“This is where people from near and far live side by side, cooking up a bustling cultural life,” the article in Time Out magazine says. What it fails to mention is that this bustling cultural life stands on the stooped shoulders of poverty and immigration. Looking closer, I realised that the so-called 50 coolest neighbourhoods in the world are also some of the most rapidly gentrifying.
— Time Out (@timeout) September 20, 2018
One warm evening last week, I went for a stroll through my neighbourhood to revisit some of the places mentioned in Time Out. On the narrow sloping street in the photograph below, my gaze was drawn towards fluorescent lights beaming out of a subterranean flat, where there were clothes hanging on improvised washing lines attached to light fittings and door handles. Small children were playing beneath drying saris while their elders sat against the wall on white plastic chairs and tucked into their dinner.
A sloping street in Lavapiés. Photo: Leah Pattem
I walked further up the street and saw a similar sight two more times. Two different families crammed into tiny apartments as if it’s normal, with one of them blasting bachata music without a care in the world.
This is Lavapiés, a neighbourhood within Embajadores that has always been poor with little room to grow. The homes here were built centuries ago to house an influx of Spanish economic migrants during Madrid's earlier boom years. These 30 m2 flats remain a relatively cheap option for recent migrants, laying the very foundations for the “bustling cultural life” that Time Out mentions so casually.
I carried on walking up the steep street until I reached a square with a parked police car. The police keep a constant presence in this neighbourhood, especially after the violent Lavapiés riots earlier this year, which were sparked by the death of Senegalese migrant Mame Mbaye. Like Mame, immigrants from Senegal and beyond came to Madrid for a better life and settled in Lavapiés for its affordable, albeit cramped housing. They live “side by side” with ageing Spaniards – the veterans of this traditional working-class accommodation – and often sit “side by side” with them on the municipal benches too.
A police car on Plaza Nelson Mandela. Photo: Leah Pattem
I walked past the police cars, accidentally catching the eye of one of the officers inside the car. He's here because of a quiet concern that the people of Lavapiés are on the edge of another uprising. They’re right to worry – poor living conditions and a lack of basic human rights can't go on for long. It doesn’t help that rent prices have soared to the highest we’ve ever seen. Long-time locals and short-term migrants alike are being priced out of their homes in favour of tourists hunting for the coolness Time Out promotes, and the close-knit Lavapiés communities are being chipped away.
A sign with the slogan “Carmena and the town hall are evicting us”. Photo: Leah Pattem
From the square, I headed down to the Tabacalera, which was also mentioned in the Time Out article. This old tobacco factory was at one point occupied by anarchists, who slowly converted it into a creative community space for all. It’s one of the few places in Madrid where, when you walk in, judgement disappears, and equality prevails.
I left the Tabacalera and headed round the side to look at its strictly controlled walls, which are reserved for local artists. These pretty murals are regular art, not street art, unlike the fight-talking paintings you find walking through the streets that reflect the community’s rebellious spirit.
Street art commemorating the late Mame Mbaye. Photo: Leah Pattem
About a five-minute walk from the Tabacalera, I stopped for dinner in one of several neighbourhood Senegalese diners, none of which were mentioned in the Time Out article. I wasn't the only person of colour in there that night, but ironically, I’d be a minority in the nearby cluster of Indian restaurants that Time Out recommends.
I skipped Café Pavón – “a buzzing local hangout in its own right” – and headed for a drink at a little no-frills bar. This one was buzzing with locals who were far more representative of the people of Embajadores.
On my way home, I took a detour past Medias Puri – the “city’s club of the moment”, according to Time Out. A queue of 100 people, obediently adhering to the dress code, were slowly filing down the shiny stairs into a walled-off world of pop music, neon lights and glamour. Just outside, homeless people were bedding down for the night, comforted by the populous stream of nightlife revellers walking past.
Numerous minority groups call Embajadores home, whether it’s where they want to be in life or not. When times are tough, as they can be here, the support of your neighbours is invaluable. And it’s this historic community spirit – one that welcomes anyone who’s willing to muck in – that truly makes this barrio cool.
The side seen by many visitors to the neighbourhood – the one Time Out often writes about – doesn’t tell the whole story. Look a little closer and you’ll see a neighbourhood struggling to survive as an almost direct result of those ‘cool’ new arrivals. That’s not cool at all. But read between the lines and you’ll see a community rising up and thriving in the face of racism, poverty, displacement and gentrification. That’s cool.
Leah Pattem is the founder of Madrid No Frills, a blog that celebrates those overlooked corners of Madrid untouched by the gentrification and modernization that has transformed the city in recent decades.