Valencia’s Wrecking Ball
How a poor community in Valencia fought city development plans — and won.
The above is a picture I took from the beach of a building in Valencia’s old port area, Cabanyal. Cabanyal is full of ornate houses, about 100 years old, built by the port workers who would live in them. Many have art-nouveau windows and walls decorated with mosaics of colourful tiles.
The setting sun was shining through the window in a pretty way, making it look a bit like there was a fire raging inside. This cool effect was possible because the back of the building had fallen off.
Rita Barberá was the conservative mayor of Valencia for 24 years, from 1991 until 2015. Rita, despite her traditional background, was a modernising mayor. During her term the massive Ciutat de les Artes y les Ciencies was built; a sprawling piece of futuristic architecture which takes your breath away. The city also hosted five Formula One Grand Prix. (Although the track now lies abandoned.)
During her later years she waged a bureaucratic war on Cabanyal. The neighbourhood stood in the way of another plan: to extend Avenue Blasco Ibañez down to the beach. First the street cleaning went. Later, the road repairs and water supply maintenance stopped too, in an attempt to make the area as unattractive a place to live as possible.
The locals had never felt part of the city, always talking of ‘going into Valencia’ whenever they had to go west of Cabanyal. When they held firm, Rita began buying up the area, using bribes and intimidation to push residents into selling their homes.
Rita became known as a mayor obsessed with demolition. This sketch from a local comedy show illustrates the way Valencians saw their mayor: Large, loud, corrupt and intent on destruction.
She bursts into the office of the regional president with news that the authorities have found corruption in their party, the PP.
“We have to bulldoze an entire neighbourhood to distract people’s attention!” she says.
When the president asks about demolition machines, she replies “Hah! Machines!?” and orders him to hoist her up so she can act as the wrecking ball herself.
Rita Barberá fought her war with paper. The residents of Cabanyal fought with protest marches, large banners hung from their houses and, eventually, votes. When Valencia voted her out in 2015, the new administration scrapped the project. She lost to a former communist. A year later Rita was dead from the shock.
The residents of Cabanyal have endured casualties. Now empty, crumbling buildings pepper the old neighbourhood, many occupied by the local gypsy community. Some of Valencia’s more nefarious elements have also set up shop. It’s weird seeing a semi-abandoned, crime-ridden area five minutes from the tacky restaurants, house music and grand hotels which now line most of Spain’s east coast.
But more change is afoot. Now the threat of demolition is gone, those still living there are happy to have their village back. But with some of the empty houses now going for as little as €30,000, those with an eye for development and a nose for opportunity are moving in.
Cabanyal may yet be modernised, though not in the way Rita Barberá envisaged. The locals may still be forced out — not by bulldozers and government-sanctioned neglect, but by a far more powerful force: tourism.
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