Ravelejar: The Art of Neighborhood Branding (3/4)

Part 3: Balancing Neighborhood Character and Tourism

Part 1 of this series (“The Barcelona Model”) was published on this site on September 30, 2015. Part 2  (Constructing the Mythology of Barrio Chino”) was published  on October 17, 2015.

In 2002, several public and private entities in Barcelona came together to form a new community organization called Tot Raval (“all of El Raval”). The formation of Tot Ravel was in response to both increasing diversity and threats of gentrification in Barcelona’s historic El Raval neighborhood (see the former blog post in this series, “Constructing the Mythology of Barrio Chino”). The objective of the organization is to bring together the various associations, institutions, and businesses in the Raval with a common goal of improving the quality of life in the neighborhood. To do so, Tot Raval facilitated research on the social and economic needs of the Raval and worked to create business partnerships both within and outside the neighborhood. Among many other advocacy projects, Tot Raval also promoted the cultural activity of the neighborhood via social media and local news outlets. Tot Raval is not dissimilar from a Community Development Corporation, but with the distinctive place-marketing interests of a Business Improvement District.

Tot Raval Organizational Logo. Photo Credit: Tot Raval

Tot Raval addresses diversity as both a social issue and cultural asset. The organization actively supports immigrant organizations and social service providers that help new residents integrate into their new environment.  Tot Raval also helps finance and promote the cultural activities of its diverse population. For example, the Association of Cultural Education and Social Operations of Pakistani Gifts (ACESOP), uses funds from Tot Raval to organize inclusive, community-wide Ramadan celebrations and hosts community meals, which are held in the Rambla del Raval, the neighborhood’s largest public space. According to the director of Tot Raval:

“In the Raval we have a kind of melting-pot and multicultural atmosphere: we have a kind of co-existence…so the participation and empowerment of local groups, municipal committees and associations is the most important thing for generating common processes of development (cited in Degen 2012, 63).”

To further define the neighborhood, Tot Raval partnered with the marketing firm S,C,P,F in 2006 to create a neighborhood branding campaign to foster local pride and improve the image of the neighborhood, while embracing its diversity of cultures. The campaign transformed the name of the neighborhood into a verb, “Ravalejar,” suggesting that the Raval is not just a place, but an attitude and a way of living. With S,C,P,F Tot Raval created Ravalejar posters, which were displayed in storefronts and in public spaces. They also developed a variety of merchandise items, such as canvass bags, stickers and notebooks. By 2013, the Ravalejar campaign had created more than 200,000 artistic objects made by local artists, residents, and visitors.

Ravalejar campaign materials. Photo Credit: Tot Raval
Ravalejar campaign materials. Photo Credit: Tot Raval

The most prominent and permanent installation of the Ravalejar campaign was the installation of a Ravelejar plaque, which hung in wide view in the Placa de l’Angels, a recently renovated public space in the center of El Raval, until its removal in 2013. Approximately ten feet off the ground, and taking up roughly 300 square feet, the plaque was nailed to the wall like a poster. On it, the fictional word Ravalejar, appeared as it might in a multilingual dictionary, its conjugation written out in the five major languages spoken in the Raval: Spanish, Catalan, Arabic, Urdo, and Tagalog. The poster appears made of paper, with visible imperfections, a representation of the neighborhood’s history of arts and crafts and resourcefulness.

Public posters accompanying the Ravalejar campaign. Photo Credit: Tot Raval
Ravalejar plaque. Photo Credit: The Polis Blog, Alcaraz 2013

The Ravalejar campaign can easily be placed in the realm of community-based art, emphasizing community engagement and participation. Community-based art is perhaps best exemplified by Suzanne Lacy’s “new genre public art.” Lacy argues that once created, public art enters into preexisting social and economic systems, making it the role of the public to engage with critically. The “new genre public art” concept strives to use community-based art to encourage dialogue and advocate for new political ideals about issues like multicultural representation, consensus building, and public participation. Lacy rejects the notion that public artists passively reflect society with their work and is hyper-aware of the tendency of the media and big-capital to transform artistic endeavors into spectacles. One can easily imagine an advocate of new genre public art repudiating the efforts of city planners to use artwork as an impetus for urban redevelopment. The motivation by many to site work within a specific social or political issue, rather than in a physical location, is an obvious attempt to resist this.

Public posters accompanying the Ravalejar campaign. Photo Credit: Tot Raval
Public posters accompanying the Ravalejar campaign. Photo Credit: Tot Raval

Implicit in Lacy’s new genre public art is that artists, upon entering the social and economic systems which they are supposed to critique, will be able to navigate its inherent matrix the power relations and maintain agency over their work, the public, and the interaction between the two. In her book One Place After the Other, Miwon Kwon address this issue by dissecting the ways in which cultural institutions mediate relationships between the artist and the community. She demonstrates that the different ways “community” is defined and operationalized holds profound social and political implications that contradict the foundational aspirations of the practice, namely to represent and empower marginalized groups. Instead, public art can exploit communities by fetishizing their struggle, and create a “mythic unity” which glosses over more complex social inequities (ibid).

Ravalejar epitomizes this tension between empowerment and exploitation of a community. On one hand, Ravalejar serves the essential purpose of a brand: to attract customers. Tourism books and online guides often depict photographs of skateboarders and young people hanging out by the plaque next to descriptions of the neighborhood as a fun place to go out to bars and clubs and experience “authentic” Barcelona. Many restaurants in the area offer a “Menu Ravalejar” for lunch, a literal consumption of the brand. As one bar owner described, the neighborhood attracts not only tourists, but locals, who want to go out and party “with a feeling of danger.” The brand has been enormously successful, with the neighborhood attracting more than 25 million visitors per year (El Periodico 2008).

For some, the transformation of space into a commodity by the Ravalejar campaign represents the new logic of capitalism and its preoccupation with semiotic content.

Tot Raval community event in the El Raval neighborhood. Photo Credit: Tot Raval Facebook Page
Tot Raval community event in the El Raval neighborhood. Photo Credit: Tot Raval Facebook Page

Drawing one’s attention to specific sensory rhythms of the neighborhood, particularly it’s gritty blend of trendy bars and immigrants, mediates the sensory experience of the place. Some may go so far as to claim the Ravalejar campaign has turned El Raval into a kind of theme park, reducing the neighborhood to a tourist attraction and blocking from view the social realities of the neighborhood. However, rather than ignoring differences, Ravalejar makes difference its starting point, and has initiated a collective process of identity construction, pursued by various community organizations and cultural associations with the aim of improving the neighborhood for its residents. This is the topic of the final 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.