THE LONE WOLF OF CATALAN'S PRODIGIOUS CAPITAL
Flanked by the marshy Besòs river and Mediterranean sea, Sant Martí began its life as a haven of fertile pastures and lagoons. A humble congregation of farmers and fishermen enjoyed rural life in this sleepy hamlet, worlds apart from the military city of Barcelona. Central Barcelona’s medieval institution of nobility and serfdom imposed itself physically with looming walls to lock in the population while cocooning itself against Atlantic predators.
Text Natasha Drewnicki
Photography courtesy of Arxiu Històric Barcelona Archive
On the inside, ambitious master craftsmen and merchants produced hand-made luxury goods for the upper crust using ancient techniques. As scientific learning and artisan trade flourished, businessmen refined their skills, exploring cheaper ways to minimize labor-intensive tasks and maximize output.
The solution would be found in less skilled, lower paid apprentices – anyone who was keen to move up the social scale from peasant or beggar to worker. Combined with rapid technological advances, these first forays into automated processes signalled the end of an old-world regime and the dawn of a capitalist era. The nation’s first entrepreneurs had sown the seeds of industry.
RAW COTTON AND STEAM POWER
Production and consumerism accelerated at a steady pace. In 1778, the ban on trade with the Spanish colonies was lifted and enterprising businessmen seized the opportunity to import raw cotton.
The backwoods of Sant Martí de Provençals, with abundant water supplies, easy transportation by sea and vastly cheaper land, were suddenly an attractive site to process and manufacture raw materials. Wealthy from the fruits of city trade, the world’s first industrialists took tentative steps towards mass-production by building factory plants in the area. In 1808, there were already 89 factories in Barcelona, 64 of which were to be found in Sant Martí. By the turn of the twentieth century, the area contained a staggering 800 factories.
Forward-thinking foreign companies moved in and expanded their roster to manufacture metal, wood, chemicals and food, but textile production dominated the burgeoning economy. As the parish reinvented itself as a new European epicenter for production, competition with other great industries, such as the UK and France, became paramount to its success.
Factories created innovative products that consistently wowed buyers - Can Felipa complex was the first location in continental Europe to produce artificial fabrics, while Can Ricart factory kicked off the country’s transition from coal to steam, dramatically increasing production. Sant Martí earned the nicknames ofTextilandia, the lungs of Barcelona, and most famously, Catalan Manchester.
In this gold rush of opportunity, the surge of immigration sent Barcelona spiraling out of control. Shantytowns or Barracas and worker slums had already mushroomed along the coast and into the hills. Over 40,000 people were squeezed within the confines of the city walls and, as it slowly deteriorated into a squalid hothouse of disease-ridden and illiterate workers, life expectancy reached an all-time low of 19 years old.
By the mid-nineteenth century, industrial workers formed over 60% of the city’s population, with Sant Martí producing over 30% of the country’s gross domestic product. Exploited by militant capitalist employers, marginalized by the government and exasperated by dreadful living conditions, a backlash brewed. Factory workers gave themselves a voice by founding labor unions, cementing the roles of downtrodden worker versus careless employer. Violent strikes and protests became a regular occurrence and Poble Nou cemented itself as one of the city’s strongholds for socialism and anarchism. To this day it identifies itself as Barcelona’s defiant sibling.
Meanwhile, a small group of Icarian* factory workers, who, following the socialist doctrines of French Étienne Cabet, formed a community on the strikingly beautiful, whitewashed sanctuary of Plaça Prim - a world away from the grey, billowing factories nearby. While never greatly influential, they represented utopian ideals of social transformation and equality that the marginalized classes could still only dream of.
In the centre, capitalists of the industrial revolution were now millionaires and built towards the upper echelons of the city to flee the wrath of indignant workers elsewhere in the city. During the boom, great Modernist architects such as Gaudi embellished the thoroughfare, Passeig de Gracia, with architectural masterpieces. Today the northern neighborhoods of Barcelona are still a safe-haven for the upper classes while gritty labor districts, including Poble Nou, cling to the coast.
