Gentrification is a social and economic phenomenon which generates controversial issues in the academic realm. On the one hand, it is an intrinsic consequence of urban renewal interventions in deprived neighbourhoods. On the other hand, gentrification is seen as a business opportunity motivated by economic and commercial interests. As a result, the neighbourhoods undergo the displacement of local people, the transformation of its traditional stores and the loss of the neighbourhoods’ identity.
In addition, inherent to gentrification is the emergence of the cognitive-cultural capitalism of the 21st century. High-skilled workers, or Richard Florida’s “creative class”, are attracted to vibrant, authentic and diverse places, which are generally to be found in formerly poor neighbourhoods where urban renewals take place being at the investor’s centre of attention. For that reason, one could question what the balance is between ‘successful’ urban regenerations and the seemingly inevitable negative consequences of gentrification? Is it possible to resist against gentrification? In the last decade, Madrid has suffered deep economic, physical and social transformations, derived from the economic crisis, government’s austerity measures and the emergence of social movements. Nevertheless, certain dynamics show that non-gentrified neighbourhoods are still achievable. The neighbourhood of Lavapiés is a good example in that regard.
Although Lavapiés is widely perceived as a neighbourhood itself, it is technically part of Embajadores, today known as Madrid’s Central Business District, and close to the historical city centre. The neighbourhood received a doubtful reputation in the 80’s, when the heroin, the aging of the population and the deterioration of public infrastructure led to a shrinkage of the population rate. In that period, Lavapiés received inflows of young people, mostly squatters, who were attracted to lower rents and the opportunity to move into empty buildings. By the same token, there was a frequent arrival of immigrants, mainly from China, Morocco, Senegal and Ecuador, to the extent that today half of the population in the area is foreign-born.
Nowadays, Lavapiés remains to be one of the most deprived parts of the city. Notwithstanding its deficiencies in low-standard housing, education and sanitary facilities, Lavapiés is a buzzing neighbourhood that combines residential opportunities with a wide offer of cultural and commercial facilities, such as La Tabacalera, La Casa Encendida, Las Escuelas Pías de San Fernando, declared Asset of Cultural Interest in 1996, San Fernando Market and El Rastro, among many others. Its unique idiosyncrasy, multiculturalism, complexity and diversity entice sociologists, architects and urban planners (Riesco-Sanz, 2008; Díaz Orueta, 2007; Roch, 2007).
Despite its historically developed diversity that led to the perception of Lavapiés as a troubled area, the reality is that it has developed high rates of participative processes, institutions and bottom-up initiatives. The residents express a strong commitment and respect for their own neighbourhood. Later on, these locally based organizations were joined by a common outrage of demanded change as a result of the bursting of the real estate bubble, the economic crisis of 2008 and the rise of social and political tensions. They happened to be a role model for the social movement of 15M in 2011 known as ‘indignados’. In fact, Lavapiés became the cradle of the new Spanish left-wing political party ‘Podemos’ which emerged in 2014.
The first insights towards a resistance of a gentrification in Lavapiés are undeniable regarding its citizens’ engagement in the neighbourhood. This is being exemplified in two cases:
The Plan de Mejora de la Seguridad y Conviviencia de Lavapiés (Plan to improve security and coexistence of Lavapiés) in 2012, was based on the reinforcement of police presence, the restoration of the most damaged buildings and the boosting of social and economic improvements in the area. The inhabitants distrusted the underneath purposes of the Plan anticipating modifications in the character of the neighbourhood. Platforms such as “Lavapiés Ingentrificable” (Non-gentrified Lavapiés) firmly formulated their scepticism and made neighbours aware of the situation organising public debates. This Plan is not an isolated matter, but the last stage of a process that began in 1997 when Lavapiés was identified as Área de Rehabilitación Preferente (Preferential Rehabilitation Area). This condition was disseminated through social media which attracted new investors to the neighbourhood. The strife of the inhabitants to keep their city intact against governmental dynamics were as tenacious as today.
The second case, concurrently to the process above, is the initiative of “El Campo de Cebada” (The Barley Field). During the 20th century, the plaza de la Cebada (Barley Square) hosted a municipal market and a sport centre, being a spot of social interaction among the inhabitants. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Madrid City Council presented a plan to rebuild both facilities by private entities. According to the plan, in 2009 the sport centre was demolished, but financial difficulties driven by the economic crisis brought further rebuilding intentions down, leaving behind an empty sunken area in the core of the city. After a year, neighbours and groups of young architects, under the name of “El Campo de Cebada”, decided to take over the site and transformed it into a place for a wide range of activities, weekly assemblies and events for the residents. Needless to say, the occupation had to deal with the opposition of the Administration because the collective was not formally constituted as an association. However, in 2011, the City Council and the neighbourhood reached an agreement for the temporary ceding of the site on neighbours’ behalf. In this scenario, the untiring persistence of the residents to be able to make use of a snatched away space, enabled a synergy between bottom-up edges and governmental institutions’ plans. Examples of this kind are reproduced throughout the area witnessing a direct application of Henri Lefebvre’s (1968) “the right to the city” slogan. This quote encourages and reminds that the city is for and of the citizens.
To conclude, it is commonly said that without displacement there is not gentrification. In that sense, formalized resident consultations and engangement of the inhabitants in the neighbourbood regeneration processes should be consciously taken into account. Lavapiés’ society, economy and identity are intrinsically linked to foreign sources, with a significant presence of locally-oriented stores, mostly ethnic-specialised, and wholesale furniture stores. With the preservation of these activities and the people who managed them, would have been possible the renewal of the neighbourhood without implying gentrifing forces.
Although hitherto there are in fact some slight signs of gentrification in Lavapiés, its neighbours give a valuable example of resistance against this phenomenon and a dedicated local population striving to take part in the development of a better neighbourhood under their own favoured conditions.
Picture on top: Streets of Lavapies. Source: Flickr (hwaneke).