Is gentrification a problem in Madrid?
Maybe, or maybe not. Depends on who you ask.
Here’s the deal…
A few years ago I moved to a new neighborhood.
My flat is on a small street in Tetuán, an area I had barely visited before moving there.
And I immediately noticed something strange.
Two blocks to my right, I have fancy steakhouses, 4-star hotels, bars with exquisite design, overpriced cocktails and “a concept”.
Two blocks to my left, the neighborhood changes fast: I’ve got a Paraguayan dive bar, a couple of dingy massage places, some really run-down buildings.
Actually, one of the neighboring apartment blocks spontaneously collapsed a couple of years ago… now only its skeleton remains, waiting to be turned into something else.
Besides the run-down houses, the barrio is full of those old-timey businesses of the type where an elderly shopkeeper stands behind a counter all day, giving awful customer service and waiting for some retirees to come in and buy a girdle or a pair of orthopedic loafers.
It’s old-school AF, and I like it that way.
In any case, my block is right in the middle.
“On the front lines of gentrification”, commented one friend when he came to visit.
However, in the years I’ve been in the barrio, that line doesn’t seem to have moved at all.
The dive bars are still going strong. The girdles are still flying off the shelves of the tiny shops on Bravo Murillo. There seems to be little new construction.
Little gentrification of any kind.
But is that the whole story of gentrification in Madrid?
Rent prices around the city recently hit an all-time high – even higher than the peak of the real estate bubble in 2008.
But is it gentrification?
I’ve got a couple of definitions for gentrification here.
Wikipedia says: Gentrification is a process of renovation of deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of the influx of more affluent residents.
Oxford Dictionaries says: The process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.
I guess that sounds about right.
However, when I see people talking about gentrification in Madrid, their arguments seem to be along the lines of “I can’t afford a studio in Malasaña, and a couple of old man bars have recently closed, so it must be gentrification.”
Funny thing, though…
I’ve been in town for more than a decade now, and I could never afford a studio in Malasaña.
Back in the day, I couldn’t even afford a tiny room in a shared dump anywhere central.
What’s a guy to do?
I ended up living in Vallecas. It was a good experience, all told. I stayed there for about 7 years, right up until I moved to Tetuán.
While it’s true that Malasaña was once untouched by gentrification, that time was probably long before you got here. Say in the 80s or early 90s, during the movida. Or maybe before – maybe the movida was the first wave of gentrification.
In any case, back when I moved here in ’04 it was nothing like now, but it was still the coolest barrio we had.
(By the way, don’t even get me started on Chueca. If your heartfelt piece on gentrification doesn’t mention Chueca, you can – as the serious sociologists say – suck it.)
Is any neighborhood in Madrid still untouched by gentrification?
Some people, of course, are quite worried about what they see as the problem of gentrification in Madrid.
They’re looking for “untouched” neighborhoods so they can wander around and say “Ah, so this must be the authentic Madrid experience… Real, old-fashioned Spanish lifestyles!”
However, everything we now see in Madrid is gentrified as hell compared to a few decades ago.
Lemme say it again: gentrified as hell.
Chueca used to be the kind of place you wouldn’t go at night without fear of being stabbed. Around the 80s, I think that was.
And Lavapies was the worst of the working-class areas, where people lived in poverty in the corralas.
When people think of untouched Madrid, they’re probably thinking of something quaint that looks like it’s still the 90s – certainly not something that looks like it’s trapped in the 40s.
Because the 40s sucked.
And compared to the 1940s, even my neighborhood must seem like a paradise of gentrification: no more sharing the street with herds of sheep, indoor plumbing in every building, air-con in the bars.
But that’s also a product of large-scale social progress in Madrid and Spain.
Compared to several decades ago, there are millions more middle class people than there were. Here and in every other country in Europe. And so, logically, the cities have improved across the board.
And where are the new middle-class people supposed to go? Not to huddle around a wood fire in some casas bajas, that’s for sure.
Contemplate something for me, just for a minute
Imagine you’re living in my neighborhood, and you’re thinking of opening a business. (I’ve thought about it more than once, but prefer being a digital nomad.)
In any case, if you opened a business in Tetuán…
Would you make it worse than other nearby businesses, to avoid gentrifying the area? Or would you try to make it better?
Would you open up a new old-man bar? Or would you make it somehow gastro and hipster, to appeal to a younger crowd that’s not pinching pennies on a pension?
And what about if you’re building houses?
Are you going to spend your time and money building some dump that nobody will want to live in? Or are you going to improve on what’s already there so you can charge competitive prices?
If you’re a landlord, are you going to keep renting out a flat at prices from 20 years ago? Only if you’re an idiot or obliged to by law.
The old-school bars are closing, of course. But that could well be because their owners are retiring. Most small businesses aren’t intended to last multiple generations, and your corner bar is probably no exception.
On the other hand, the old-school houses are simply falling down – or being demolished once they become unliveable.
In their place: new construction. New buildings, which “conform to middle class tastes”.
So is gentrification killing Madrid?
But the idea that prices are going to stay low forever – and that nothing’s going to change – is a bit naive. If you want to read more about that, check out this article in the New Yorker: Is gentrification really a problem?
Like with the debate over tourism killing Spain, I can’t think of much of a solution to gentrification either way. (Prohibit people from moving? Control rent prices? That would just raise other problems.)
And as the New Yorker article points out, gentrification is complicated and not even sociologists really understand how it works.
Any neighborhood at any given time is getting better, or getting worse. Getting more expensive, or getting cheaper.
And here in Madrid, I’m sure rent prices are going to go up a bit more before they hit the top.
But then again, I remember those 7 years of economic crisis, when pawn shops were popping up everywhere, local housewives were turning tricks to pay the mortgage, and my neighbor practically begged me to rent her daughter’s 3-bedroom flat for 365€ a month.
(It was a dump, and I didn’t. But still. At that price I was tempted.)
Anyway, I was here for the crisis.
And believe me, kiddo… watching the economy collapse around you for several consecutive years was no fun.
No fun at all.
Despite the fall in rent prices.
That’s all I’ve got for today.
P.S. What do you think about gentrification in Madrid? Do you have any specific stories to share? Hit me up, right here in the comments… Thanks!
P.P.S. It’s also possible that I’m part of the problem here. Am I gentrifying Tetuán with my big ginger beard and my middle-class tastes? I’m not sure. I’m actually kind of proud to have finally reached the middle class in a country where salaries are generally low. But I still have no urge to pay Malasaña prices. So I guess I’m up here gentrifying things. Oh well.