Take a look at the modern and cosmopolitan city of Barcelona today and you’d find it hard to believe that not so long ago, there were parts of the city that were for all intents and purposes off-limits. It wasn’t a very small area neither, from the make-shift towns known as “barracas” that scattered the coastline to the area that we call today the Raval neighbourhood. The Raval is an interesting case, because while you can no longer visit the self-built neighbourhoods of the seafront, you can still live and breath the history of Raval, once the most notorious area in the city.
How did the Raval become so notorious?
When Barcelona was founded as a Roman city, the Raval area didn’t even exist and it wouldn’t for over 1000 years. It wasn’t until the rise of the black plague that this area would come to be. The nature of a plague meant that treating people within the populated areas would spread it easier, so the city walls were expanded to incorporate a new area on the other side of Las Ramblas – used to develop hospitals and orphanages. It was to be self-sustaining, so a majority of the area was developed into farmland in order that food didn’t have to be delivered. If you were sent to the Raval area, chances were you wouldn’t be leaving…
The plague passed, but the fields remained and the area was never really built on. Fast-forward to the Victorian area and Barcelona is facing an overcrowding crisis. The Raval was developed amidst this era, but it wasn’t enough. The city would expand beyond the medieval walls. The rich and middle class left behind the densely populated city centre, leaving behind the less well-off and working class of society. There were large avenues developed like Via Laietana connecting other parts of the old city to the wealthy areas, but Raval was effectively abandoned, leaving those in poverty and poor immigrants to fill the void. Things got worse and the Raval area was becoming a hotbed for crime and disease.
How bad was the Raval?
Things got pretty bad, in fact one of the most notorious female serial killers in history – Enriqueta Martí AKA “The Vampire of Raval”- operated there, so-called because she would kidnap and kill children and use their skin, blood, and bones to sell to the wealthy in other parts of Barcelona as cure-alls and beauty products… Overcrowding was unbearable, with journalists reporting as many as 50 in some houses. Also, with the nearby port, it was a prime business location for vice like brothels, opium, alcohol and more.
Things got so bad that the area become dubbed as the “Barri Xino” (Chinatown) by a journalist, a name that stuck. There was no significant Chinese population, but it was compared to the sordid Chinatown in San Francisco at the time. It wasn’t until the 80s that the name Raval was to be used again.
Despite all this, even during the turn of the 20th century, the area was inspirational to certain artists, like a young Picasso who developed much of his famous and gloomy “blue period” in the area.
Things got better, right?
Nope. Renovating the Raval area has been “the plan” for a long time. You could say it started in the 1930s when a group of architects called GATPAC planned to rebuild the neighbourhood with homes in the modernist style of Eixample. Yet, the Spanish Civil War brought an end to those plans and it actually made the situation worse as landlords abandoned the areas that were to be demolished… Not to mention the bombings that followed! Franco won the civil war, but these poor areas would simply get poorer under the dictatorship. What was a rough area (yet seemingly acceptable for artists like Picasso to visit) became the most dangerous in the city. It’s reputation as the red-light district of the city also continued.
No really, things got better, right?
Yes! Once democracy was being established in Spain, the city council of ’77 was already well aware of the problems it had inherited. Things started to get into full swing with the establishment of the Catalan governing Generalitat and an urban planning project was set in motion with a focus on creating shared public spaces like parks and squares around the city. It doesn’t end there though!
Those renovations just weren’t enough. The city won a bid for the Olympics in 1986, and the neighbourhood associations of the Raval and Old city areas took advantage of this, setting up an awareness campaign to focus renovations on social issues and not facelifts. The city council and local government obviously didn’t want the world to know how some parts of Barcelona were, so now was the best time for a major investment into a city-wide project to solve these issues.
The real renovations begin
So how do we have the almost hipster and cosmopolitan district of Raval today? The key changes that came from the 90s onward seemed to focus development on lighting, widening streets, and culture, while taking advantage of the international attention that the Olympics games would bring. Projects such as MACBA (Catalan Museum of Modern Art) – designed by internationally famous architect Richard Meier – and the CCCB (Contemporary Cultural Centre of Barcelona) – converted from an abandoned orphanage – drew new crowds and breathed life into the area. Areas that were once full of brothels were now important modern research and cultural centres.
The south of Raval took some time to catch up, but was connected to the new cultural north via a wide boulevard called Rambla de Raval. This all in turn has attracted various culture-based shops to the nearby areas, like art galleries and bookshops, which in turn had a snowball affect and has led to a wide range of cool boutiques of clothes, designer shops, and restaurants. It’s no coincidence either that the boulevard was built over the “roughest” streets, which were bulldozed to make way for the change.
Discontent with living in an area that was constantly being demolished and rebuilt, many local Catalans were abandoning the area, and with the city becoming more and more famous around the world, the Raval zone went from having a foreign population of under 10% to the almost 49% we see today. This is now the most multi-cultured part of the city, which is befitting of an neighbourhood rebuilt upon culture.
While for the most part, the renovations are complete and the Raval is once again a part of the city visited by everyone, it’s still in a constant state of renovation. More recent additions on this side of the century include a Catalan film archive and various hotels since Barcelona became a hotbed for tourism. The Raval neighbourhood has become especially popular amongst tourists, which in itself has added a whole new facet to its personality.
After years of planning, demolition, renovation, and about €1 billion of public money over a decade (plus about €1.5 billion private investment), the Raval you see today is a world apart from any other point in the city’s history. You can stay here in a hotel, dine in a restaurant with friends, find something really cool and unique in one of the boutiques, visit a modern museum, or study at one of the universities here. And it can only get better!