Illustration by Kat Cameron
Las Ramblas downhill home
The degradation of the Ramblas in Barcelona was the subject of an explosion in media coverage late this summer, climaxing in early September when El País published photographs of prostitutes performing their services among the pillars of the Boqueria market during the wee hours of the morning. The shocking and graphic images sparked a nationwide outcry, and even Prime Minister Zapatero called on Barcelona’s mayor to get things under control.
The ensuing coverage painted a picture of the Ramblas as a place robbed of its former glory, now crawling with prostitutes, thieves and drug dealers. Yet, to anyone who has lived here long, it is surprising to read allegations that Barcelona’s most famous street is somehow worse than ever. Prostitution, drugs and thievery—in symbiosis with tourism—have formed the bedrock of Raval society for a long time.
Since the 18th century, city officials have periodically declared that immorality was rampant in the streets. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ciutat Vella was virtually a shanty-town, with people living on the streets, in hallways and on rooftops. In Jean Genet’s semi-autobiographical The Thief’s Journal, he wrote that the Raval of the Thirties was full of “whores, thieves, pimps and beggars.” Cocaine and marijuana have always been available. Hashish made its debut on the scene in the Fifties while morphine and opium were eventually eclipsed in the Seventies by heroin. Up until the Eighties, battling drug gangs and murders—even and sometimes especially on the Ramblas—were part and parcel of the landscape.
Rafael Jiménez, an inspector with the Cuerpo Nacional de Policia (CNP), told Metropolitan that the situation regarding theft and drugs is virtually unchanged, and that the Ramblas is relatively safe. “Compared to the Eighties and Nineties, I believe that the offences committed are the same. Thefts like pickpocketing and bag-snatching. That’s basically it. There’s some trafficking, small quantities of hashish, cocaine. But there were more drugs a few years ago than there are now.”
So what, if anything, is different now about the Ramblas and its surrounding environs? That all depends on whom you ask. “The situation is definitely worse than before,” said Khalid Hussein, manager of Bloomsday Pub, on the lower Ramblas. “There are more robberies, more prostitutes. Just a few nights ago, there was a knife fight across the street.”
Merchants operating around the pillars of the Boqueria claimed that the area and the Ramblas, as a whole, have dramatically declined. These stallholders—all of whom have worked in the iconic market for between 32 and 50 years—each recalled how the Ramblas was once a refined place, where families would stroll in their most elegant clothing, free from molestation.
Not everyone remembers it that way. “These problems have been going on for a long time,” said Maria Casas, president of the neighbourhood association Taula de Raval. “Sixty or 70 years, at least. There are periods in which the people get tired of complaining. Then there are times when they see that nothing has changed, and that’s when they start to mobilise a little more and confront City Hall.”
The current problems with the prostitutes, said Casas, are the result of the city’s historical, though periodic, attempts to suppress a formidable industry. In 1989, the Ajuntament closed down the 24 remaining meublés (hostels that rent by the minute) in the Raval. This action, while celebrated at the time by residents, merely pushed prostitution completely out onto the street. Since then, and usually in response to media attention, the city has cleaned up various streets and street corners through well-publicised police actions, but it has never managed to eradicate any part of the unseemly activity in the area. The prostitutes, along with the drug dealers, junkies and thieves are merely pushed from one area to the other, eventually gracing just about every doorway with their presence.
These itinerant colonies may explain the variation in residents’ perceptions. Andrew Dillon and Sara Epstein both live close by the Ramblas, only blocks from each other. “For violence and scumminess, I’d say the neighbourhood’s no doubt getting worse,” said Dillon, an Irish artist who has lived on Carrer Hospital for nearly five years.
Epstein, an Argentine emigré, owns a flat on Carrer de Carme. She said she sees less violence now, but more incivismo (unsocial behaviour). “Now there are more condoms on the ground. It’s dirtier. There are more young drunks with dogs living in the open air, urinating in public.”
Objective figures for the neighbourhood are hard to find. The Mossos d’Esquadra, who are in charge of filing and investigating robbery reports, do not release crime statistics by district. Catalunya’s Department d’Interior did report an overall 16.4 percent increase in violent theft last year, but that was citywide.
However, in the aftermath of the El País exposé, the Guàrdia Urbana, who are charged with managing prostitution, said they had identified 6,250 prostitutes who had been working the Raval streets since January 2009, according to the newspaper 20 Minutos.
“That’s a lie, it’s impossible,” said Clarisa Velocci of Genera, an organisation which works closely with, and defends the rights of prostitutes. “Do you know how many people six thousand are? That’s insane.”
Velocci suggested the statistic was a ploy by the Guàrdia Urbana to exaggerate the problem and evade responsibility. The Guàrdia Urbana declined to comment on the figure cited by 20 Minutos. Velocci also challenged the claim that street prostitution has changed. “The situation is in no way worse than five or six years ago. Twenty-five years ago the whole neighbourhood had an alternative economy. What we’re talking about here is a stereotype of social perception. Before, the women working there were Spanish and Catalan. Now, the majority are immigrant women and, what’s more, black. For the locals, this is horrible.”
Rafael Jiménez, with the National Police, said the change in the prostitutes’ nationality has, indeed, made a difference. Prior to the wave of immigration that began in the late Eighties, the streetwalkers were primarily women with Spanish citizenship, which gave the police some leverage for limiting them to the side streets. He suggested that citizens were more likely to pay fines and therefore to heed police warnings to remain on less conspicuous streets. Because prostitution itself is not illegal in Spain, the National Police’s only recourse is to deport the sub-Saharan women for lack of proper papers. “They could come from Nigeria or Ghana or anyplace else. And there’s no way that you can get these countries to accept them back without proof of their citizenship. So, the most we can do is keep them for 40 days and then turn them back out onto the street.”
There has been discussion on the city level about passing ordinances that would permit brothels and meublés in the Raval, to take the problem off the streets. An Ajuntament spokesperson told Metropolitan, “The Ajuntament is studying the situation and working on it.”
Barring an unusual decision nationally or locally to take swift, decisive action, it would appear that coexistence with the prostitutes, drug dealers and pickpockets is inevitable. The nature of that coexistence, however, will depend on what city officials, residents and local business owners are able to accept, and willing to do.