Rebirth of a City

From the outside, the looming brick building looks deserted. There is no shortage of abandoned buildings in Madrid, thanks to the Spanish housing crash of 2008, but there is something different about this one. Instead of an entrance chained and bolted, its rusty gate – a rainbow of layered spray paint and peeling posters – hangs invitingly open.

Inside, people of all ages and colours mill about with cheerful purposefulness. Some stop to examine a high wall of posters listing events and activities, while others know exactly where they are going – to a drawing class, perhaps, or a storytelling meeting or an African dance workshop.

Overpowering the buzz of activity is a pulsing sound of drums beating in unison. The rhythm emanates from the building’s cavernous central nave. There a group of Madrileños (inhabitants of Madrid) young and old dance in a circle, bells on their ankles and grins on their faces, the smoke of fragrant incense spiralling above them.

I spot a grey-haired man leaning against a pillar, watching.

“I thought this place was deserted,”
I shout in Spanish over the drums.

“It was,” he says. “Welcome to Tabacalera.”

Madrid is one of Europe’s great capitals, a city with a storied history centuries long. The metropolis is now home to just over three million Madrileños and has suffered a devastating civil war, endured decades under Francisco Franco’s brutal dictatorship and witnessed a chaotic cultural rebirth in the ’70s and ’80s.

Just when it appeared that the city might be entering a period of tranquillity, a housing bubble decades in the making burst, throwing the entire country into an economic depression referred to here as ‘La Crisis.’ That was in 2008. During a downturn that

affected all of Europe, Spain was one of the countries hardest hit. Youth unemployment soared to above 50 per cent. Foreclosures of mortgages reached the tens of thousands. Those who still had jobs saw their wages slashed.

By 2011, unrest reached a boiling point. On May 15, 20,000 Spaniards took to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza and for weeks refused to leave, demanding an end to austerity and economic inequality. The protests would eventually help to inspire the Occupy movement that swept the globe.

Now, five years later, the numbers say the city is in a modest but fragile recovery. But has its spirit survived close to a decade of dire economic hardship?

Standing in Tabacalera this May morning, I begin to feel Madrid’s pulse, a steady beat of the rebellious, defiant energy that made the city the deserved capital of Spain, a nation populated by arguably the most hot-blooded people on earth.

“It was an old tobacco factory,” says Begoña Torres, deputy director of the Department for the Promotion of Fine Arts. The factory closed in 1999 and was gifted to the Ministry of Culture. Plans were made for a dazzling centre for visual art, but by 2010 there was no money and the plans were halted.

“We had a ruin,” says Begoña Torres. “But we decided that we could still do something.”

The city used part of the 32,000 square metre space for a city-run gallery and studio space and offered the rest to the neighbourhood’s art and creative collectives to do with the building what they saw fit.

The autonomy granted to the neighbours now enlivening Tabacalera seems rare. Why had the government given up control?

“It is definitely an experiment here,” says Señora Torres. “And it is a success.”

“When the money goes, everything disappears: the grants, the festivals,” the deputy director continues. “But genius emerges from this.”

Tabacalera is one example of this genius: a hive of autonomous creative energy that exists with almost no money, thanks to its members and a bureaucracy that was willing to trust the public to take care of themselves.

That afternoon I go walking in the colourful streets of Lavapiés, the neighbourhood where Tabacalera stands, in search of other such examples. I pop into what appears to be a café. Once inside, it becomes clear that Ciudadano (Citizen) Grant, as it is called, is also a bookstore, gallery and bar. In one corner, tall shelves packed with all manner of Spanish and imported art books, graphic novels and independent comics line the walls. In another, a man works hard behind a sleek counter, serving coffees, drinks and treats to patrons who sit around the room engrossed in their laptops, newspapers or books. Downstairs, the launch party of a neighbourhood-wide public art exhibition is taking place.

The man behind the counter is Goyo Villasevil, a friendly fellow with a large beard and a quiet voice. “We were walking our dog and we saw a small piece of paper in the window: for rent,” he says when I ask how the business got started. That was in 2014, and Goyo and his partner Sergio Bang were in the midst of making some big life decisions. Before the crisis, Sergio had worked as the head of public relations for the Motorsports Federation of Spain and Goyo had a small production company. Sergio lost his job when the crisis hit, and all Goyo’s clients began demanding more work for far less money.

“Everything changed,” says Goyo. “There was no air. We couldn’t breathe.”

The couple had always been interested in art, and Sergio had dreamed of opening a bookstore. They decided to take a chance and open Ciudadano Grant.

“The numbers said, This is impossible,” says Goyo. “We thought, We have to try.”

Two years later, the money isn’t exactly rolling in, but Ciudadano Grant’s doors are still proudly open and the community has an alternative bookstore, gallery and gathering place.

“After the crisis people had to readapt their lives,” said Goyo. “Some people did it with a conscience.”

The next day I see what he means. Making my way north, I arrive at Calle Gran Vía, the city’s six-lane main artery, lined with glinting white buildings in a cacophony of early 20th-century designs. Well-heeled pedestrians pop in and out of upscale shops and boutiques. At the end of Gran Vía, overlooking the green space of the Plaza de España, stands the desolate 25-floor Edificio España, vacant since 2005. Spanish bank Santander bought the building in 2007, but then in 2010 put its renovation plans on hold indefinitely. In 2014 a Chinese investor purchased the building for two-thirds of what Santander paid, with plans to turn it into luxury apartments and an opulent hotel, testament to the fact that not everyone has responded to the crisis in the same way.

