OPINION: Spain’s struggle with gentrification, tourism and McDonalds

Leah Pattem, the woman behind the Madrid No Frills blog, looks into how gentrification and overtourism are changing the capital, and argues that it is not for the better.

OPINION: Spain's struggle with gentrification, tourism and McDonalds
Graffiti like this is daubed all over Madrid. Photo: Leah Pattem / Madrid No Frills

The first time I’d heard of gentrification was in a lecture at university. A few slides in, the word “McDonaldsization” lit up the lecture theatre in red and yellow, and the room giggled. We wondered if our professor had made the word up, until he explained. And then it all made sense…

“McDonaldsization is a social process that produces mind-numbing sameness, prioritising quantity over quality.”

The next slide: globalisation.


The first McDonald’s opened here in 1981, replacing an old jeweller’s on Gran Vía. Many predicted that this gran hamburguesería would be the beginning of the end of Madrid as we knew it.

In the decades that followed, Spain would continue welcoming globalisation – after nearly four decades of dictatorial repression, the country seemed keen to catch up with its European neighbours. It did so, however, while fiercely maintaining its national pride and cultural identity – as we can very much feel today. But the latest and most aggressive wave of gentrification is testing how much Spain truly values what it claims to treasure.


If you’ve been reading my Madrid No Frills blog for a while, you’ll know that no-frills bars are one of the pillars of the blog – and my campaign to save them is ongoing. Over the three years that I’ve been pushing the no-frills cause, however, many of the bars that I’ve documented have closed. Every month, bars close due to the death, retirement or eviction of their owners, and closure brings an end to the affordable rents they were paying.


The no-frills Bar Lozano before it closed last year…

With no law to regulate how high landlords set the price of their properties, a new no-frills bar most likely won’t be able to afford the newly vacant unit. The businesses that can, however, are those prepared to charge triple for a coffee, and the only way they can justify such prices is if the coffee is cool – something you can’t get in just any old Madrid bar. From serving cold-brewed coffee to organic matcha tea, these new “cool” businesses are just trying to keep up with the pace that Spain has set from much higher up the chain, and it’s getting harder and faster by the month.


Bar Lozano closed, and now a frills café/restaurant called L’Orangerie has opened in its place…


A home is no longer a “home”; it’s a “property”. Worse yet, an “investment opportunity”. This capitalist dialect is spoken only by those with purchasing power, leaving those who don’t trapped in an unstable rental market. But it wasn’t always this way.

In 1995, many of Spain’s renters were granted a 20-year rent freeze in order to establish their businesses and communities. On 1 January 2015, the “Urban Lease Law” came to an end, releasing Spain’s property industry from its supposed shackles of regulation. Tenants, who had been paying a fraction of market rates, now faced a three- to four-fold rent increase, or having their homes taken off them and thrown back onto the rental market. The latter kick-started Spain’s daily phenomenon of evictions.

Deregulation lubricates the economy.

… says the free market. Yet all I see on the streets of Spain is the rich getting richer off the backs of the poor – who are getting poorer. One poignant example where this shift is playing out is Lavapiés.


When I first moved to Lavapiés six years ago, I was enchanted with the barrio’s sloping streets, no-frills bars and diners popular with local migrant communities. The bright blue skies framed by candy-coloured facades were covered in flowers and succulents tumbling from narrow balconies. Today, those same balconies are obscured by banners fighting looming evictions.

Spain’s property industry is now fertile ground for investors, both local and international, with disruptive property platforms such as Airbnb oiling the gears of the gentrification machine.


Platforms such as Airbnb have latched on to Spain’s laissez-faire property industry. Last year, in Lavapiés alone, there were 2,177 apartments listed on Airbnb. That’s 10% of homes in the neighbourhood. But even with new regulations restricting hosts to 90 days per year, many of these properties remain primarily for tourist use and are therefore empty the rest of the time.

Apparently, tourists are still more lucrative – an argument that revolves solely around money. This means that for 365 days per year, 2,177 Lavapiés apartments are off limits to locals.

Scrolling through Airbnb properties to see which homes have been taken from locals was heartbreaking. There are so many charming Madrid homes that have had their walls stripped back to the brick and where the whole place looks like an IKEA showroom. Below is an example of a property no longer for a local. The name of the apartment is most likely based on Time Out‘s recent article – the one that crowned Lavapiés/Embajadores the coolest neighbourhood in the world.

Here’s an excerpt from my reaction to that Time Out article, which I wrote for The Local:

The side [of Lavapiés] 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.



