Ravelejar: The Art of Neighborhood Branding (2/4)

Part 2: Constructing the Mythology of Barrio Xino

Part 1 of this series (“The Barcelona Model”) was published on this site on September 30, 2015.

The neighborhood of El Raval  emerged during the Middle Ages due to outward expansion beyond Barcelona’s medieval walls. Tucked next to Barcelona’s port, it first functioned to house transient populations and travellers and was an early site of criminal activity in the city1. In the final decades of the nineteenth century the port demanded constant day labor and, thus, attracted immigrant workers from throughout Spain to the area. This demand for inexpensive housing forced the area to expand: its narrow, winding streets designed to pack as many people as possible into a small area as possible. Some industrial buildings were converted into smaller workshops or into densely-populated housing for the working class, leading to further congestion and health concerns. Amidst the social and physical transformation of the Raval into the twentieth century, the neighborhood also became a hotbed of anarchism and activism2.

Calle de la Volta d’en Cirés, 1932, Josep Domíngues, cited in Vega 2011

As brothels and bars were prevalent in the neighborhood, El Raval also developed a reputation as a neighborhood full of poverty, vice, and even crime. By the 1920s, the neighborhood had taken on a new name amongst the city’s authorities and the social elites: “Barrio Xino” (“Chinatown”)3, despite the fact that there were no Chinese residents of El Raval to speak of4. “Barrio Xino” alluded to the infamous Chinatowns in San Francisco and London, which were considered to be neighborhoods of moral depravity and foreign, exotic cultures. Newspapers and other local periodicals persistently published pictures of poor, dirty children playing in the streets of the Raval alongside stories of sickness, disease, and poverty.

Interior photos of Barrio Xino, Gabriel Casas, cited in Vega 2011

As many scholars note, the public discourse surrounding the district ignored the values and aspirations of those who lived in the “the barrio:” a well-established working class population with their own history and local identity. As one scholar put it:

“The barrio chino epitomized that which was attractive and repulsive for the bourgeoisie who controlled the city. On the one hand, it was portrayed as a zone of manageable vice and pleasure…On the other hand, reformers on both the left and the right bemoaned the high mortality rate, the substandard living conditions and the ‘schools’ for vice of the barrio.”5

The photography, fiction, and even academic literature published in the first decade of the twentieth century propagated the Barrio Xino myth by casting it as a landscape of terror and sex, where individuals give themselves up to deviance and temptation. In this sense, the title Barrio Xino served to demonize the working class and even to exoticize and marginalize them. Yet, while this mythology demonized the poor, it also endowed Barrio Xino with international notoriety as a roaring red light district. During this time the Raval was known as hub for not only the petty criminal, but also for the era’s bohemians and artists. This brought some allure to the neighborhood as both a romantic and dangerous place, or what Neil Smith might refer to as a “landscape of happy violence”6. Still today, many of the older bars hold onto their reputation as being hangouts for Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and Salvador Dalí, and others.

“El Barrio Chino de Barcelona hace que se va, y vuelve…” Crónica 1936, cited in Vega 2011
Los Bajos Fondos de Barcelona (“The Underworld of Barcelona”) Cited in Vega 2011

When Francisco Franco died in 1975 and the country opened up its borders, urban transformation began to occur. Immigrants from Northern Africa, India, and Southeast Asia began to arrive and many settled in the Raval. The growing immigrant population informed the symbolic depictions of marginality that surrounded “Barrio Xino” in the media as well as in popular literature, and created a narrative that justified the city’s large-scale urbanization projects in the years that followed Franco’s death7. The combination of ethnic diversity, poverty, and a now infamous reputation for vice also made the neighborhood a subject for reform by the new Socialist government. Many of the city’s “PERI” projects (Planos especiales de reforma interior, or Special Plans for Interior Reform) were located in the Raval.

