There were somewhat more things than usual draping the façades on Carrer Tigre last January. Next to the ubiquitous bed sheets and underwear hung to dry, a dozen painted pillowcases vied for the attention of passers-by. Phrases like “ballroom = legal, discotheque = illegal” and “No to noise pollution” were written across them. Further down the street, a big banner covered the front of La Paloma, demanding the re-opening of the discotheque and ballroom that was closed by the Ajuntament over Christmas for allegedly exceeding permitted noise levels: so far the most notable in a controversial series of bar closures that took place in 2005 and 2006. First published in March 2007
“The windows shake and sometimes we think they’re going to fall out,” one neighbour living opposite La Paloma told the press. “And if we say something to the people who piss, vomit or sing on the street at night, they throw things at us.”
The manager of La Paloma, Mercedes March, regards the complaints as “harassment” by neighbours who only recently moved to the area, and knew the discotheque existed. She demanded a “coherent dialogue” with the Ajuntament and “more help, less punishments”, and asked: “What is behind all this? What is happening in Barcelona?”
What is happening could be described as a small war between Barcelona bars and nightclubs on the one side, and residents on the other. The former are fighting for their businesses and Barcelona culture in general; the latter, for their right to a good night’s sleep. The conflict has become increasingly aggressive.
Barcelona is noisy. Seventy-seven percent of the city has noise levels above the 65-decibel limit, which is the official maximum a person can, and should, tolerate, according to a study by the EU. The Ajuntament has come under increased pressure to tackle noise pollution. While it has been estimated that an average 80 percent of the noise in Spanish towns and cities is caused by traffic, bars and clubs seem to receive the most attention.
Seventy clubs were closed in 2005, according to El Periódico, although many opened again after installing better soundproofing and noise regulators. The Ajuntament could not confirm that number, but did say that until September 2006—the latest period for which official numbers were available—166 establishments were closed, 33 of them for noise infractions.
For many people that figure was too low. Residents and the political opposition attack the municipal government for being too lenient and urge tighter laws and harsher punishments for infractions. Thus, the Public Prosecutor of the Catalan Supreme Court (TSCJ) pressed charges against two members of the municipal government last August, accusing them of not acting fast enough in the case of El Cangrejo, a bar on Carrer Montserrat that was closed for hosting activities that were not allowed in its licence.
“The Ajuntament simply doesn’t seem to understand that noise is a health issue,” said Esther Melcón, secretary of the Catalan Association against Acoustic Contamination (ACCCA), who said that 60 percent of all complaints they receive are related to bars and clubs. “The Ajuntament acts as a mediator between residents and bar owners, but that’s not their role: they should be enforcing the law.”
However, bar and club managers, along with much of Barcelona’s cultural world, feel harassed, and suspect a political strategy to drive night-time entertainment, especially live music, out of the city centre, to the Fòrum. “A neighbour only has to complain to the Ajuntament to get a place closed,” said Roberto Galván, vice president of the Gremi de Sales i Festes. “It’s the resident’s’ vote that counts, not the party-goer’s.”
The Ajuntament denied this. “This is not a political issue, it’s purely legal,” said Maribel Tejada, an Ajuntament spokesperson. “So, of course, if one neighbour makes a formal complaint, we act—no matter if he or she has been living in the area for decades, or only just moved there. We are just enforcing the laws. We are not doing anything differently than three years ago.”
Many bar owners dispute this. One employee of DosTrece, a bar and restaurant in the Raval that used to host live DJ acts, claimed that the Ajuntament had become stricter. “Only very few places in the Raval have a live music licence [a licence for bar music does not suffice], but until recently the Ajuntament turned a blind eye, within reason. Then, the council of the Ciutat Vella called a meeting of all bar owners and said that they would not tolerate any more transgressions.”
Silvia Gaviña, spokesperson of the Ciutat Vella district, denied there had been any such meeting. “This is not a question of withdrawing licences, but we don’t give out any new ones, apart from one small area in the Raval. There are enough establishments in the centre. We have to make sure we maintain a balance; after all, people also have to live here. There are other areas where bars can be opened.”
The residents’ attitude has changed, too. For years, they grudgingly accepted the nuisance or struck financial deals with the establishments in question. Now, they strike back. “People have certainly become more assertive. They are starting to understand that the right to rest has more weight than the right to entertainment,” Melcón said.
FonFone, Maria Mulata, MauMau, Fontrodona… the list of bars that have had complaints goes on and on. Zentraus, formerly a popular club on Rambla de Raval, has turned into a restaurant. The manager claimed it was purely a business decision, but the owner confessed that he simply wanted to avoid trouble. Some places have joined forces against the measures; a class-action lawsuit is said to be in the works. Others are trying to keep their heads down. Many say they are worried, or even scared.
“Neighbours don’t complain to us directly, they never speak to us, so we never know what’s coming next,” grumbled Montserrat, who worked at Princesa 23, a bar and restaurant that was closed for four months last summer after residents complained about the noise. They now have a device attached to their sound system that automatically switches off the music when noise exceeds a certain level—even when the noise actually comes from the people, not the music.
She confirmed what many suspect, namely that all sides have become more suspicious and paranoid. “We have now started taking pictures of people on the street at night, to prove that they don’t all come from us. There are lots of Pakistani beer sellers, too!”
La Paloma, for one, started a huge public relations campaign to make people aware of what’s going on, and is currently in negotiations with the Ajuntament about the financing of new soundproofing measures. Given its size, popularity and historic importance, it will probably open again soon, much to the neighbours’ dismay. But others won’t. And, in mid-February, the city closed the historic Mas i Mas bar in Sarrià-Sant Gervasi, after 22 years in business.
In a city like Barcelona, where the centre is both the focus of nightlife and densely populated, how do you solve this problem? Maybe entrepreneurial minds have found a solution: a company called La Fiesta Silenciosa organises silent parties—with music through headphones.