Spain’s tenants are fighting back, and with some success. In addition to restricting Airbnb lets to 90 days per year, the town hall recently announced a plan to outlaw 95% of illegal tourist apartments in Madrid City. Perhaps our pleas are being listened to after all!

But, then, why do we still see launderettes popping up everywhere to serve bulk 24-hour turnarounds, more suited to hotels than residents, most of whom have their own washing machine? And why do there still seem to be more and more tourists rolling their suitcases up and down the streets of Lavapiés?


The Visit Spain tourism campaign kicked off in the 1920s with a range of smartly designed posters in various European languages (source: El País).

Tourism has been one of Spain’s biggest, most lucrative industries for decades and is showing no signs of waning, even when the side effects of tourism are destroying the lives of many local people. But with elected representatives doing little to help, the feeling on the streets is that locals are turning against one of the country’s worst-perceived nuisances: tourists.

Ironically, there are no tourists in this photo (nor any people at all (it’s August)), but anti-tourist sentiment is growing, and graffiti saying “Tourists Go Home” can be found sprayed across walls all over Madrid.


Let’s not forget how many local tourists also use Airbnb. A large number of Airbnb tourists in Spain are Spanish. According to Airbnb, around 2.5 million Spanish tourists will use Airbnb accommodation in Spain this summer, and many Airbnb hosts in Spain will be locals. It’s not just foreign tourists feeding the Airbnb beast; it’s local people too, many of whom are also victims of the disruptive platform.

But we have to be realistic: after more than half a century of kitsch, government-run tourism campaigns, the tourists aren’t going anywhere and the country doesn’t seem to want them to either. Tourism is a vital industry for Spain as we know it – that won’t change for a long while yet. But one thing that can change is government policy, because not only has the government been ineffective on this issue for a long time, but it may well be complicit.


Left-wing political party Podemos is constantly pushing the governing centre-left PSOE to implement rent controls, and while the government accepts that this needs to be addressed, nothing is being done. In the meantime, more and more investors are free to buy up people’s homes, with courts granting permission for investors to evict tenants. It’s then the state’s own forces that physically evict tenants who can’t afford the punitive new rents, and these tenants are typically marginalised as a result of income, age, employment status or ethnicity.

This is Rosa (below), who was thrown out of her Lavapiés home earlier this year because she couldn’t afford her rent increase from €400 to €1,700 a month.

Photo © Olmo Calvo / Madrid No Frills

The city council is allowing blocks of flats just like Rosa’s to be turned into hotels, and individual apartments to be turned into holiday lets. Fewer homes are now on the market, exacerbating the demand for those that remain and driving rents up faster than inflation and wage increases. And all this time, the government is neither addressing ballooning rental markets nor raising the minimum wage to keep pace with the cost of living.

And it seems no accident that Lavapiés’ €250k “renaturalisation” project (more pedestrian areas and trees) coincides with the opening of a huge Ibis hotel on Plaza de Lavapiés and a McDonald’s at La Latina metro. This is gentrification in action, and the government is complicit in the social cleansing of our neighbourhoods.

Spain doesn’t want another McDonald’s; we want a home that we can call “home”!


  • Follow eviction notices and find out when they’re happening here.
  • Attend an eviction. When you’re there, either get involved in trying to stop it, or if you don’t feel comfortable with that, then take some photos and share them on social media so that more people can become aware of what’s happening.
  • Join your local pressure groups or associations for evictions, neighbourhood issues and anything you can find. Here are just a few:

  • Go to organised protests whenever they’re on. I’ll try keep you posted.
  • Talk to your friends, family, colleagues and students about gentrification, irresponsible tourism and the various issues surrounding it.
  • Tweet Pedro Sánchez @sanchezcastejon and any other politicians you can track down.
  • Be conscious about where you spend your money: keep it local.
  • If you’re a tourist, don’t stay in an Airbnb – find a licensed hotel, hostel, guesthouse or bed & breakfast.
  • Contact journalists and share your stories with them. They have a platform and you can stand on it too.
  • Contact me, Leah, and tell me your stories ([email protected]).
  • And, finally: share, share, share!

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.

To discover stories that reveal the grittier, real side of Spain's capital, follow her adventures on Facebook and Instagram and support her through  her Patreon page

READ MORE: 'Madrid is a humble city of overlooked treasures and untold stories'


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Cañada Real: Madrid’s shantytown where residents are living without electricity

On October 2nd, a power outage left around 1,000 houses in a Madrid neighbourhood without electricity, writes Leah Pattem of Madrid No Frills.

