadvantaged children here for over seven decades, recalls arriving in the city in 1944. “Barceloneta no era Barceloneta,” she said. “Today’s Barceloneta is another place altogether.” At the time, shantytowns, known as barracas, thronged the quarter’s perimeter, including the waterfront, and housed 20,000 people at their peak. The makeshift houses were frequently flooded by the sea. Despite lacking basic amenities, they formed self-contained districts with distinct histories and personalities; ‘Somorrostro’ was immortalised in Los Tarantos (1963), an Oscar-nominated film of flamenco dancers and gypsy singers. Today, the shantytown lives on as the name of one of the most frequented stretches of beach, over which Frank Gehry’s Peix d’Or sculpture presides.
Photo by Aron Penczu.
93-year-old Sister Pilar García first arrived in Barceloneta in 1944.
“In the barracas, there were families with 10 children,” Sister Pilar said. “The eldest couldn’t go to school because they stayed at home to watch the young ones while the mother continued to work and the father was fishing.” It was here, inside a small chapel, that the Daughters of Charity established a school and food bank—on whose site the much-expanded Obra Social Santa Lluisa de Marillac, a social integration programme, continues to operate. Though the poverty of the time is hard to imagine, Sister Pilar spoke about the neighbourly atmosphere with nostalgia. “People knew each other well and had a great deal to do with each other’s lives. Now all that’s changed.” Other long-time residents echo her views, evoking a bygone era when neighbours spent their weekends chatting outside on Barceloneta’s narrow streets and ground-floor doors were left open.
Immigration was the first significant change of the last 50 years. Today, 35 percent of households surveyed in Barceloneta have at least one foreign national—almost twice the statistic for Barcelona as a whole. Traditional neighbourhood relationships, however, were probably fractured less by the influx of newcomers than the elimination of the artisanal jobs that had sustained them. One retired fisherman expressed his resentment at a long list of foreign intruders—South Americans, gypsies, the Chinese—whilst on the other hand Regina, a former professor of literature, called it “normal—a symptom of our time.” She believes that the fact that immigration is still relatively recent in Spain (largely post-Sixties) accounts for some of the continuing tension.
The second great change came with the 1992 Summer Olympics. Its organisers set in motion several large-scale projects that would make a lasting imprint on the city. Though National Geographic has named it the top beach city in the world, before the Olympic-era transformation, Barceloneta’s dirty sand, unclean waters and cheap seaside bars were largely avoided. “For years, the beach at Barceloneta […] was unused,” wrote Colm Tóibín in Homage to Barcelona (1990). “Nobody in his right mind would go down there for a swim.” Sister Pilar also remembered it vividly, describing it as "a trash-heap.”
In the run-up to the Olympics, the last of the shantytowns were cleared away, a promenade was built, palm trees replaced old-time xiringuitos (beach bars) made of rickety wood, and sand was imported from Egypt. The magnitude of this volte-face cannot be overstated. “Barcelona was a city with its back to the ocean,” said Regina. “Before the Olympics, it underwent many transformations—and the first was opening up to the sea.” The sculpture erected in honour of Barceloneta’s history and development, Homenatge a la Barceloneta by Rebecca Horn—also known as l’Estel Ferit (‘the Wounded Star’)—consists of four, large iron boxes piled up into a crooked tower, recalling the low-rise buildings of the 18th century, and the neighbourhood’s seafaring past. For some, it captures a charm dissipated by this drive for progress, though others contend that the romantic past it evokes never existed.
Photo by Aron Penczu.
The Hotel W serves as an iconic backdrop to Barceloneta's modern-day beachfront.
The new seaside has its advantages. Few residents, grumble though they might, pass up the opportunity to catch the sun on its popular sands. The 30 hectares of beach are raked and 50,000 litres of waste are removed every night—a Sisyphean task that few appreciate. But the reconstruction also brought about a fringe economy almost entirely dependent on tourism. Many of the restaurants lining Passeig Joan de Borbó are expensive and low quality; the new beach bars cater to foreign tastes; hawkers flood the beach in summertime. “Barcelona is the Vegas of Europe,” claimed Enrique Valery, a 30-year-old Venezuelan who has been living here for about 18 months. Tourist numbers have rocketed in the last 25 years, rising from 1.7 million in 1990, to over eight million in 2015. But it’s not just quantity that is a concern, it’s also quality. Barcelona has developed a party reputation that attracts a certain kind of tourism not so compatible with residents. Locals fear Barceloneta is becoming a magnet for the inebriated antics that visitors rein in back home, something that has grabbed a lot of media attention—from the 2014 incident of three naked Italian tourists shopping in the neighbourhood, to the crackdown on illegal Airbnb apartments.
Unlike some long-term residents, however, Valery doesn’t feel Barceloneta has lost its neighbourly appeal. “It’s a town within a city,” he said of the inner Barceloneta largely bypassed by touristic currents. “Everyone knows each other, everyone treats each other kind of like family,” he said as he pointed out the barrio’s flag hanging proudly from slender balconies overlooking Barceloneta’s central square, Plaça del Poeta Boscà.
Luuk Mande, an affable 53-year-old Dutchman who runs Ké—a cheerful bar on Plaça del Poeta Boscà—also acknowledged the neighbourhood’s community vibe. “The funny thing is that Barceloneta hasn’t changed that much. For me it’s still a village.” He has lived here for almost 10 years, mostly above the bar, whose eclectic atmosphere attracts a diverse crowd. But Ké also seems to have been adopted by locals. “When I first opened the bar, I thought they would hate me because I’m different, but that’s not true,” he said. “A lot of Catalans like it because it’s a bit international.”
