In the busy center of downtown Barcelona, surrounded by modern architectural buildings and malls, lies one of the oldest slums in Catalonia. Although it might seem surprising that in 2016 slums still exist steps away from the touristic center, they are an integral part of the history of the city.
The history of slums began in the 1920s, with the growth of Industrial Barcelona which attracted large numbers of migrant workers. After the war, it was the shortage of public resources, the slow growth of the building sector and the freezing of rents, which gave rise to slum towns from 1914-1922. Inside the slums, make-shift houses were built out of wooden crates and metal scraps. For the migrants who lived in these conditions, it was a time of unity, collaboration and a shared sense of solidarity for a promising future. Municipal authorities eradicated slums only in case of need, such as with the International Exhibition of 1929.
In three months, Barcelona’s city council will demolish the slum due to the expanding Can Batllo urban project, across the street. The families have been offered apartments nearby, so they can quickly transition to the environment surrounding them, and catch up with the rest of the neighborhood.
Presently, in the Sants neighborhood, on the narrow street of Cami de la Cadena, Number 27, marks the entrance to Patio de las Palmeras. Here, twelve Moroccan families reside. One woman explains that her ancestors settled here thirty years ago and bought the land. The slum is divided into six make-shift houses and a small Muslim oratory, where daily prayers, cultural activities and Arab classes take place. The oratory is a sacred space, which has been passed on throughout generations. The patio is where the families gather each evening to share memories, do laundry and tell stories to the children.
When asked how they feel about this move, overall, they are happy with the new apartments. However, a sense of deep sorrow is expressed for the loss of the sacred praying space and of their daily routine, which binds them as a community. One woman remarks that since news of the demolition, the palm tree on the patio has started to wither away, “as we leave, everything behind us will fade and vanish.”
Throughout history, slums did not only represent crammed spaces, but rather markers of identity, of tight knit communities. Today, few stand as a historical reminder of the migrants who came and stood their ground in building this city.
See Facebook, for a full photo tour of Barcelona’s slum city.