Cañada Real: Madrid's shantytown where residents are living without electricity
Temporary, self-built shelters in the Cañada. Photo: Madrid No Frills

Almost 60 days later, the lines have still not been repaired – a situation that seems hard to believe, except for the fact that this neighbourhood is Sector 6 of the Cañada Real in Madrid.

The Cañada Real © @vallecasva

The Cañada Real is an unofficial, 16km-long linear settlement whose origins date back more than half a century. Residents have been arriving to this ancient cattle trail for generations, building makeshift homes and raising families. This winding settlement, which bends southbound around the outskirts of the city (parallel to the M-50 motorway) is a place almost every madrileño knows exists, but few know the reality.

Also known as ‘the Unpaved Cañada’, it remains Madrid’s forgotten neighbourhood and is a blind spot in the council’s responsibilities to its almost 3,000 residents. Their life expectancy is years lower than their paved neighbours in the city, where, two weeks ago, the residents marched for their rights. Signs read: “Electricity is not a luxury, it’s a right”, “I’m sick of surviving, I just want to live”, and “Who told you that there was marihuana in my house?”

Protest at Cibeles on Nov 17 © #404 Comunicación Popular

The last sign is the discriminative narrative that haunts Sector 6 residents, because their neighbourhood is where the biggest drug dealing area in Western Europe is located. Over 12,000 doses are sold a day here, yet only 180 residents are registered drugs users, most of whom receive no help and sleep in tents on the side of the unpaved road.

The narrative run by many newspapers – national and international – is that a growing number of cannabis farms caused a surge in the electricity supply to Sector 6, causing the outage. Yet the electricity supply to the city of Madrid runs without a glitch when thousands of Christmas lights around the city are switch on every night. The stigma associated with the Cañada is unrelenting thanks to media bias, but it’s wrong.

Of the 3,000 people who live in Sector 6 of the Cañada Real, 1,211 of them a children. For almost two months, they have been doing their homework in candlelight, and those who are quarantined can’t access computers or internet.

Parents can’t cook for their families let alone store fresh food, and their only way of keeping warm is by burning rubbish outside. Clothes are washed by hand over a laundry grill – something the modern world long left behind – and people bath in cold water whenever they can bear it.

A view from the Cañada towards Rivas. Photo: Madrid No Frills

Aside from the ongoing and worsening physical traumas Sector 6 residents are experiencing, their mental health is deteriorating, for the children especially. Two weeks ago, the Oficina del Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas asked some Sector 6 children to draw or write how they felt about the loss of electricity to their neighbourhood.

Drawing of a star-lit sky and the sad family of Taisgir, a five-year-old boy living in Sector 6 of the Cañada. Because there is no light in the
Cañada at night, the stars in the sky are more visible.




“Electricity is a right, not a privilege.“

I need electricity to study, to listen, to heat. We are so cold.

Nizar is five years old.


“We want light”

“Hello, I’m called Malak El Harrak El Assouad, I’m 7 years old and I live in the Cañada Real Galiana at 65F. Please let us have light. It’s so cold, breakfast is sad and cold.“


Sector 6 of the Cañada Real is a shanty town and therefore an unofficial neighbourhood in Madrid, yet three years ago, the local government promised the relocation of its long-term residents – a promise that appears to have no deadline.

In all of the Cañada’s history, this is its most brutal moment. The Covid-19 pandemic combined with the economic plummet for those surviving below the poverty line was enough to deal with, but now there is also no electricity for the foreseeable future, nor the fulfilment of the promise to be moved into social housing.

Fatima, 33, grew up in the Cañada Real. Her husband and father built the family home by hand, which her three young children have begun to question more than ever before, asking, “Why can’t we just move?”

The answer that Fatima gives her children when they ask why they can’t just move is simply, “I’m sorry. We can’t”, withholding the explanation that she knows they’ll soon enough learn: discrimination.

Fatima created the Instagram account saying, “All I ask is that you help us raise awareness of the power cut to the Cañada.” Also sign this petition on demanding the return of electricity to Cañada Sector 6 residents.

Please follow Fatima, share this story and sign the petition until the electricity lines are rightfully repaired because in a country that calls itself a modern democracy, electricity is not a privilege, it’s a right.

This article is by Leah Pattem, the founder of Madrid No Frills, an independent Madrid-based platform for under-reported stories from underrepresented communities.

To discover stories that reveal the grittier, real side of Spain's capital, follow her on Facebook and Instagram and support  the Patreon page