NEIGHBORS, AN ENDANGERED SPECIES IN BARCELONETA
[“SHAPING LIVES AND PLACES WITHIN SOCIAL MOVEMENTS”. SIEF 2011. INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE.
LISBON, 14-21 APRIL, 2011.]
Sergi Yanes / Gerard Horta / Andrés Antebi
The case of the Barceloneta, old fishing neighbourhood in the city of Barcelona, is today a major example of how the establishment of the tourist industry mechanisms through urban development planning and the policies on tourist promotions, reshape the territory into two of its basic functions: the physical cosmos and the symbolic cosmos.
The district of Barceloneta is the district of Barcelona which has been written about most superficially: over time, there is an abundance of traditional and folkloric accounts that praise the wonders of the Mediterranean atmosphere, the smell of fried fish, and the bustle of the streets, the sea breeze or the charm of seeing the washing hung out to dry. Nonetheless, there is no mention of the most conflictive economic and political issues. They are clichés of time gone by, of a peninsula with a strong working class tradition – the anarquism of the layman in the XIXth century right up to the 1930’s, the cultural political struggle during the dictatorship and post-dictatorship decades – as well as port and industrial traditions that, although for a long time linked to the supposed “miseries” that are attributed to rundown areas as opposed to the bourgeoisie neighbourhoods, have also maintained a “function of leisure” for more than a century. In the years of late however, the Barceloneta has become a fashionable district, a valued leisure space – very attractive to both tourist and investor, built on the symbolic pillars of a “fossilized speech”, as well as the physical pillars of urban intervention: recovered beaches; in the XXth century the industrial activity of the area prevented their access – a reconditioned Sea Front (Passeig Marìtim), the main artery that provides the entrance to the district- that continues to grow, and the ludic refurbishment of the Port Vell ( Old Port): the central area of the old port, turned into a commercial area together with the Maremàgnum complex.
Within the dynamics of tourism in the littoral region of Barcelona, the Barceloneta is an arrowhead. In the beginning of 2010, the price of the soil per metre square was one of the most expensive in the city. As you come close to its beaches, the horizon appears partially blocked by the luxurious W Barcelona hotel (colloquially known as the Hotel Vela), designed by Ricardo Bofill, whIch does not comply with the existing Coastal Laws that does not allow buildings to be constructed next to the sea. The hotel projects an unnerving shadow, metaphor of the elitist direction taken by local council management has taken as far as tourism is concerned. As a result there is a mirror effect: while the district is torn apart by the arrival in mass of speculators and tourists, the old neighbourhood- strangled by the pressure of the market coupled with the incurrence, if not complicity, of public administrations- begin to pack their belongings.
Tourism is today one of the main mediators in the construction of cultural meanings. Planned production of the publicity-tourist image and the seduction of tourist destinations, are fundamental in the perception and subsequent benefit of leisure areas. This perception is produced from the process of conversion of the “place” into a “touristic scenery” (Nogués Pedregal, 2005:24).
The tourist environment would be the container of three extra big areas, in agreement with the presence or absence of tourists and commercial establishments: the place (where there are no tourists and urbanistically speaking corresponding to neighbourhoods and dwellings), the tourist territory (where there are no premises and morphologically corresponding to hotels and/or residential groups: tourist apartments) and the negotiates space (where interaction takes place: supermarkets, bars, streets, squares and the beach). The tourist space and the symbolic sphere, which in turn should be divided into two sub-spheres: the tourist scene (where the tourists act out their experiences) and the native scene (where the residents act out their experiences). In this way, the concept of tourist space would not represent space as a container of socio-cultural facts related to the tourist industry, but an imagined space built through experience at different levels by the actors situated in the tourist environment (Ibidem:14).
In the case of the Barceloneta, the urban development approach defines and brings about new space shaping, outlining a tourist territory that rises from – and in – the native place, through the establishment of urban uses that make up the business space (hotels, apartments, restaurants, commercial establishments, transport, sea front, public spaces…). It is this “tourist environment”, together with the experience that both neighbours and visitors have, that shape the symbolic sphere, that is, the tourist space.
