This post is part of the Portraits of Place series.
Through this series we will trace the history of the popular neighborhoods of casas baratas (cheap houses) in Barcelona, a reservoir of immigrant factory workers in the middle of nowhere, historically anarchists and strongly involved in the Civil War against Francisco Franco. We will describe how this history led to the struggle of a group of residents against the urban renewal plan that is taking all of these neighborhoods to demolition. The urban renewal projects, executed by a leftist city administration, are presented as progressive and people-oriented, while inhabitants understand that it is economical benefit that prevails in the decision-making of the City Council.
This story begins in the 1920s. Barcelona was receiving a tremendous number of immigrants from southern Spain, who usually arrived with nothing more than their hands to work and a bunch of hungry children. Most of them settled in houses and shanty towns around central Barcelona. The city was growing fast and had to promote its new image as a dynamic industrial metropolis; it needed the workers to build the metro network and the big pavilions of the Universal Exposition up on the mountain of Montjuich.
The beginning of the twentieth century in Barcelona was a tense period of class struggle. Hundreds of thousands of factory workers, extremely poor but organized in the anarchosyndicalist worker unions CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) and FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica), fought extensively against the ruling bourgeois classes of the factory owners, who often hired pistoleros (hired killers) to frighten or repress the strikes. [REF: Chris Ealham, Anarchism and the city, AkPress, 2009].
The City Council couldn’t tolerate this massive presence of workers in the parts of town it was trying to gentrify. Anarchism spread fast among the immigrant workers, who joined the FAI-CNT unions, and were soon considered too dangerous to the eyes of the ‘good families’ of Barcelona.
This is why, in 1929, the City Council built four barrios (neighborhoods) on the edges of the city, surrounded by the fields, and deported there the workers, who received casas baratas (cheap houses) after being evicted from the neighborhoods they were living in. The four barrios received the names of important political and military leaders of the twenties, and hosted some 4,000 families. When the Exposition finished, most of them began to work in factories nearby, but apart from work they seldom crossed the limits of the neighborhoods. The city needed the workers, but they wanted them to remain far away.
So the story of the casas baratas is the history of the proletarians and subproletarians of Barcelona, who fought against Francisco Franco’s dictatorship side-by-side with the left, but were repressed both from the left when the Republic won the elections in 1931, and from the Francoist Guardia Civil when its army occupied the city in 1939.
Franco’s dictatorship, which had strong support from the Church, heavily punished the casas baratas, for having been ‘red’ and anticlerical. Many of the men fled to France or to the mountains to escape from the mass killing of Franco’s army: the casas baratas began the fifties with a population of mainly women and children, hungry and scared.
Read the next post in this series.
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Post by Stefano Portelli.