When I first moved to Barcelona, I lived with my boyfriend in a little bedroom in the Parallel area. It wasn't perfect. The neighbours would piss in the street (God knows why they didn't use the actual toilet), legless evil-eyed cats would limp about eyeballing my ankles, strange men would chase me with leopard print blankets and there was an armless man who would hold a cup in his mouth and shake it from side to side, begging for money with globules of saliva spraying in an erratic shower... but it had things going for it, too.
There were some great nearby bars going by the name of Bar Cuntis, Bar Colon and the city's best strip club was just a stone's throw away.
However, even with all this glory, we simply wanted our own place.
Sharing a room is not cool especially when it's so small that you have to sleep in one of those elevated double beds. Ours had a savagely angled ladder that threatened certain death or at least a severely grazed arm if you didn't heave yourself up quickly enough and slither along the mattress on your belly. Going for a wee in the middle of the night was like something out of Crystal Maze; navigating the swift roll, hang and drop to the floor with deft and agility.
We wanted somewhere bigger, somewhere perhaps with an office and a place where Rob Roy could easily walk the distance to work. We also wanted somewhere for a bloody good price... and so we looked high and low. We found the perfect flat overlooking a quaint square, which slipped through our fingers with only seconds to spare before we handed over the cash and after weeks of searching it then came to the point where we had to find somewhere or else we'd be joining the evil-eyed cats, dreaming of sucking on the achilles heel of unsuspecting pedestrians, as if it were our mother's teat.
And so, we had to go where we had explicitly been told not to go. There wasn't much other choice.
'Sally, please don't do it. It's dangerous and horrible' they said.
'I know people who have been murdered there' they exclaimed.
'It's full of drugs and prostitutes' they cried.
But we were not to be deterred. We HAD to find somewhere to live. And so we did. A rather sprawling two bedroom number, in fact. We packed up our little suitcases, said 'adios!' to the ladder of doom and I dragged and heaved our worldly possessions on a warm Spring day all the way to.... EL RAVAL.
Yes, that's right. I said it. EL RAVAL (aka Barrio Chino*). A place where pigeons and people more or less look and live the same.
Now, if you are from Barcelona, you will have one of two opinions. Either that the Raval is a vibrant hub of culture and upcoming brilliance or that it is a place to avoid as it if were a vintage flea of London from 1665. The latter opinion is one that has existed and festered for years. It is as deeply ingrained in some of the citizens of Barcelona as the yearly tradition of donning a bib and slurping on Calcots at the end of winter.
The notoriety of the Raval comes from the whispers of its dark, tangled streets. From my research I have found some marvellous descriptions of the Raval, which I found in an INCREDIBLE article*...
'...the district of sinners, crooks and toughs, a maggot hill, a cesspit and cavern, a den of criminals. It is fetishized, endowed with causal powers, apparently destroying all moral and physical life within it... a terrible centre for infection, the pestulant bottom of a sewer, with its smell of sin and affliction. Many of the area’s inhabitants mutated into a subhuman race. Everyone has funereal features, the look of having recently been in hospital, the appearance of death. They don’t eat. They nourish themselves with alcohol, morphine, ether, ‘coke’ and wine'--- he forgot to say kebabs and street beers!
For those of you who don't know the geography of Barcelona, the Raval is smack bang in the centre. Barcelona itself is renowned for its perfect grid system, where the streets are wide and easily navigable.
But the Raval (framed in an almost pentagon) is gnarly knot of twisted tales and history.
Before 1830, the Raval largely consisted of fields, convents and small markets that provided produce to the city. It was walled-in, as were many areas of the city but with the Catalan Industrial Revolution came great change.
The Raval started to grow as tanneries and mills popped up and a complicated web of unplanned, unregulated and hastily constructed buildings began to emerge.A huge urban-industrial metamorphosis began to take hold as dwellings were erected at great height to accommodate migrant workers and their families. Darkness soon swamped the Raval with shafts of light merely punctuating the damp corners and highlighting the compact density and soup of poverty.