He also played down the impact of tourism on Barceloneta. One might be forgiven for considering short-term lets as the third great shaker of Barceloneta, but Mande argues that minor carpings have been inflated by media attention to the detriment of the city’s economy.
It’s certainly true that tourist lets have reduced in number. In the summer of 2014, officials responded to grassroots pressure by accosting tourists on the street and knocking on doors with requests for proof of residence. Flyers were plastered on buildings asking for suspected renters to be reported, and many residents have stories about exorbitant fines for those caught guilty. Valery, who works at Airbnb, estimated that the number of Barceloneta flats advertised on the website has since plunged by over 50 percent. Though there are still reports of early-morning house parties, Barceloneta seems to have quietened down somewhat.
Photo by William Rose.
The bustling Barceloneta has transformed almost beyond recognition in the last 25 years.
It remains a barrio of paradoxes, and it’s hard to say what the future holds. Despite its prime location, Barceloneta’s idiosyncratic, skinny-staircased flats forestall real gentrification. In 2015, the average cost of renting a property in Barceloneta was reportedly €16.3/m2 per month, considerably higher than the city average of €11.1, yet the average apartment rental price was just €602.6 compared to a city average of €734.9—a discrepancy accounted for by the typically diminutive size of the neighbourhood’s apartments, averaging at around 40m2, in comparison with 70.7m2 in Barcelona as a whole. As a result, many remain affordable to students, retirees and other demographics who might otherwise be at risk of being priced out. The 15,000 inhabitants crammed into Barceloneta’s narrow streets make it one of the most densely-populated neighbourhood in Barcelona, yet the residential character of its interior makes it generally quieter than the Barri Gòtic or the Born. If the Airbnb crisis has subsided for now, the easyJet generation will undoubtedly continue its annual invasion.
To foreign eyes at least, however, Barceloneta retains a distinctive appeal. Grizzled men start drinking in its oblong bars at nine in the morning. Small holes-in-the-wall are still run by families: a mother cooks, a brother waits, a sister handles the bar. On summer afternoons, pensioners, eclectics, and the homeless collect in the central square, la Plaça del Poeta Boscà, while the younger generation play ping-pong and drink from beer cans. None of the people I spoke to planned to leave.
1. Carmen Amaya Fountain. Plaça de Brugada.
Carmen Amaya was twice invited to dance at the White House, starred in Los Tarantos (1963), and has been called “the most extraordinary personality of all time in flamenco dance”. The tribute to the Somorrostro-born Romani dancer features two guitarists and three flamenco dancers.
2. Casa de la Barceloneta. Sant Carles 6.
A museum loyal to its own barrio, established with the objective of preserving and disseminating Barceloneta’s culture. It hosts everything from temporary exhibitions of old photographs to contemporary art installations, talks and workshops.
3. Museu d’Història de Catalunya. Palau del Mar.
Alongside restaurants, a rooftop bar, a bookshop and a new brewery-bar, the red-brick Palau del Mar houses a museum dedicated to tracing Catalunya’s past from prehistory to today. Free on the last Tuesday of the month between October and June.
4. Església de Sant Miquel del Port. Sant Miquel 39.
The Baroque church of Saint Michael dates back to the mid-18th century and was designed by Pedro Martín Cermeño, son of the neighbourhood’s principal architect. Famously built low enough for Ciutadella cannons to fire over.
5. Mercat de la Barceloneta. Plaça del Poeta Boscà.
The award-winning building designed by MiAS Arquitectes in 2007 preserves the original 1884 structure and overlooks Barceloneta’s main square—Plaça del Poeta Boscà. Visit for fresh seafood, a terrace cortado or a menú del día.
Fancy new neighbours
Recent years have seen a huge transformation in the marina at Port Vell, overlooked by Barceloneta’s Passeig de Joan de Borbó. In 2010, the Marina Port Vell was sold to a group of Russian oligarchs. Rumours of shady deals surrounded this transaction, raising difficult questions for the local authorities involved. Nevertheless, the marina, which includes 162 moorings and a private members’ club (OneOcean Club), is now almost complete and has been dubbed as the new hub for superyachts in the Mediterranean.
A similar project, known as the Marina Vela, is underway that will transform the other side of the port. This new marina will offer a total of 358 moorings—136 waterside and 222 dry dock—and will extend along the pier beyond the Hotel W.
The impact of these transformations on Barceloneta remains to be seen. There will be more tourists, although positive economic and social benefits are questionable.
There is many a tourist trap in Barceloneta, but look a little harder and the neighbourhood is home to many local favourites.
Café de los Angelitos. Almirall Cervera 26.
Where Barcelona’s piano-touting street band go to drink after work. Famous for its expert cocktails, live music and quality service.
El Vaso de Oro. Balboa 6.
This bustling, narrow bar is one of the best in the barrio for a beer and some posh tapas. Squeeze in along the bar and order the solomillo con foie.
La Cova Fumada. Baluard 56.
Barceloneta’s quintessential, family-run establishment. It serves Catalan fare, and it’s the birthplace of the ‘bomba’ (a deep-fried ball of mashed potato and pork), invented almost 50 years ago by the current owner’s grandmother.
Bar Leo. Sant Carles 34.
Plastered with old banknotes, hats, magazine pages and pictures of crooner Miguel ‘Bambino’ Jiménez, Bar Leo possesses an indescribable charm.
More Barceloneta classics to try: