Dear Ms Colau, internationally esteemed mayor of Barcelona. I write this letter in English because many citizens of Barcelona are already familiar with the growing number of problems in the neighborhood of El Raval, whereas your international followers are probably not. They tend to learn only about the positive things you are doing for the city, such as your commendable fight against air pollution, but will not know much about a conflictive part of the historic city center unless a major riot happens. Furthermore, I’m writing this openly critical letter as a supporter of most of your efforts because I want you to succeed as mayor, not fail. But the way things are going right now is worrisome.
Last night, a street riot nearly erupted on Carrer Sant Antoni Abat. What started as a noisy three-hour long caçerolada (collective pot-banging) to protest against three weeks of daily electrical outages was very close to devolving into violence when a handful started to mount a barricade. Luckily they ended up chilling instead of getting hotter under the collar, but what is clear is that people are fed up. Estem farts. We have done everything we can possibly do since you became mayor to inform you of the growing street violence, drug trafficking and consumption, garbage accumulation, uncivil behavior, and lack of maintenance in this district. And now, on top of that, we have to deal with weeks of daily electrical outages in December.
What does it take to get you to do something about our neighborhood’s degradation? And please don’t raise the excuse of “gentrification”. I know about the prevailing planning wisdom that says “improving neighborhoods leads to gentrification that expels the most vulnerable population, so better not improve anything!” I know you believe that gentrification is the number one issue. But the degradation and violence that results from not even maintaining the neighborhood to the same standard as other parts of the city is also causing many long-time neighbors to move out. Neighborhood degradation is just as bad as gentrification, if not worse! In fact, in an area with many old and decrepit buildings, degradation is a stepping stone toward gentrification, so by doing nothing you are in fact helping the very real estate speculators you claim to be fighting!
A couple of years ago you issued a fine to AirBnB and did everything in your power to stop tourist apartments from proliferating like wildfire. Now that we don’t have tourism due to Covid 19, let me tell you what I saw the other day. I’m sure you know about Carrer Príncep de Viana 14, a building owned by the vulture fund Cerberus that has been a crack-house for three years. Some members of your council recently had themselves photographed there together with a local employee of Cerberus, presumably to show that you are negotiating a deal to transform the building into social housing. Better late than never, I guess, but why negotiate when it’s an urgent public danger, a safety and sanitary emergency, that you have the power to revert by decree, as other city councils have done in Spain?
Anyway, here’s what I saw: an elegant young European woman with a designer roller suitcase emerging from the dark, damaged entranceway of Princep de Viana 14. Incidentally, the building has no electricity or running water and so the squatters have dug an open septic pit at ground floor that is brimming with human excrement, garbage, rats, and probably human remains (there have been three publicly known deaths in this building in the past three years: one murder, one overdose, and one Covid-19 victim). This elegantly dressed woman couldn’t have been much older than 20, and she looked every bit the tourist on the way to catch a plane back to Paris, Berlin, Rome, or London after a quick ‘n cheap fix.
It is clear that Barcelona is once again a narco-tourism destination, its attraction being the low cost of narcotics, the availability of cheap lodging in narco-squats, and the impunity with which money for drugs can be obtained through robbery or prostitution. In El Raval, at least, “low-cost tourism” is back, and this time it’s even worse than the kind of tourism you fought against tooth and nail in your previous mandate.
If you don’t consider crack-houses, narco-violence, tragic and preventable deaths, neighborhood degradation, or omnipresent piles of garbage to be a problem, I hope that you will at least consider this form of tourism to be an issue worth fighting against. After all, the multinational narco-mafias that are profiting from narco-tourism are not so different from multinational corporate mafias that profit from mass-tourism. Now that a lesser form of tourism has been seen to be involved, will you now finally start doing what’s in your power to put an end to this shithole (literally!) of a building and the people who operate it?
Many of us voted for you in both municipal elections because you represented hope and genuine change, but we are now disappointed. We feel let down because you treat neighborhood problems as ones that can be ignored, and this is insulting. It seems that you are too busy, what with all those conferences to attend, documentaries to appear in, a planet to save, and a Nobel Peace Prize to win. Or perhaps you feel awkward, ever since you organized that Volem acollir (“Welcome Immigrants”) demonstration early in your first mandate, to have to now reprimand an immigrant neighborhood’s African, Asian, and Latino narco-mafias. Perhaps this explains why you prefer to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, lest those neo-fascists raise more stink about immigrants. Look, you and I both know that this is not an “immigration” issue, since drugs existed here long before. It’s an issue of equality before the law.
I chose to reside in El Raval a decade and a half ago precisely because I have always preferred to live in neighborhoods that are diverse. But the current degradation is causing this neighborhood to lose its very diversity! Many immigrant families next-door tell me they are scared, and also feel disappointed because they thought they had moved to a country in which there was relative stability and security.
Please don’t disappoint me and my neighbours any further, Ada.