Reawakening the soul of El Raval


El Raval's Centre de Cultura Contemporània.

Cultural and ethnic dichotomy in one of Barcelona’s oldest – and most vibrant neighbourhoods

A free-flying parakeet drifts from tree to tree, finally descending towards the circle of bread crumbs that lie on the ground. Nearby, a grey-haired old man wearing a cardigan and bow-tie retrieves an unblemished loaf of bread from a shopping bag and begins to tear off pieces. He tosses the fragments tepidly, as if he were skipping stones. At last, he sits down at a table beneath the palm trees and orders a cafe con leche.

“I’ve lived in Barcelona many years,” says Guifre Baudí, pausing, “but sometimes I feel as if I’ve lived in Raval even longer,” he adds. A retired police man, Baudí has witnessed many of the heavy changes the neighbourhood has undergone.

He speaks slowly – savouring the intention of each syllable. He’s referring to El Raval, a neighbourhood in the Ciutat Vella - the Old City – of Barcelona that at times feels even older than its historic Catalan roots.

El Raval's Ramblas.

Because of its central location – Raval is a mere five minutes walk from Barcelona’s infamous Rambla strip – the value of the neighbourhood has skyrocketed in the past decade. Balconies of lofty condominiums peer over the terraces of hip bars and cafes, vintage havens peek out from behind lazily-parked Audis. The area even boasts its own Rambla, lined with palm trees occupied by tropical birds and pigeons that overlook cafes, apartments and shops.

El Raval is one of Barcelona’s oldest districts, and because of this its transformation was imminent, says Pep Garcia, president of Associació de Veïns del Raval. The neighbourhood has always been on the radar, but its recent transformation has caused the controversy surrounding it to increase ten-fold.  Suddenly, El Raval is viewed not only as a vital cultural epicentre but even perhaps a reflection of Catalan culture.

Bar Raval on the Ramblas.

The vibrant colours provide an easy distraction from the obvious – change is underway. Turn down one street from the Rambla and you’re accosted with hip shops, cafes and galleries, but two blocks in the opposite direction and you find yourself in a narrow alleyway, shafts of sunlight filter in, surrounding a rainbow of hang-dry laundry and wanton, unwelcoming faces.

In hindsight, the gentrification of El Raval seems inevitable – a bright, cultural epicenter in the heart of Barcelona’s old medieval district. Yet much housing remains low-income, recently becoming occupied by Islamic immigrants.  Football-playing children riddle the street, weaving through groups of socializing men who dominate the sidewalks; women are scarcely seen.

Last fall, Barcelona voted in favour of a referendum supporting the ban of the Burka and Niqab on Muslim women in all government and state-operated buildings.  Though intended to liberate women, the band had inverse effects – many women became house-bound, unable to leave the sanctity of their homes as they are not permitted to show their face in public. Many see this as a burgeoning anti-Islam movement emerging from the Spanish government.

“Our women will not be allowed out, we will have to leave them at home,” said butcher Ahmed Hosseini. “That’s what this ban will lead to. It won’t help anything.”

Following the ban, it was reported that far-right Regional for Platform Catalonia (PPC) leader Josep Anglada said to The Times “The biggest problem is the Muslims. They are unaccepting of democracy because they do not want to integrate.”

Young boys walk in El Raval.

Progress-minded entrepreneurs continue to snatch up real estate around the area, transforming parts of El Raval into a thriving nucleus of culture, it is evident that a serious ideological problem has manifested itself. Somehow the most liberal-minded and traditional neighbourhoods in the city have emerged as one, creating a striking black-and-white dichotomy. These problems run parallel to the tumultuous history of Barcelona – undergone significant transformation which emerging resilient.

Today, Barcelona is described as a world-class city, ranked the third happiest in the world by Forbes Magazine. It is the fourth most popular tourist destination in Europe, drawing in over 7 million tourists in 2011.

But Barcelona was not always so flourishing. In the middle of the 20th century, the city was controlled by the brutal tyranny of Franco and Catalonia was severely impoverished and oppressed. Among these neighbourhoods was El Raval – a densely-populated low-income neighbourhood that was famous for its brothels and crime. Often then referred to as Barrio Chino (Chinatown) it became something of a breeding ground for disease.

By the late 19th century, El Raval had earned itself a reputation as the most poverty-stricken and dangerous neighbourhood in Barcelona. Among its inhabitants was Enriqueta Marti, a prostitute-cum-serial killer who kidnapped, procured and murdered young children – using their remains to make medicinal concoctions for wealthy clients. Marti – considered the deadliest murderer in Barcelona’s history became a fairy-tale threat from parents against misbehaving children, a Spanish Jack the Ripper.

Though it’s no longer the setting of children’s nightmares, parts of the neighbourhood remain severely underdeveloped. El Raval has always been Barcelona’s underworld, a dirty, tempestuous but vibrant secret. Though urbanization has demolished some of the squalid tenements and developed affordable housing for the affected, it is difficult to foresee the outcome of these actions.

“In places like Calle Sant Ramon, they’ve put in trees and created a placa – and the criminal elements have moved straight back in again to fill it,” said Pep Garcia, president of the Associació de Veïns del Raval. “The projects need to be accompanied by a lot more social and police action or it won’t achieve anything.”

Commitment to social change is at the forefront of the Raval development projects. The Centre de Culture de Contemporania, situated in the centre of the neighbourhood, is the first to address urban culture as a driving force behind social, economic and political change. The project’s efforts have become internationally known throughout Europe for it’s initiatives, organizing art exhibitions, public debates, restoration of architecture and cultural festivals.

Initially, the urban regeneration of Raval was lead by public funding. However, today private contribution has greatly exceeded the public investment.  The progress, though steady, has been slow, leaving the inevitable question: does El Raval want to develop, to flourish, to bloom? The area itself is a microcosm of Catalan identity, it has faced poverty, oppression, racism and indulgence, but its dignity remains intact. While the numerous cultural, ethnic and socio- economic groups which reside there seem divided, El Raval seems content with its forced integration of culture; becoming a paradigm for modern-day diplomatic relations.

“Raval, is the bad and good, the beautiful and the ugly and the rich and poor,” says Garcia. “It will never be perfect, but it has heart.”

About Taylor Dickie

Taylor Dickie is a sometimes journalism student from Toronto. She streams in Radio and Broadcast news.→ About us