Here goes- our first blog post. Feeling full of digital beans after launching our first app, it's about Barcelona...
The view from the terrace of the endlessly delightful Park Güell stretches past the giant insect-like cranes building the Sagrada Família to the Mediterranean. But if you look down into the 20th-century neighbourhood just below the candy-coloured park, you can’t fail to notice a building whose roof has something to shout in big painted letters: OKUPA Y RESISTE and the big A of Anarchism.
Yep. Park Güell, built by Gaudí and his patron Eusebi Güell as Barcelona’s first luxury gated housing estate, overlooks the city’s most famous squat.
Extremes are Barcelona’s bread and butter, or since the Catalans always beg to be different, its bread and tomato (pa amb tomàquet). Anarchism has a proud history here as well, going back to the 19th-century Industrial Revolution, when the gap between rich and poor makes today’s gulf seem like a puddle: while the city’s Eusebi Güells commissioned exuberant Modernista showpieces, workers were putting in 13 hour days and still couldn’t feed their families. When the Anarchist Trade Union, the CNT, was founded in 1911, eight out of ten workers signed up at once. Most astonishingly, for ten months during the Spanish Civil War, starting in late 1936, they ruled the city. Barcelona, the Rose of Fire, is the only city in history to be governed by Anarchists.
It was as brutal then, as it so often is when the oppressed take hold of the stick of power. Old scores were settled. Priests and nuns, inextricably associated with the ruling class, were slaughtered. The wealthy only ventured out incognito. But in other respects the Anarchists were well organised. Buildings were seized and handed over to house the very poorest. Women were given equal rights. Bars and shops were collectivized. All signs of servility were abolished.
Inevitably, it ended badly. As readers of Homage to Catalonia may recall, the Anarchists were gunned down by the Communists, who in turn would meet their fate at the hands of Franco’s Falangists. But like the forgotten stream, the Cagallel or ‘turd-taker’ that flows under the Ramblas, secretly irrigating its plane trees, the spirit of Anarchism survived underground in Barcelona, nurturing today’s thriving, well-organized Okupa (‘squatters’) movement. The catalyst? The massive clean-up and bulldozing for the 1992 Olympics, notably of the Raval— the piquant, squalid, destitute crime-plagued quarter of Picasso’s Blue Period and Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal and first address for much of the city’s immigrant community.
While Barcelona wows ‘style tourists’ with its nineteen Michelin-starred restaurants and its boutique hotels breathlessly scrambling to out-swish each other (the ME Hotel, with its ‘aura experience manager’, currently takes the cake), property prices have doubled in a decade. Blame the usual suspects of speculation and gentrification as well as the mass conversion of apartments into tourist rentals. Even now, as Spain and Catalonia are sinking in debt, 45 percent of the young are unemployed. Fewer and fewer can afford to rent, much less buy a place to live. Yet according to municipal authorities recently quoted in El País, the city has 20–25,000 empty homes.
All of this, combined with its history of Anarchist street cred, has made Barcelona the new capital of political squatting, led by artists, performance artists, and musicians. The group Ojos de Brujo (whose Ná en la nevera or “Nothing in the fridge” has become something of an Okupa anthem) came out of the movement. The squatters’ symbol (a Zorro-esque zigzag bursting out of a circle) is spray-painted everywhere alongside the big Anarchist A. Meneo made it the theme of a music video:
Today are roughly 150 squats throughout the city, and some 15 whole buildings, many former factories, used as social centres, holding workshops, evening classes, festivals and conferences. Some of these social centres have websites in Spanish or Catalan, although if you pop in for a visit, you may well find an English-speaker to explain what's going on.
Some of the better known ones include Barriolonia, the ‘Center of Rebel People’ (Rambla de Raval 8) in the Raval, offering regular jam, yoga and bike-repair sessions, and La Teixidora (Carrer Marià Aguiló 35), occupying a historic building at in the old factory district of Poble Nou, whose denizens sponsor projects from anti-consumerist and anti-gender-role dance workshops to Bricolaje Sexual DIY sex toys “where handicrafts, hacking and sexuality meet”. On the slopes of the Barcelona-embracing Collserola hills, Can Masdeu (Plaça Karl Marx) is located in an abandoned lepers’ hospital, where 25 residents are dedicated to social and environmental issues and managing community gardens. Visitors are welcome on Sundays, with guided tours at noon.
Essential to the Okupa movement is the illegal squatter bar, set up by squatters to finance their operations. As some in the historic Barri Gòtic have become popular, it's become impossible to tell what is a squatter bar and what isn't. Ask around, or try the late late night El Mariachi at Carrer dels Còdols 14, best known as the hangout of Manu Chao from the band Mano Negra, making it a popular spot with musicians. Or try the simpatico Bar Oviso, a time-warped atmosphere oozer on the Plaça George Orwell (once known as “Trippi square”, for its drug dealers and the state of its denizens).
The squatters for the most part are regarded sympathetically (to maintain good relations, they often make sure the street is on their side before entering an empty building, and they often fix up abandoned neighborhood eyesores) although occasionally incidents try the public’s tolerance. In 2009, the papers were full of a family who returned from a holiday to find the locks changed and another family living in their apartment, who convinced the judge to let them stay for another 16 months (because they had no where else to go), while the owners were forced to move in with their daughter and keep up the mortgage and utility payments.
Sometimes, too, squats are bases for criminals—who set vicious booby traps for the police. Although most evictions are peaceful (in the on-going cat and mouse game, the squatters are usually ready at a moment’s notice to up sticks, having already reconnoitered their next address) sometimes they turn into battles, as much as the city would prefer to avoid heavy- handed tactics and the publicity they generate. In January 2011, an officer was so brutally attacked that he was left in a coma. Responsible okupa organizations have distanced themselves from the incident, but have also noticed an increase in evictions.
Usually retaliation is far more benign. When 150 artists were peacefully removed from a squat in 2007, they retaliated during a speech by Barcelona Mayor Jordi Hereu with a “naked attack”, suddenly throwing off all their clothes at the same time and declaring: "City hall has stripped us bare; but culture will not be evicted."
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