So we moved out of Madrid today. I will miss it and especially the neighbourhood. Lavapies is probably one of the best parts of Madrid. It’s only a five minute walk to the very centre of Spain in Sol but Lavapies feels a million miles from the regal pomp and fascist cliches that dominate big chunks of Madrid.
Two minutes in the other direction is Atocha the main train and bus station that connects Madrid to the four corners of Spain as well as France and Portugal. Maybe it’s this that gives Lavapies a port like feel – with a huge mix of internal and foreign migrants. The United States of Lavapies.
Lavapies was originally home to Madrid’s Jewish population before the mass expulsion of Jews in 1492. In the 18th century the king set up his tobacco and playing cards factory here. When machines were introduced to roll the cigarettes in the 19th century strikes and riots broke out.
Since then and maybe because of this mixture of oppression, vice and class struggle, Lavapies has become a home for the dissenters, disposed and dreamers.
Notorious as a slum area in the 80s the empty buildings and tangled streets provided a great home for okupas (squatters) and anarchists as Spain slowly came out of the shadow of fascism.
At the top of our street is/was Casa Blanca. A huge, well established squat/social centre that was a coordination point for much of the 15-M protests until police cracked down and unceremoniously concreted up all the windows and doors.
There’s still a strong protest movement in the area with many cooperative gardens, radical bookshops and workshops in action. The government buildings are a short walk away and the convoluted alleyways and hidden squares make it ideal for protesters to emerge and melt away without being caught.
Since the mid-eighties the area has also become home to many economic migrants from Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, China and Indian sub continent.
Chinese corner stores are Aladdin caves of random tat and useful forgeries of every kind. And there is an impressive selection of curry restaurants just up from Lavapies metro that vie with Moroccan shisha bars and money transfer shops for attention.
Like any central city area with cheap rents the area attracted a more bohemian and gentrification crowd in the 90s. Being on the doorstep of the Reina Sofia gallery and the national theatre also attracted a strong arts crowd. As a result rents have gone up massively since the early squatter days.
I’m sure the original folk lament the influx of boho hipster types. However, having a homeless bath house nearby and a 27% unemployment rate means there’s still plenty of street drinkers, crumbling apartment blocks and the constant potential for mild violence if that is what makes an area ‘authentic’.
I like the mix of all these things – the boho-hobo cheek by jowl mash up of stuff that only seems to happen in major cities.
On our street there’s old Spanish grannies living in apartments bursting with heavy mahogany furniture and family photos who listen to soap operas full blast day and night. Upstairs from them is a Bolivian family who shout at their kids to stop playing football in the street when it’s time for food. Next door there’s about eight Indian guys living in a one room apartment who seem to be constantly cooking amazing smelling curries. Outside our door a Senegalese guy wearing a dashiki is chatting loudly on his mobile as arthouse couples arrive at the apartment across the street that has been converted into an independent theatre. Throw into this everything covered in anarchist graffiti a retro cinema used by Pedro Almodovar, an indoor market with the thud of flamenco classes blasting from upstairs and about 20 bars within literally a minutes walk and you get a small sense of the place.
When Ana went for her travel vaccinations recently the doctor asked where she lived. When she told her Lavapies the doctor quipped half jokingly that in that case we’re probably immune to most things already. I think the doctor was being daft and mildly racist in her response but in a way the random mix of people, languages and sounds maybe has given us a small taste of what’s next.
Long may Lavapies continue to be a home and a springboard for others.