Journal of a gadabout (12)
From july 2008 to February 2009, the MUHBA (Museum of History of the City of Barcelona) showed the exhibition “Shanties. The Informal City“. The brochure of the exhibition explained:
“Shantyism, an urban phenomenon of the first magnitude in Barcelona extending from the beginning of the 20th century to almost the time of the 1992 Summer Olympics, created a veritable “informal city” beside the old urban nuclei, the Eixample district and the various forms of growth of the urban periphery. This informal city stretched across Montjuïc hill, the seafront, some interstitial spaces of the selfsame Eixample and the hills surrounding the city.
Montjuïc, Somorrostro, El Carmel, etc. became legendary names which are still alive in the city’s imaginary due to the harshness of their inhabitants’ living conditions and also because, in times of growth without democracy, they often became test benches of social and neighbourhood movements. These were movements which shifted, in the 1960s and 70s, to the large housing estates in the suburbs, where the majority of the inhabitants of the shantytowns were reaccommodated and where these people had to struggle again to obtain the facilities and services which continued to be lacking. In this long-lasting fight for the city and for the citizenry lies one of the keys to the notable significance of the urban movements in the transition to democracy in Barcelona.
Quite different was the environment of the last shantytowns, in the 1980s, which possessed a much more marginal character. There, many shanties were occupied by families from other previously evacuated shantytowns: the great social precariousness of these shantytowns’ inhabitants (and all the more so in times of economic crisis), obliged a difficult search for alternative solutions, which were not always satisfactory.
The historical study of this phenomenon acquires relief not only on considering the trajectory and on drawing up a balance of the 20th century in Barcelona, but also on studying the historical processes of informal urban growth around the world. Both aspects will be dealt with thoroughly in the programme of conferences and discussions linked to the exhibition, from the month of October.”
In 1990, Mayor Pasqual Maragall gave the first knock-out blow to demolish the shanty nucleus “Francesc Alegre” on the hillside of the Rovira. With that symbolic act, shantyism was over in Barcelona, a phenomenon that had spread throughout several districts of Barcelona throughout the 20th century. In the 1950s the shantytown reached its climax, with about 20,000 hovels housing a population of between 70,000 and 100,000 people. At that time almost 7% of Barcelona residents lived in shanties.
On the occasion of the exhibition, personal testimonies were collected and investigations were carried out from different disciplinary perspectives that converged in the edition of the book “Shanties. The Informal Barcelona of the XXth Century “, coordinated by Mercè Tatjer and Cristina Larrea, on the tenth anniversary of the disappearance of shanty towns in Barcelona.
Those who travel around Barcelona, we knew that the disappearance of shanties had not been complete. In some secluded places of Montjuïc, in some empty grounds of the Poblenou or in the thalwegs of Torre Baró, we could find small nucleous of shanties. Over time, abandoned industrial buildings of Poblenou gave way to another wave of shanties.
However, the Citizens Commission for the recovery of the remembrance of the shantytowns has made the existence of these areas will not be forgotten, as has happened during so many years.
Because for a long time that reality was uncomfortable for authorities who only aspired to erase them from the map and citizens trying to stay as far as possible from them and their inhabitants. Slum sites will be present civic memory, by placing a number of plaques (since 2015) that recall this stage of development of the city.
But in Barcelona, in 2018, there are more than 3,400 homeless, people living in the street. The Network of Care for Homeless says that 1,026 people sleep directly on the street, 415 in irregular settlements (shanties) and 2.006 rely on existing public and private resources for the night.
Some of these irregular settlements are in the center of the City, on the edge of the 22 @ district. The large infrastructure works carried out for Barcelona in 1992 involved the disappearance of train tracks that broke urban fabrics and functionalities. However, a stretch of train tracks between the old North Station (now Park North Station) and Plaza de las Glorias remains open. This has been the place chosen by the shanty town. Close to the Agbar tower (Jean Nouvel), the Auditorium (Rafael Moneo), the National Theater of Catalonia (Ricard Bofill), the flea market building (Fermín Vázquez Arq).
Big names of architecture coexist with the shanties’ creative informality.