Spotlight on Plaza Nelson Mandela: the heart and the underbelly of Lavapiés

Author: Leah Pattem

A little under two years ago, riot police formed a linear front and began advancing through Plaza Nelson Mandela. A few hours earlier, 35-year-old undocumented Senegalese migrant Mame Mbaye had suffered a fatal cardiac arrest outside his flat, just 50 metres away. Rumours surrounding police involvement in his death sparked a violent riot and dozens of Senegalese men and women began burning and smashing everything on the surrounding streets.

I followed the rioting, stepping over burning motorbikes, melted bins, bricks and shards of glass. The streets smelled of burning rubber and looked like a war zone. Helicopters whirred above the neighbourhood that night and, the next day witnessed around 4,000 people stream into Plaza de Nelson Mandela.

¡Ningún ser humano / es ilegal! (No human being is illegal!)

…the crowd of protestors chanted, drowning out the menacing drone of helicopters above.


I’m sitting on a concrete bench on Plaza Nelson Mandela, taking in the warm winter sun on my face. A local Senegalese man wearing an ivory silk boubou pours his friends cups of hot black coffee from a canister. On a bench near them, a group of young Argentinians top up their cups of mate and share a smoke.

It’s a quiet day, but the police are here, as usual, maintaining an intimidating presence – partly to keep an eye on the drug dealers, partly to wag their fingers at the heroine users who linger just off the square, partly to make people feel safe but a big part of their presence is a warning.

Following Mame Mbaye’s death and the riots that ensued, the police know Lavapiés well enough than to take their eye off the ball of another potential uprising.


Starting in the centre: an old convent used to occupy the central area of this square until its derelict shell was finally demolished just over a decade ago. Only the stone entrance to the convent remains, lying flat on the ground disguised as an alcove of seating, where a group of locally-known drunks are quietly sipping tinnies of Mahou…

As I take this photo, Muslim women hurry past me with their kids already leaping out of their prams and sprinting towards the new play area on the east side of the square…

As I sit and wait for a child-free shot, I spot a group of young Black men wait for La Quimera to open.

La Quimera is a five-storey residential building that was completed in 1977 but even until this day has never officially been lived in. For 43 years, it has been squatted in, evicted, and reoccupied by squatters. Today, it remains unofficially occupied and has become a cultural and social centre for the local community. Free art, music and language workshops are held here, and the large room downstairs spanning the width of the building is often used for films screenings, gigs, community fiestas and crisis meetings to discuss issues facing Lavapiés’s marginalised communities, evictions and gentrification.

I was there just the night before to discuss what we were going to do about Baobab. It may have closed now, but the fight’s not over – watch this space.

I rotate east with my camera and snap a perfect example of Lavapiés’s beautiful, candy-coloured houses with Juliette balconies and red roof tiles…

Here they are again, captured by Madrid illustrator, Moriah Costa

Spinning right again to face the south side of Plaza Nelson Mandela is a social housing block adorned with drying washing. This is a very rare sight in Madrid with a lot of council homes having been, in some cases, illegally sold off to property investment firms such as Blackstone.

Affordable rent is an increasingly hazy concept in this neighbourhood, despite Lavapiés also being one of Madrid’s poorest, according to this income map by El País. Lavapiés also voted for Podemos, an anti-austerity party that rose up from the burning ashes of Spain’s recent financial crisis – that which hit Lavapiés’s residents hard.


Lavapiés is a poor, leftwing, multicultural barrio in the heart of a capital city whose overall interests neglect those of their underdog neighbours. But Lavapiés is a desirable area it seems, especially for tourists who don’t realise that the walls of their AirBnB apartment recently witnessed the eviction of a mother and her kids.

Read more about the gentrification, touristification and McDonaldization of Madrid here.

Spinning 45 degrees west takes me to a very special corner. In front of newish Senegalese restaurant Mandela 100, a two-tap fountain built during the Second Republic is a curious mini monument because Franco didn’t demolish it during his reign, as he did with almost every other symbol of opposition parties.

Plaza Nelson Mandela

The fountain works, and continues to quench the patrons of the square and, on hot summer days, it makes Plaza Nelson Mandela almost feel like a Costa de la Luz beach with basic bathing facilities.

To the right of the fountain is the ghost of Baobab, which has just been sold off to the same developer responsible for the Ibis hotel on Plaza Lavapiés. He has plans to demolish Baobab, its adjoining pension for refugees, and to build either a hotel or luxury tourist apartments.

Spin right once again and I’m reminded of what this square does best: stand up for itself.

The mural on the south-facing wall of Plaza Nelson Mandela is by South African artist Buntu Fihla, which was painted when this square was renamed after the late anti-apartheid revolutionary in 2014.

With a name like this, gentrification at our doorstep and a community spirit I’ve seen paralleled only in the Cañada Real, what do people expect? Plaza Nelson Mandela is the beating heart and the fiery underbelly of the barrio of Lavapiés, and won’t succumb to gentrification without a fight.

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  • Leah, you are one of Madrid’s best social media journalists, and certainly one of the most persistent advocates for Lavapiés and its survival as a unique community. The closure of Baobab was bad news, but you hint the fight isn’t finished yet. What can you say about the future of that particular struggle? Are you hearing anything encouraging from other journalists, barrió activists, or Spanish lawmakers about how the hotel project could be stopped, or its negative effects at least mitigated?

    • Thank you Paul! Yes, there are lots of local grassroots organisations working on it, trying to find ways to make the construction of these hotels illegal. My role is to get the word out there and it seems to be working! My next step: sit the politicians down and ask them face to face what they’re going to do… watch this space!

  • Have you ever stopped to think that your work is some sort of symbolic gentrification? I mean, what’s the difference between you selling maps and weekend guides, and any Airbnb host?

    • On a most basic level, this blog can be seen as a guide to the parts of Madrid that we need to fight for because if we don’t, gentrification will destroy them. In any case, gentrification is not caused by guides, blogs about ‘cool things’ or even tourists, it’s caused by investors taking advantage of an unregulated property market and thus throwing out the neighbourhood’s residents. We need to stop fighting amongst ourselves, we’re on the same side. We need to unite and fight against the investors and the city council doing nothing to stop them.

      And by the way, this blog is not for tourists. The vast majority of the audience is local and most of them are Spanish.

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