Society Trends

Spain: The blight on Barcelona

4 November 2009
Le Monde Paris

Barcelona's Barrio Gothico. Photo : Opti Mystic/Flickr
Barcelona's Barrio Gothico. Photo : Opti Mystic/Flickr

Over the past 20 years the Catalan capital has been building up its image as a rich, modern, dynamic city where the living is good. But there are limits to what urban marketing can do, and several recent scandals have tarnished this glowing reputation, much to the local authorities’ dismay.

Jordi Hereu is up in arms. A week ago, as the Catalan Socialist Party’s (PSC) autumn conference drew to a close, Barcelona’s mayor inveighed against the “campaign to discredit Barcelona”. Without naming any names, Hereu denounced “those who are hurling massive bombs of disillusionment at our city”. Who could possibly have the chutzpah to assail Barcelona’s bright, dynamic image, this “urban brand” forged by two decades of state-of-the-art international marketing?

Indeed, in recent years only a handful of isolated detractors have dared put a damper on the euphoria and point to the gulf between the myth broadcast abroad and the reality of day-to-day life for the Barcelonese. In 2007, in an essay on La ciudad mentirosa (“The Liar City”, published by Catarata), anthropologist Manuel Delgado probed the “Fraud and Misery of the Barcelona Model”. And in 2008, Joan Ramon Resina, director of the Iberian Studies Program at Stanford University, analysed the “Rise and Decline of an Urban Image” in his book entitled Barcelona’s Vocation of Modernity (Stanford UP, 2008).

Excesses of a showcase city

These learned surveys may not be widely perused in working-class neighbourhoods like Poblenou or Sants, but since September locals have been bombarded with local press “headlines” about deception, destitution and decline. Barcelona’s “got the blues” now that recent events have raised the dreaded spectre the two scholars warned of: viz. that the city might well “die of its success” after having been so widely touted as an “article of consumption”.

The first scandal broke in September when the Spanish daily El País published shocking snapshots of two men with their trousers down around their ankles having sex with prostitutes in the street. And not in some dark corner of a remote suburb, but under the arches of the touristy Boqueria market, along Las Ramblas, smack in the city centre.

The shock wave of that scoop has been spreading ever since, wreaking havoc on widely cherished notions of Las Ramblas, the mile-long axis along which 78 million people, half of whom are tourists, promenade year in, year out. Here, and in the side streets of the adjacent neighbourhood El Raval, the prostitution racket has moved in with a vengeance. And it is also here, in the central district of the Ciutat Vella (“Old Town”), that the bulk of the 80,000 pickpocketing incidents reported in 2008 occurred. According to La Vanguardia, Las Ramblas, erstwhile emblem of Barcelona, a hub of conviviality and youth, now “epitomises the damaging effects of a certain type of urban success linked to the ‘city-as-a-show’ phenomenon”. The Spanish daily regrets that the local populace, victims of mass tourism and the urban degradation it has brought in its wake, have “withdrawn from this public space”.

Corruption eating at Catalan oasis

Faced with this disrepute, the local press – rehashing the tried and tested approach – have launched an appeal to cultural institutions in particular to create “a Ramblas brand”. The mayor, for his part, is calling on malcontents to “come to Ciutat Vella and see for themselves how we’re struggling to save it and make it an example of a rehabilitated historical city centre”.

It might well suffice for Barcelona to roll up its sleeves and fix the collateral damage wrought by excessive tourism, but the harm to its image is more serious when caused from the inside. In fact, the second bolt from the blue this autumn was a scandal that rocked the Palau de la Música Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music), the famous modernista-style concert hall, which was a monument to Catalan pride even before it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Locals were appalled when its president, Félix Millet, was recently arrested for embezzling over €10 million in renovation funds. The institution, which subsists in large part on public funding, volunteer work and donations from the people of Barcelona, now finds itself caught up in a financial scandal of sizeable proportions.

Not only that: in the past few days the sense of malaise has worsened with the arrest, on warrants issued by the high-profile judge Baltasar Garzon, of eight Catalan politicians, entrepreneurs and high-ranking officials involved in a vast real estate scam. This “across-the-board bust”, as the local press calls it, goes to show that Barcelona, and the region of Catalonia as a whole, are not proof against the corruption epidemic that has swamped Spain. Now it’s official: the blight has crossed the borders into what local elites long vaunted as the “Catalan oasis”.

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