L’ÚLTIM BARRI, THE NEW VILLAGE
Something had to be done to control growth. In 1840, the council asked its public, “How would Barcelona and its industry benefit from the demolition of our walls?” Filip Monlau won the competition, urging the city to absorb the surrounding countryside as its own by highlighting the psychological and physical relief una nueva Barcelona would bring to its people: “If Barcelona expands into the provinces, anything is possible! We’re within our rights to insist on living in the fresh air, with the open space that our health and professions demand. Let the old believers suffocate in the ‘official’ Barcelona, but those in the manufacturing and industrious Barcelona….let us live and breathe freedom and independence. To the country, then, and we will found a new Barcelona!”
Poble Nou, Pueblo Nuevo or the new village, was christened as the city’s newest barrio. Finally, in 1859, the walls were demolished and a bloated Barcelona could begin to recover. The government hired Ildefons Cerdà, a Catalan engineer, to impose rational order on the ramshackle urban layout and absorb neighboring villages, including Sant Martí, into a modern urban metropolis.
His plan highlighted the newfound respect the area had earned as an economical powerhouse. A new avenue (Avenguida Diagonal) would carve through the city diagonally - Poble Nou was poised to become the city’s new core. Cerdà’s garden city was designed as a breath of fresh air for Barcelona’s increasingly toxic environment and encompassed every imaginable component of ordered living: Spain’s first railways, large-capacity sewers, horse-drawn trams, gardens and pedestrian areas.
Ultimately though, Sant Martí failed to become the city’s new nucleus for one simple reason: workers and factories lived there, but Barcelona’s Eixample district was home to commerce, with its abundance of shops, impressive architecture, and well-heeled residents. Instead, Sant Martí became one of Barcelona's major road and railway junctions, shuttling freshly made products to and fro. No longer considered a frontier, at the turn of the twentieth century, the city officially absorbed it as l’últim barri, the final neighborhood.
Industry had ripened into a well-oiled, global machine but eventually, international competition and a burgeoning global economy proved too fierce. By 1963, more than 1,300 businesses closed their doors and a quarter of the population had already relocated. After Franco’s death in 1975, a newly open economy secured the final nail in the coffin for Poble Nou’s industry. As the neighborhood ceased to provide a steady source of capital, the government lost interest. Factories and warehouses were left to deteriorate and the area gradually slid into dereliction.
LA NOVA ICARÍA, URBAN DISTOPIA
The spacious, empty factories attracted an altogether new type of worker. Free-spirited artist and music workshops, theatres and acrobat studios replaced tired factory obreros who had trundled the same factory compounds a hundred years earlier. Graffiti adorned crumbling walls and colorful caravans resided in communal spaces, and a grassroots community blossomed in the disused buildings at little to no cost. Were they compensating struggling workers’ lost freedom a hundred years earlier?
In 1980, Barcelona secured the 1992 Summer Olympics. Poble Nou was singled out as the site of a new Olympic village and urban regeneration project, a springboard to showcase the city as talented international player once again. It would epitomize the transformation of the entire city and gentrify the scruffy, lower-classbarrio of Sant Martí. La Nova Icaría – the government’s multi-billion-dollar interpretation of a new Icarian dream – comprised immaculate beaches, new apartments, skyscrapers, stores, bars, restaurants, offices and a beach boardwalk.
In the giddy excitement to attract tourists and investors to the area, urban planners overlooked the organic collectives, entering a sort of collective amnesia by bulldozing factories in an attempt to eradicate sore memories of a failed capitalist dream. There was no plan to conserve the factories, nor had private real-estate speculators consulted with the council before tearing down many of the publically owned buildings.
Locals were horrified to see so much memory stripped away and campaigned for protection of many of the buildings, by now historical artifacts. