It is the northern gateway to Barcelona, but the city breathes with its back to this small neighbourhood that epitomises the failure of a model based on urban speculation that has led many vulnerable residents to occupy flats emptied by the crisis and now owned by banks. The housing problem has earned it the nickname of Vila Desahucios (Eviction Vila).
Ciutat Meridiana, where Barcelona loses its name
The brick crisis has marked this peripheral neighbourhood, with chronic poverty and a record number of housing evictions
Outside the construction booth of the Neighbors' Association (AVV) of Ciutat Meridiana a queue of five people has formed. "Is it for the ID card?" asks George V., a young man from Ghana. For four years he has been a resident of this Barcelona neighbourhood, which has the worst welfare indicators in the city. They have come to become members of an organization that acts as a "psychotherapist" for a neighbourhood on which covid has fallen like a dead weight, reflects Filiberto Bravo, a veteran neighbourhood leader who has fought a thousand battles to get basic services for this steep neighbourhood. When Fili - Bravo's pseudonym - laughs, his eyes grow small, but he becomes serious when he explains how the weeks of lockdown in flats of less than 50 square meters and in most cases without balconies and with tiny windows were. A harshness that is still conjugated in the present tense due to the housing problem.
This is a typical neighbourhood of polygon urbanism, understood as an area without connections to the city. So much so, that for a long time it only had one point of entry and, as it is surrounded by roads towards the Vallès and the Renfe railway line, it remained an island. The chronicles explain that the first idea of the promoter Enrique Banús -the one from Puerto Banús in Marbella- for this little piece of Barcelona, bordering Montcada y Reixac and Collserola, was to make a cemetery, but the humidity, the winds and the fogs advised against it, so the project, led by the Francoist leader Juan Antonio Samaranch, was reconverted into a neighborhood, which in 1967 began to welcomen Spanish immigrant families.
With many doubts about the suitability of the location, Teodora Casino and Rafael Hernández paid 300,000 pesetas (1,800 euros, "a fortune at the time") for a flat without a lift - as most of them still are - in an area where there were few services (schools, clinics, shops) and "plenty of slopes". "They told us they would put in a metro and it took them 40 years to bring it to the neighbourhood", Antonio Palacios jokes.
The neighbourhood's stubbornness has meant that the Casa Gran in Plaça Sant Jaume has been installing services: a civic centre, a library, an outpatients' clinic. Later escalators to link the old part that pivots around the Plaça Roja with the newer, steeper area of the neighbourhood, or the city's first vertical funicular, the popemobile, appeared. "We have no shortage of stairs, in this we are the richest in Barcelona," says Casinos, "but they work when they want to".
In the years at the turn of the millennium there was a demographic and social change when bank branches and real estate agencies multiplied on every corner and lifelong neighbours sold their flats to families attracted by the cheaper prices in the city. But the end of the housing bubble meant that the neighbourhood became known as Vila Desahucios (Eviction Vila): there were "five or six evictions a week", says the neighbourhood leader, who estimates that a third of the 3,800 flats have passed into the hands of banks and vulture funds, which generated a "call effect" of squats that resulted in the arrival of many families in need of a roof over their heads, many of them undocumented migrants. The crisis destroyed the jobs of the new residents in construction and services, and those who had precarious work ended up in the informal market or unemployed. "It was all very brutal, people didn't even have enough to eat", Bravo recalls. As a result of this earthquake, the family income of this neighbourhood of 10,300 inhabitants has collapsed by twenty points and is only a third of the average for Barcelona, while the unemployment rate is double that of the city and the rate of higher education is six times lower. "There is a lot of need", he says.
Now three out of ten residents are of foreign origin (17% in Barcelona), most of them from Honduras and Pakistan. Mariela S. arrived in the neighbourhood with her son and husband two years ago to share a flat with some Colombian compatriots and they are there "until the end". Her salary is the only income for the family, which is forced to rely on social assistance to survive. The situation is worse for Ossas Ik, a Nigerian with four years of residence who has not been able to regularize his situation because no one will give him a one-year contract and, therefore, he is left without any benefits. "If they give me the papers I can work as a welder, fixing up the neighbourhood", he says.
Vanessa Valdés is 37 years old and has a 17-year-old son in her care. She explains that she arrived at Ciutat Meridiana in 2010 and that, faced with the refusal of the former Caixa Catalunya to offer her a social rent, she ended up squatting the small flat "out of necessity", she defends. She has had times without work or very precarious jobs, but now she is happy because she works in cleaning and is confident that the social rent she has been granted will be delayed, after several attempts of evictions and a trial. "Lucky AVV, who supported me", she says, and appreciates that the members are like a "big family" who support each other and create a network. There is no alternative for vulnerable families like hers, she says, while she receives the understanding of Marta Gramunt Ávila, with two small children and four eviction attempts on her back. She is the secretary of the entity and squats a flat owned by Sareb -the bad bank–. She also hopes that they will give her a social flat, if possible, in the neighbourhood.
Now there are not so many evictions, Fili Bravo admits, but he maintains that "people no longer live in the day but live in the moment", because they depend on the continuity of having a roof and work, benefits and social aid. Everything is precarious. These two factors make the new residents a floating population and make it difficult for them to settle down, says Mariano Hernando, born in one of the blocks and now director of the Cruïlla Social Education Platform for the labour integration of young people. "This job, family and housing instability causes a lot of pain", he explains, adding that the neighbourhood "resists" to a large extent precisely because of the combined efforts of the neighbourhood and organisations, which have prevented, for example, empty flats belonging to private individuals from being squatted due to residents' opposition.
The alderman of Nou Barris, Xavier Marcé, also speaks of instability, and points out that one of the great challenges is to strengthen employment plans and social policies to prevent the rotation of the population and thus ensure that the two "opposing realities" of long-time residents and newcomers is more fluid. The socialist leader defends the improvements that have been made to dignify squares and streets or bring the subway and buses, but also explains that since it is as "a neighborhood of owners", interventions in private areas are difficult to carry out. On the urbanistic question, he bets for the "rehabilitation of the blocks and the installation of elevators" due to the complexity of buying private land. Instead, for Hernando the solution is to make "a social API" with which banks and vulture funds put on the market the flats now squatted or empty with contracts of "three or five years at affordable prices", and with the guarantee of the City Council and its entities.
Although it has always been a working class neighborhood, it had some "good" years, says Francisco Gonzalez, owner of the workshop Meridiana who today does not hide his "joy": a customer of Montcada and Reixac has brought him a Seat 600 for review. The car is blue and, although the license plate reveals it is old, its sheet metal and paint is intact. "They don't make cars like that anymore", he says in the same melancholic tone as when he recalls that the neighbourhood "was 100% working" when he opened the business in the early 80s and the neighbours worked "at the Hispano Olivetti, the Seat and the Pegaso" factories.
Five decades later, the neighborhood still drags deficiencies and shortcomings and a label of being peripheral and vulnerable that the alderman of Nou Barris, the district to which Ciutat Meridiana belongs, denies. "It is a punished but proud neighborhood", says Marcé, who also rejects the "perceptions" that there is conflict, since the data show that, like the whole of Nou Barris, it is well below the crime rates of the city.
At a street level, Bravo reviews the list of pending duties that the administrations have, starting with the construction of a new building for the AVV, which has been provisional for 27 years, and including a good maintenance of the infrastructures and, above all, solving the problem of housing and chronic poverty. "We want to be Barcelona", he concludes.