It’s getting late and I’m hungry, so I head down to La Latina, the crowded, ancient barrio (neighbourhood) known for its eateries. I’m looking for Taberna Antonio Sanchez, which first opened its heavy wooden doors in 1830. Named after a bullfighter, the bar’s dark-panelled walls are painted with faded portraits of long-dead toreadors. The great black head of a bull that gored the bar’s namesake stares down from where it was mounted.

Here Ernest Hemingway would sit at his favourite marble-topped table, writing by candlelight long past midnight. I sit there now, and order a tapa of ‘cocido Madrileño’. It arrives steaming in a brown ceramic dish, a rich medley of chickpeas, potato, chorizo and blood sausage. Sipping wine, I reflect that bars like this have weathered more ups and downs than anyone alive in the city today, so how had they stood up to La Crisis?

“People go out less,” says Oscar Priego, who inherited the bar from his father. “And when they do, they don’t eat as much.” Oscar considers himself lucky – the tavern is well known and tourists come to gaze at its ornate interior. But it wasn’t the tourists that kept the bar going during leaner years. “The regulars always come,” says Oscar.

For some Madrileños, the idea of getting along with less is nothing new. In a small cafe near Plaza de España the following afternoon I meet Pepe Froment de las Herasand and Matilde Martin de Sancho, Madrileños through and through.

“I was born in 1941, just around the corner!” says Matilde with gusto. I’ve connected with the two seniors through Cicero Madrid, a historical guiding company that gives tours to locals. Matilde and Pepe are history buffs who have actually lived through the history the guides describe.

“It was a city of neighbourhoods, everyone knew how everyone’s neighbours lived,” explains Matilde of her life as a child in the heart of Madrid under Franco. “There was not much money, but still everyone went out.” Franco’s policies of isolationism after the civil war devastated the economy for two decades – the 2008 crash wasn’t the first ‘crisis’ these two had endured.

But then, where does one go in the capital with no money?

“To stroll,” they both respond, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Parks, plazas and boulevards are as jammed with people ‘out for a walk’ as they have ever been.

“Madrid is a city that likes to go out and be in animated places,” explains Matilde.

Pepe is eager to elaborate on the enduring Madrileño spirit. “It’s the sun, the climate, the sense that life is for living,” he says, eyes sparkling.

Pepe and Matilde’s vigour makes me want to take a stroll of my own, so I walk towards the centre, dissecting the city southwest. My stroll cuts directly through Puerta del Sol. Today the expansive plaza is abuzz with tourists and shoppers, but five years ago hundreds of thousands of Spain’s discontented citizens had ‘taken the square’, camping out in a protest against government austerity measures, corruption and the increasing division between rich and poor.

Today the so-called 15-M Movement has long ago left Puerta del Sol, so where have they gone, those youthful leaders who infused the city with rebellion, cooperation and hope?

I find one such leader in his office above bustling Calle de Atocha. Jon Aguirre Such is one of five young urban architects who in 2011 decided to found Paisaje Transversal, a firm that works on a wide range of projects that have been turning their industry in Madrid upside-down – for the better.

“15-M was an empowering process for people,” says a moustachioed Jon. “For a long time they received very little help from the government, so they had to start solving problems on their own.” It was definitely an empowering time for him; he found himself acting as one of the spokespeople for the movement.

He says the spirit of that protest lives on. “It moved out into the neighbourhoods, developing into local projects. Professionals like me began working with those neighbourhood associations.”

Jon and his team realised that in a country with millions of empty buildings, they needed to use their skills for something other than the creation of new homes and offices.

“Over the last five years, Madrid has experienced an explosion of what we call new urban activism. We’re on the cutting edge in the world.” He unfolds a large map of the city covered in 100 scattered polka dots. Each represents a citizen-directed initiative, from urban farms to co-operative squats to community neighbourhood associations and artist collectives.

The project is titled ‘Los Madriles’, and an online version of the map can be updated and added to by users. It’s a way to show Madrileños an all but invisible side of their city, a side that is teeming with life – and growing.

The team is also using their expertise to transform whole neighbourhoods. The hilly suburban Virgen de Begoña district is a maze of stairs that can be difficult to navigate for the elderly or disabled. Jon and his team are making the entire area fully accessible and they’re doing it with the help and consent of the residents.

I leave the city the next morning, but before making my way to the train station I stop in ‘Esta es una Plaza’, a community garden at the foot of Lavapiés that Jon recommended I visit. The garden occupies what was once a walled-in patch of concrete. Today, those walls are painted with towering murals of animals and the concrete has been replaced by rich earth that sprouts fruits, vegetables and flowers. There is a library in one corner, a playground in another and at the far end an amphitheatre built out of used packing crates.

The sun is shining and a group has already gathered in the garden’s kitchen. Members of a local organic food collective, they’re preparing an enormous vegetarian paella that later will feed whoever wants to come and eat. It seems a fitting end to my Madrileño adventure that I find myself among community and laughter and the desire to help one another keep the good times going just a little bit longer.

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