Untold Stories

Spain’s struggle with gentrification, tourism and McDonald’s

23 August 2019

The first time I’d heard of gentrification was in a lecture at university. A few slides in, the word “McDonaldization” lit up the lecture theatre in red and yellow, and the room giggled. We wondered if our professor had made the word up, until he explained. And then it all made sense…

McDonaldization is a social process that produces mind-numbing sameness, prioritising quantity over quality.

The next slide: globalisation.

SPAIN’S FIRST McDONALD’S

The first McDonald’s opened here in 1981, replacing an old jeweller’s on Gran Vía. Many predicted that this gran hamburguesería would be the beginning of the end of Madrid as we knew it.

In the decades that followed, Spain would continue welcoming globalisation – after nearly four decades of dictatorial repression, the country seemed keen to catch up with its European neighbours. It did so, however, while fiercely maintaining its national pride and cultural identity – as we can very much feel today. But the latest and most aggressive wave of gentrification is testing how much Spain truly values what it claims to treasure.

THE DEATH OF THE SPANISH BAR …

If you’ve been reading Madrid No Frills for a while, you’ll know that no-frills bars are one of the pillars of this blog – and my campaign to save them is ongoing. Over the three years that I’ve been pushing the no-frills cause, however, many of the bars that I’ve documented have closed. Every month, bars close due to the death, retirement or eviction of their owners, and closure brings an end to the affordable rents they were paying.

The no-frills Bar Lozano before it closed last year…

With no law to regulate how high landlords set the price of their properties, a new no-frills bar most likely won’t be able to afford the newly vacant unit. The businesses that can, however, are those prepared to charge triple for a coffee, and the only way they can justify such prices is if the coffee is cool – something you can’t get in just any old Madrid bar. From serving cold-brewed coffee to organic matcha tea, these new “cool” businesses are just trying to keep up with the pace that Spain has set from much higher up the chain, and it’s getting harder and faster by the month.

… AND THE INVASION OF THE SQUARE PLATE

Bar Lozano closed, and now a frills café/restaurant called L’Orangerie has opened in its place…

UNDERSTANDING SPAIN’S PROPERTY INDUSTRY

A home is no longer a “home”; it’s a “property”. Worse yet, an “investment opportunity”. This capitalist dialect is spoken only by those with purchasing power, leaving those who don’t trapped in an unstable rental market. But it wasn’t always this way.

In 1994, many of Spain’s renters were granted a 20-year rent freeze in order to establish their businesses and communities. On 1 January 2015, the “Urban Lease Law” came to an end, releasing Spain’s property industry from its supposed shackles of regulation. Tenants, who had been paying a fraction of market rates, now faced a three- to four-fold rent increase, or having their homes taken off them and thrown back onto the rental market. The latter kick-started Spain’s daily phenomenon of evictions.

Deregulation lubricates the economy.

… says the free market. Yet all I see on the streets of Spain is the rich getting richer off the backs of the poor – who are getting poorer. One poignant example where this shift is playing out is Lavapiés.

THE END OF LAVAPIÉS AS WE KNOW IT

When I first moved to Lavapiés six years ago, I was enchanted with the barrio’s sloping streets, no-frills bars and diners popular with local migrant communities. The bright blue skies framed by candy-coloured facades were covered in flowers and succulents tumbling from narrow balconies. Today, those same balconies are obscured by banners fighting looming evictions.

Spain’s property industry is now fertile ground for investors, both local and international, with disruptive property platforms such as Airbnb oiling the gears of the gentrification machine.

THE PROBLEM WITH AIRBNB

Platforms such as Airbnb have latched on to Spain’s laissez-faire property industry. Last year, in Lavapiés alone, there were 2,177 apartments listed on Airbnb. That’s 10% of homes in the neighbourhood. But even with new regulations restricting hosts to 90 days per year, many of these properties remain primarily for tourist use and are therefore empty the rest of the time.

Apparently, tourists are still more lucrative – an argument that revolves solely around money. This means that for 365 days per year, 2,177 Lavapiés apartments are off limits to locals.

Another disturbing statistic is that around a third of Airbnb properties are owned by just 3% of hosts, most of whom are companies disguised as locals. Read more here in a revealing article by Somos Malasaña. Super hosts own hundreds of properties each, and have names such as Leticia, Alberto and Fer, where really, they’re property machines.

Scrolling through Airbnb properties to see which homes have been taken from locals was heartbreaking. There are so many charming Madrid homes that have had their walls stripped back to the brick and where the whole place looks like an IKEA showroom. Below is an example of a property no longer for a local. The name of the apartment is most likely based on Time Out‘s recent article – the one that crowned Lavapiés/Embajadores the coolest neighbourhood in the world.

Here’s an excerpt from my reaction to that Time Out article, which I wrote for The Local:

The side [of Lavapiés] seen by many visitors to the neighbourhood – the one Time Out often writes about – doesn’t tell the whole story. Look a little closer and you’ll see a neighbourhood struggling to survive as an almost direct result of those ‘cool’ new arrivals. That’s not cool at all. But read between the lines and you’ll see a community rising up and thriving in the face of racism, poverty, displacement and gentrification. That’s cool.

THE FIGHTBACK

Spain’s tenants are fighting back, and with some success. In addition to restricting Airbnb lets to 90 days per year, the town hall recently announced a plan to outlaw 95% of illegal tourist apartments in Madrid City. Perhaps our pleas are being listened to after all!

But, then, why do we still see launderettes popping up everywhere to serve bulk 24-hour turnarounds, more suited to hotels than residents, most of whom have their own washing machine? And why do there still seem to be more and more tourists rolling their suitcases up and down the streets of Lavapiés?

A CENTURY OF TOURISM TO SPAIN

The Visit Spain tourism campaign kicked off in the 1920s with a range of smartly designed posters in various European languages (source: El País).

Tourism has been one of Spain’s biggest, most lucrative industries for decades and is showing no signs of waning, even when the side effects of tourism are destroying the lives of many local people. But with elected representatives doing little to help, the feeling on the streets is that locals are turning against one of the country’s worst-perceived nuisances: tourists.

Ironically, there are no tourists in this photo (nor any people at all (it’s August)), but anti-tourist sentiment is growing, and graffiti saying “Tourists Go Home” can be found sprayed across walls all over Madrid.

SPANISH TOURISTS

Let’s not forget how many local tourists also use Airbnb. A large number of Airbnb tourists in Spain are Spanish. According to Airbnb, around 2.5 million Spanish tourists will use Airbnb accommodation in Spain this summer, and many Airbnb hosts in Spain will be locals. It’s not just foreign tourists feeding the Airbnb beast; it’s local people too, many of whom are also victims of the disruptive platform.

But we have to be realistic: after more than half a century of kitsch, government-run tourism campaigns, the tourists aren’t going anywhere and the country doesn’t seem to want them to either. Tourism is a vital industry for Spain as we know it – that won’t change for a long while yet. But one thing that can change is government policy, because not only has the government been ineffective on this issue for a long time, but it may well be complicit.

IS THE GOVERNMENT IN FACT PRO-GENTRIFICATION?

Left-wing political party Podemos is constantly pushing the governing centre-left PSOE to implement rent controls, and while the government accepts that this needs to be addressed, nothing is being done. In the meantime, more and more investors are free to buy up people’s homes, with courts granting permission for investors to evict tenants. It’s then the state’s own forces that physically evict tenants who can’t afford the punitive new rents, and these tenants are typically marginalised as a result of income, age, employment status or ethnicity.

This is Rosa (below), who was thrown out of her Lavapiés home earlier this year because she couldn’t afford her rent increase from €400 to €1,700 a month.

Photo © Olmo Calvo

The city council is allowing blocks of flats just like Rosa’s to be turned into hotels, and individual apartments to be turned into holiday lets. Fewer homes are now on the market, exacerbating the demand for those that remain and driving rents up faster than inflation and wage increases. And all this time, the government is neither addressing ballooning rental markets nor raising the minimum wage to keep pace with the cost of living.

And it seems no accident that Lavapiés’ €250k “renaturalisation” project (more pedestrian areas and trees) coincides with the opening of a huge Ibis hotel on Plaza de Lavapiés and a McDonald’s at La Latina metro. This is gentrification in action, and the government is complicit in the social cleansing of our neighbourhoods.

Spain doesn’t want another McDonald’s; we want a home that we can call “home”!

ARE YOU AFFECTED OR MOVED BY THESE ISSUES? THEN GET INVOLVED:
  • Follow eviction notices and find out when they’re happening here.
  • Attend an eviction. When you’re there, either get involved in trying to stop it, or if you don’t feel comfortable with that, then take some photos and share them on social media so that more people can become aware of what’s happening.
  • Join your local pressure groups or associations for evictions, neighbourhood issues and anything you can find. Here are just a few:
  • Go to organised protests whenever they’re on. I’ll try keep you posted.
  • Talk to your friends, family, colleagues and students about gentrification, irresponsible tourism and the various issues surrounding it.
  • Tweet Pedro Sánchez @sanchezcastejon and any other politicians you can track down.
  • Be conscious about where you spend your money: keep it local.
  • If you’re a tourist, don’t stay in an Airbnb – find a licensed hotel, hostel, guesthouse or bed & breakfast.
  • Contact journalists and share your stories with them. They have a platform and you can stand on it too.
  • Contact me, Leah, and tell me your stories (hola@madridnofrills.com).
  • And, finally: share, share, share!

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13 Comments

Nicolás 23 August 2019 at 12:21 pm

There was a musical paradise at Gran Vía called “Madrid Rock”. A huge shop(there were four floors,one of them the basement) where you could find almost everything(even a lot of rarities). The employees knew a lot about different music styles and liked their jobs. What happened? Zara bought the building,everybody were fired and this awesome dream disappeared. It was really beautiful while it lasted.

There are a couple of heavy metal fans,twin brothers,standing there everyday,the whole year,as a tribute. Check it your next time in Gran Vía. 😉

https://www.elmundo.es/madrid/2017/05/22/592176f022601d05548b4678.html

https://www.abc.es/espana/madrid/abci-valla-rockera-para-jevis-gran-201802090117_noticia.html

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Madrid No Frills 23 August 2019 at 2:18 pm

I had no idea why the jevis were always there and now I know! I’ll be digging deeper into this story – thank you for sharing it with me, Nicolás!

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Melissa 29 August 2019 at 5:58 am

A great piece, thanks for sharing! My mother recently visited Madrid a second time (previously she had visited a couple of years ago) and was shocked at how much the city had changed – increased homelessness and a general sense of misery and despair from locals. I explained that a lot of this had to do with changes in the rental market. So now instead of clamouring for me to book her an Airbnb or a holiday rental apartment, she is committed to staying in family run hostales. Being in Madrid opened her eyes on how important it is to be a responsable tourist and I appreciate how your work has helped me educate my family and friends on how to do the right thing in this city!

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Madrid No Frills 29 August 2019 at 10:14 am

This is awesome Melissa! As is your mum 😊

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Brian 23 August 2019 at 11:08 pm

Great article! Couldn’t agree more. I also take pictures of the no frills bars and shops! Before they disappear! You have to go further and further from the center to recover that old barrio madrileño feeling. Thanks for writing about it!

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Madrid No Frills 29 August 2019 at 10:17 am

Perhaps you’d like to share your photos with our Detectives Club? http://www.facebook.com/groups/MadridNoFrills/

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Daniel 24 August 2019 at 1:57 pm

Thanks so much for doing this and being so conscious of this huge issue which determines people’s future wellbeing so greatly. The only thing I’d like to point out is that the economic profitability from the tourism industry is only imaginary. Moreover, this industry is a burden to society, economically, socially and environmentally. If there were the option of posting images, I’d provide a number of feedback loop showing this. Nonetheless, Pedro Bravo (Diarios desde mi bicicleta) is someone to be read on this. Thanks again and way to go for the fabulous work you do. All the best to you and yours

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Madrid No Frills 29 August 2019 at 10:18 am

Thank you Daniel! And I’ll be sure to check out your tip 😊

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Adam Greaves 27 August 2019 at 8:02 am

The Spanish state has a long history of being responsible for distorting the housing market in Spain. In 1964, the government decided to deal with the housing crisis by freezing rents, and giving tenants’s descendants the right to inherit the rent contract with the frozen rent. As a result in the 1990’s there were hundreds of thousands of flats in Spain that were being rented out for a monthly rent that was lower than the cost of a menú del día. The state, rather than provide social housing, had effectively expropriated the private sector.

The pendulum has swung fully the other way now and the state has allowed unbridled capitalism to take over the housing sector. How ironic, but how unsurprising, that under a right wing totalitarian system, tenants were protected not only for life but over generations, whilst after 40 years of freedom, with many socialist governments, cash is king.

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Madrid No Frills 29 August 2019 at 10:23 am

If only tenants were protected for life while also living in a democracy.

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DUNCAN 2 September 2019 at 4:49 pm

Leah,
Thanks for another fantastic blog. Just to let you know that it is being read by me in Cardiff, Wales. Cardiff used to be one of the largest docks in the world exporting our high quality coal around the work. It would then be stored(bunkered) waiting to load into steam boiler ships so they could carry on their trips elsewhere. With the closing of so many coal mines in the area and the resulting lower quantity of coal available, much of the port closed down. In its place, we have what is now known as the Cardiff bay. This was built by means of as a result of building a long barrage across most of the docks entrance and impounding water behind it. This area is now a tourist destination as the Bay is full up with restaurant and shopping chains for them to visit. The Bay is just 10 mins from our beautiful city of Cardiff. So that is what is called progress here. Dockers jobs have been replaced by shop and restaurant workers. However, the big change is that everything is much cleaner here without the coal dust and the coal effluent which used to flow into our rivers leading down to the docks. Anyway, I just thought that you should know how far your great blog gets read. keep up the good work. You are doing so much good for Madrid and I hope that the people in power understand what you are doing for your city. It is on my list to visit in future. Kind regards, Duncan

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Madrid No Frills 2 September 2019 at 7:58 pm

Thank you for sharing that lovely story, Duncan. I had no idea that Cardiff had experienced such regeneration/gentrification. It sounds just like the dockyards in Newcastle, where I’m from. More and more trendy restaurants alternating between the old fish mongers’ and some of the best chippies in the world (okay, maybe I’m a little biased), but at least the no-frills soul still lives on, for now! Leah 🙂

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Tracy 30 October 2019 at 11:26 am

https://www.nextavenue.org/relationship-rescue-how-stop-constant-bickering/

This was a great read. I’ve been following this issue for a while, as I am one of those “dreaded” people who rent AirBnbs every year while I stay in Madrid. And so, I have a slightly different perspective.

My connection with Spain began 22 years ago. I met and married a Madrileño, we moved to Vallecas and lived there a while and we had two sons. Eventually, we moved back to the US so that we could raise the kids near my family and because he got a better job in NJ and really just wanted to get out of Madrid. After 7 years we divorced and he has returned to Spain maybe 4 times in those past 15 years. I have returned every summer to spend time with my in-laws and teach my sons about their Spanish heritage. Long story short, I often stay a month or two, and I don’t stay with my in-laws (house entirely too small). And since it would be insane to stay that long at a hotel or hostel, I choose the ideal option—to rent an apartment.

I have seen the gentrification of places like Lavapies. And I think it definitely has its upside and downside. My father-in-law grew up there and for as long as I can remember he has warned us to stay out of that barrio. It was a dirty, dangerous and dark place in his mind, filled with working class thugs that would harass you (he was most likely one of them who turned over a new leaf). And now, here I am, about to buy a place there because of its affordability and style.

The truth about gentrification is that it often doesn’t happen until the original inhabitants move out. And in the case of Lavapies, that’s exactly what happened. Spaniards moved out to the “suburbs” per se, to eke out a better life for themselves. They moved out of old, rundown building that had/still have horrible plumbing, outdated utilities, no elevators, etc. They looked upon those historic features that are so highly desirable now with great aversion and distaste and they sold cheap to buy cheap but new. They moved to places like Vallecas and Getafe. And now, after 40+ years living off Avenida San Diego, my in-laws want to move to one of those new buildings out by La Gavia.

This is a global issue. Not a Spanish one. People naturally migrate, and while I am the first to complain about seeing a McDonald’s any where outside the US (let alone in the US), I am aware that these horrible things pop up by demand.

What I think we tend to forget too is the why of gentrification. My ex moved to the US because he rejected his Spanish culture and traditions. He never taught his children to speak Spanish and completely erased his heritage in order to fully immerse himself in his new home. In his mind Spain was old and didn’t offer the thrill of modernization. And while I always found this horrifying, he’s not the exception. He’s the rule. My grandmother came to US from Italy and did the same. Rejected her Italian roots to become “American.” We here in the USA tend to get a first hand account of immigrants wanting to reject their roots. It’s very sad. Yet I understand it.

And, I am not saying this is a good thing. In fact, it’s a horrible thing, and like I said above I have worked very hard at keeping my children connected to their Spanish side (and their Italian one too).

But gentrification doesn’t seem to place blame on the fact that hoards of people within a community flat out reject their history and traditions because they WANT to conform to modernization.

We talk instead about gentrification as if big, moneyed strangers have come in and forced out the little barista, and the dueña de un bar. While that is happening, indeed, that’s not how it began. Social revolution and rejection of traditions happened first.

Moreover, the multicultural aspect of places like Lavapies, in the 80s and 90s were not always multi-cultural. They were purely Spanish. And so to defend what seems to be a naturally occurring multicultural diversity of an immigrant community is a bit off. The negative complaints typically bestowed upon gentrification is that it “cleanses” a community of diversity. But Lavapies’ roots were not originally diverse at all. Working class, yes. But not diverse. And what’s more is that the working class of that barrio moved out to better themselves which left Lavapies open for change.

I don’t exactly fit the bill of tourist when I come to Madrid. I typically eat my main meal of the day at my mother-in-law’s house, I use the metro versus taxis, I always seek out local stores, pubs and restaurants and I definitely maintain less wasteful habits typical of tourists.

Airbnb’s are probably not the best solution for setting market value. I couldn’t agree more. But they are FAR less wasteful than hotels with their buffets, single use towels, daily bed sheet changes, constant use of cleaning products and wastefulness. Environmentally, Airbnb’s save on water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

And this I know. After the “gentrification” of places like Lavapies, something else will take its place. Progress and change always win.

In the end it breaks my heart to see these old Spanish bars and cafes die out. They, along with a slew of other things, are what inspires and bolsters my deep love of Spain. I actually will not go to Barcelona anymore because the center, at least, is very un-Spanish. But that’s globalization isn’t it? The sacrifice of a closed, traditional society for an open one that shares traditions.

My son now lives in Madrid. He rents a shared “student” apartment with about 6 others. When I buy a place of my own I do not plan to rent it out. My son will live there and I will visit. We will participate in the association, hopefully meet our new neighbors and share in all the social aspects of homeownership in Spain. We won’t be tourists but we won’t be traditional residents either. We are a blend. Possibly the best of both worlds. Thanks for letting me share.

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