Now more than ever, the tourist space becomes structurally undifferentiated, confusing and undefined, and this fact leads many neighbours to experiment their “space”as if it was a theme park, not knowing where the tourist scenery begins and where it ends, as Donaire/Galí (2002: 19-29) suggested. The mimetic projection of certain heritage aspects of urban scenery and everyday social life generates a breaking feeling towards the referents that place normality in a perpetual state of unforeseeable surprise (Augé 2008). In this sense, the intention is of a complete tourist transformation: not only is the tourist transformed, but also any other passerby.
As Antebi (2010) points out, the neighbourly movement can be understood as a group of people that act collectively, that live and organize themselves to obtain shared objectives or to contest a situation that is considered a unacceptable for whatever reason. Descriptively it can be considered a social movement, as they mobilize and self-dramatize in the way of demonstrations on the street through which they move and are made visible. In the Barceloneta, therefore, these mobilizing reasons are the urban transformations of public and private nature that the tourist industry –as well as their promoters – have as their main benefit. A string of transforming processes appear while gentrifying the district at neighbour, commercial and heritage level, shaping a new reality within only a few years.
In the event of the facts, new entities such as L’Associació de Veïns de l’Òstia (Òstia neighbourhood Association) and the platform in defence of the Barceloneta have been consolidated. These entities are outside the orbit of the powerful neighbourhood and trade pro-government associations. The new collectives are beginning to organize themselves using different strategies to defend their right of not to be expelled from their own neighbourhood.
Their work has brought to public light the problems the area suffers from in relation to the accelerated tourist trade effects. Overall they denounce a situation which excludes them and conceive a neighbourhood with a vision of those who live in it, not only for those who visit. The aforementioned collectives, both active and involved in the social weaving of the neighbourhood, began different revindicating and informative campaigns that finally gave their fruit: in October 2008, the Town Hall agreed to a partial withdrawal of the Pla dels Ascensors (the lift plan)- which intended to implant lifts in different buildings with the apparent motive of improving the access to elderly people in their homes, but that many neighbours believed it was only a ploy to transform the dwellings into tourist apartments- and the opening of a study of the situation to find new alternatives. Nevertheless, the fight continues.
Collectives parallel to the association movement of neighbourly nature, came on to the scene giving support to the neighbour’s initiatives deriving into actions using public space, which in turn became the visible focus of the conflict between the neighbourhood and the Public Administration bodies. The perception of space as a festive and vindicated space, provides the street with a string of material and physical presences that combine with practices and representations- collective life in itself- that generate around it and that results in the superimposition of the vindicated space on-and between- the tourist space. Forced by this imposition, the so called “erased geography” intends to overcome the “finalized story” proposed by the tourist speech discourse and allow the people to re-conquer the space in a way that is both presential and active. This aesthetical performance of the tourist tour, advocates for an itinerary through spaces that belong to the collective memory, small diffuse referents – sometimes shared- invisible monuments of a time that refuse to disappear because it is still alive and kicking and because it still has “meaning”, antagonically speaking, and still shows itself in all its crudity within public space.
Occupying empty abandoned dwellings in, for example Miles de Viviendas has brought about the creation of communal spaces where the presence of the destructive neighbourhood politics –speculation and tourist politics– has loomed permanently. In this context, an elaborate and politicized discourse has developed. Many street demonstrations, concentrations, debate sessions and neighbourhood assemblies have had their meeting place on the streets, squares and empty buildings of the Barceloneta, reflecting the centrality of the street as a staging of complex and dynamic ways of collective life. A stage that sees how the people, the neighbourhood and pedestrians have historically used their own streets and squares throughout the city, to express their identities and projects on the bond that is established between space and its symbolic use- through posts of political, syndical, religious, sports, and festive natures.
In no place like the street are people from the popular classes recognized as a society transformation force or even as the incarnation of society itself through the multiple demonstrations and urban concentrations.
Lastly, taking over the Hotel Vela would be an example of a direct action through which the citizens take back urban spaces temporarily both materially and symbolically. In this case a “negotiated space” such as the beach, submitted to merchandizing logic, becomes the witness of a real takeover of one of the icons that better symbolizes the drama of the transformation of the neighbourhood. The spirit of the Mediterranean, so revindicated by the Public Administration as heritage for the new city open to the sea, is used as a setting for the fight between the neighbourhood and the urbanizing machinery that works under the principles of capitalism.
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