The Raval became the birthplace of the local working class and of the labour movement. Accommodation was fit to burst with multiple families sharing the same space and entire blocks of flats were provided with only a single toilet and a tap to share on the ground floor.
The Raval struggled and heaved within its medieval walls and in 1859, a glint of relief was promised by plans for an 'urban redevelopment' of the city. And so the iron grid system was born and parts of Barcelona were gloriously organised into wide streets with plenty of sunlight. Due to shortages however, the Raval was entirely overlooked and continued to hectically spill in a greying, restless sprawl all the way down to the docks.
By 1930 the Raval contained 230,000 residents, which calculated as 103.6 people per square metre and ranked as the most populated urban area within Europe. Diseases such as Cholera, Typhoid, Meningitis and TB were rife and the Raval was yet to be drafted into more bleak misery after the First World War saw industry drawn to the outskirts of the city.
While the Raval defiantly retained its working ethic, its small and narrow space betrayed it as larger factories dwarfed Ravallian business. And so The Raval fought for survival and underwent a dramatic transformation from the hub of labour to the centre of leisure. Warehouses were rapidly developed into dance halls and taverns and drew many foreigners from the ports.
With a high population of migrant workers and businessmen seeking pleasure, the sex trade began to boom. Opportunities for women were minimal and so it was easy to procure prostitutes from the city and thereafter from busy trade in the port. Opium also quickly infiltrated like poison in the water, snaring dealers and hooking vulnerable souls.
And so, with its sulky labyrinth of darkness, it concealed sweaty, lurid secrets and raised fear in the hearts of the middle-class, who were happily enjoying their gridded, wide-street heaven.
The myth was secured that the Raval was the 'ulcer' of the city and needed cleansing of its disease, its sin and of its unique, sedulous and thriving identity.
And so this is where the Raval stands today. It is an area that refuses to be wiped of its character and remains a 'republic of the streets', boasting a wealth of gritty history and a murky charm. While I enjoy walking through the gridded, brightly-lit areas of Barcelona, there is nowhere else where you can see such
squalid, smirched splendour in the city.
The streets in the Raval may be streaked with shit and piss but it is turbulent, thought-provoking and not as dangerous as it may first seem. There are still some streets that are to be avoided by night but by day, the Raval exhibits a huge multi-cultural hum and blends dirty beauty with art, soul and pumping, thriving, struggling veins of life.
Walking through the streets you can feel the heartbeat under the paving stones and an exhilariting 'edgy' vibe. From moment to moment, everything is changing in a blur of colour and insistency. I take the same route everyday and it is never the same journey- I never know what to expect.
There may exist a difference of opinion with regards to the Raval but for the people who think of it as the decay of Barcelona, think again. Spend a little more time navigating the murky lanes and you will find shafts of light. There you will find telling tales of its mirth, its historical battle and of its mettle. It is by far one of the most interesting parts of Barcelona and its identity should be celebrated, not erased.
Refs and *s:
The Raval is also often referred to as Barrio Chino. Not because of the number of immigrants in the area (who are mostly Pakistani, Philipino or international students) or the high number of chinese shops, but because of a young journalist from 1925 who coined the phrase in a famous Madrid newspaper because the area reminded him of San Francisco's 'China Town'. More can be read in the links/titles provided below.
An Imagined Geography: Ideology, Urban Space, and Protest in the Creation of Barcelona’s ‘‘Chinatown’’,
Picture found at link:
If you are a tourist or faint-hearted, you absolutely HAVE to employ a good level of vigilence... we Ravillians know each other and mostly respect one another but if you are a strange face, mooning at the sights and feeling fancy-free you will get pick-pocketed and/or crushed by skateboards/bicycles/motorcycles/giant piegons...it's just a rite of passage and a Ravallian way of welcoming you warmly to the area...)