As with many ancient European cities, the neighborhood divisions of Barcelona were drawn in both Roman and medieval times. While what’s referred to as the Gothic Quarter has remained rather unchanged over the centuries, the area of El Raval has experienced a number of fascinating “urban lives” from its days as the “bread basket” of the city to being the heart of early 20th century bohemia. Architectural historian Celia Marin, who’s conducting her Ph.D. on the area and leads our Revealing the Raval walk, helps us discover the intriguing history of this up-and-coming district.
El Raval was a piece of land added to the city around the middle of the 14th century, with its wall finished around the beginning of the 16th. The idea was that this part of the city worked as a sort of “pantry,” a big space for farms and crop fields that could support the city in case of siege. For a long time it remained a place for crops, convents, and monasteries , while on the other side – today known as Las Ramblas – you had the proper city: institutions and houses. In this part of the city is where the main hospital was built in 1401 and is a fine case of Gothic architecture related to civic buildings – austere, simple, and restrained. The fact that a hospital was built within the walls of the city supports the idea that the Raval was indeed not entirely considered being inside of the city.
The Barrio Chino
Barcelona’s Raval neighborhood was well know until some years ago as “Barrio Chino” – literally meaning Chinatown. It was given the name in 1925 by a journalist who thought that this part of Barcelona was a sort of red light district similar to San Francisco’s or New York’s Chinatown. There was no Chinese population living in the area at the time, but the kind incidents that happened then related to prostitution, drug dealing, and shootings helped develop a kind of dark image of the city.
Center of Rebellion
Apart from the danger factor El Raval was also known for the strong presence of anarchist followers. At the time, most of the residential population was factory workers and immigrants from southern Spain, who lived in very poor conditions with difficult job situations. In this part of the city strikes, barricades and demonstrations were frequent during the 20 and 30’s before the Spanish Civil War. The structure of the streets, narrow and discontinuous, created a maze that helped the “guerrilla” defense. The coup d’état that launched the Spanish Civil War was stopped in Barcelona mostly thanks to the intervention of those union workers and anarchists that counterattacked the army supporting the coup d’ètat, and so the workers freed the city (at least for some time).
The streets were crowded with cabarets, cafés ands bars where all kind of shows were held, from flamenco (the famous flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya performed here with her family when she was very young) to coplas, erotic dances or drag shows. Both sparkling wine and absinthe were popular drinks for those who could pay the price. Different styles of entertainment had a home in El Raval, all of which could be enjoyed by the working class residents of the neighborhood or even Barcelona upper class, that in the search of adventure wandered the Barrio Chino streets at night practicing a sort of “slumming” that was quite popular in that time.
Recovering El Raval
In the last years the city hall is pushing hard to remove the name of “Barrio Chino” because it is related with the idea of a dark place, one that is dangerous and illegal, and trying to recover the Raval name, much more neutral. In the same way a strong politic of gentrification is being held to transform the neighborhood in a sort of cultural center of the city. It started with the construction of the MACBA by Richard Meyer in the 90’s and it’s continuing with the newest opening of the Film Archive.
~ Celia Marin