These projects had the stated goal of relieving inhabitants from the health threats of congestion and, in doing so, improving the social life of the neighborhood8. The magnitude of the area’s spatial transformation has been enormous. Between 1982 and 2002, 45.4% of the buildings were totally or partially rehabilitated9. At the same time, hundreds of buildings were also acquired by compulsory purchase and demolished, forcing an estimated 2,725 families to resettle10. The space provided by this redevelopment was meant for the two major projects: the construction of the Casa de Caritat complex and the Rambla del Raval, a long avenue (317 metres long and 58 wide) with a total of 18,300 square meters of public space.

Rambla del Raval today. Photo Credit.

Despite the enormity of physical changes in the neighborhood, today the Raval is a highly diverse community of immigrants from around the world. Given that “Chinatown” refers to a traditional type of ethnic enclave, one that is homogeneous and spatially segregated from the rest of the city, the high density and proximity of multiple ethnic groups in the Raval challenges the traditional the very myth that was beset upon it. Put differently, the Raval’s mythologized historical identity is at odds with its growing social and cultural heterogeneity:

“…what has occurred is a particular hybridization where these global flows mix with and in the local realm to generate new place identities. The linear tunes of developers have been remixed by a variety of local and global forces into a unique combination of tempos, intensities and tunes that produce El Raval’s distinct public life.” (Degen 2013, 29).

It is in this context that the community public art project, “Ravalejar,” was formulated, to both engage the neighborhood’s disregarded histories while also reimagining an identity that acknowledges its present conditions. This project will be the subject of the next post in this series.

About the Author: Brady Collins is a Doctoral Candidate at UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning, specializing in spatial justice and cultural planning. A strong believer in the power of ethnographic methods, his work not only aims to provide insight to urban planners and designers, but also community organizations and social movements. Brady is also a member of the Urban Humanities Initiative at UCLA, and thus draws from multiple disciplines in his work, including history, sociology, and architecture. His current research examines neighborhood branding in multi-ethnic, multi-racial urban areas.

1Carandell, J.M. (1982). Nueva guía secreta de Barcelona. Barcelona: Ediciones Martínez Roca.

2Ullman, J.C. (1968). The tragic week: a study of anti-clericalism in Spain, 1875-1912. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Fabre, J. & J.M. Huertas Claveria (1977). “El Districte V.” in Tots els barris de Barcelona 7, 277-368. Barcelona: Edicions 62

Culla Clarà, J. (1986). El republicanisme loerrouxista a Catalunya (1901 – 1923). Barcelona: Curial

3Boatwright, D. & E. Ucelay da Cal (1984). La dona del barri xinès. L’Avenc 76 (Novembre): 26-34

4Vega, C.M. (2011). Antropografía del barrio chino: arquitectura o revolución. Unpublished Thesis, Barcelona: Universitat Politècnia de Catalunya

5McDonogh, Gary W. (1987). “The Geography of Evil: Barcelona’s Barrio Chino.” Anthropological Quarterly 60(4): pp 176

6Smith, N. (1996). The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, US: Routledge

7Castellanos, Jordi (2002). “Barcelona, las tres caras del espejo: del Barrio Chino al Raval.”         Revista de Filología Románicu, anejo 111: pp 189-202

Ealham, Chris (2005). “An Imagined Geography: Ideology, Urban Space, and Protest in the Creation of Barcelona’s ‘Chinatown’, c.1835-1936” Internationaal Instituut voor Socialte Geschiedenis 50: pp 373-397

McDonogh, Gary W. (1987). “The Geography of Evil: Barcelona’s Barrio Chino.” Anthropological Quarterly 60(4): pp 174-184

8Degen, M. (2003) “Fighting for the Global Catwalk: Formalizing Public Life in Castlefield and Diluting Public Life in el Raval” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27(4): pp 877

9Procivesa (2002). Ciutat Vella Ciutat construïda, Barcelona: El Cep and la Nansa edicions.

10Subirats, J. & Rius, J. (2008). Del Xino al Raval. Barcelona: Hacer Editorial.

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