Lavapiés – where old Europe meets new

Lavapiés – where old Europe meets newTumbling down the hill from the elegant facades and manicured squares of central Madrid, Lavapiés is a parallel world to one Europe’s most sophisticated capital cities. Its narrow lanes are lined with the shabby symbols of modern multiculturalism: shopfronts offering money transfers to Africa and cheap phone calls to South America; grocery stores selling the produce of China or Bangladesh; groups of Moroccans passing the day with watchful eyes. Elderly Spanish residents lean out the windows and call across the street to their neighbours.

Lavapiés has always been peopled with immigrants; first Spaniards from elsewhere in the country drawn to the capital in search of opportunity, then foreigners called by Spain’s economic miracle that has transformed the country into Europe’s largest recipient of immigrants.

This marriage of tradition and diversity in Lavapiés has special importance on a continent made suddenly uneasy by conflicts with its burgeoning immigrant populations. Debates are being dominated less by the numbers gathered on Europe’s doorstep, than by how to live in harmony with those who are already here.

By 2050, 40 per cent of Europe's population will be recent immigrants or their offspring. "European cities will not be recognisable within 40 years," argues American sociologist Saskia Sassen. "They will become truly global places. They will become global cities."

So it is that Lavapiés, this deprived inner-city suburb surrounded by the continent’s wealth, and peopled with Spain’s most multicultural population, has become a testing ground of Europe’s future.

For much of the 20th century, Spain was a country of emigrants. It was not until 1991 that more people came to live in Spain than left it. In 2000, there were 900,000 foreigners living in Spain, less than 2 per cent of the population. That figure now stands at four million.

The response among ordinary Spaniards to Spain’s new status as an immigrant country has been a study in contradictions.

Since 1999 there have been isolated anti-immigrant protests in towns across Spain, and a recent government poll found that 60 per cent of Spaniards believe that there are too many immigrants in the country. With unprecedented numbers of illegal immigrants arriving on the shores of Spain’s Canary Islands—27,000 arrived by boat in the first nine months of this year—another poll in August found that 64 per cent of the population believes that immigration is the most pressing issue facing Spain, ahead of terrorism and unemployment.

Yet a different government survey in early September revealed that two-thirds of Spaniards say that they are in favour of people from different nationalities living in Spain, and that immigrants should have unfettered access to public education and free health care. An amnesty which granted temporary legal residence to more than 700,000 formerly illegal immigrants in 2005 barely registered as an electoral issue, and the government’s popularity remains high.

The barrio of Lavapiés—where old Europe meets the newElsewhere, anti-immigrant activity has been largely confined to the burgeoning, high-rise suburbs that have begun to encircle Madrid like clones of the deprived and militant outer suburbs of French cities. Villaverde is one such place, a high-rise ghetto whose inhabitants earn Madrid's lowest incomes and suffer from the Spanish capital's highest unemployment. In May 2005, low-scale demonstrations rocked Villaverde after a Spanish youth was murdered by a South American gang. Although one leading centrist newspaper described the unrest as the "neighbourhood rebellion against the immigrants", incidents such as these have been rare.

Unlike Villaverde, whose immigrant population is predominantly South American, Lavapiés has the highest proportion of different ethnic groups per square metre in Madrid.

"There are 146 different nationalities living in Lavapiés," says Juan, a long-standing resident of Lavapiés. "No group is too strong, no group is dominant. What happened in Villaverde could never happen in Lavapiés."

For all its apparent racial harmony, Lavapiés does suffer from many of the problems associated with immigrant-dominated, working-class districts the world over. A recent report in Spain’s leading daily El País described the barrio as being "where multiculturalism coexists with a darker reality, that of petty crime, drug dealing and homelessness."

But the residents of Lavapiés tell a different story, and point to the famed working-class solidarity of Lavapiés that cuts across the lines of racial or religious identity.

The barrio of Lavapiés—where old Europe meets the new"We get very bad press from the newspapers and TV," Pilar, the owner of a trendy bar in the heart of the barrio, told me. "People are afraid to come down the hill to Lavapiés because of what they say about us. We’ve never had any problems or felt unsafe. Everyone knows everyone. It’s a real community here."

Lavapiés is already dealing with the complexities of Europe's immigrant future, by providing, as it always has, a rite of passage for those with dreams of sharing in Europe’s wealth and by offering a sense of belonging through its blend of tradition, newly-arrived communities and solidarity across racial lines. But bigger questions about how to refine the Lavapiés model, and apply it on a national scale, will ultimately be the work of the Spanish government, as it struggles to avoid the pitfalls of—and decide between—the multicultural model of the Netherlands, and the policies of assimilationist France.

For now, the people of Lavapiés are doing the government’s preliminary work, revelling in the deep roots of their diversity and struggling with all the contradictions that this diversity creates.



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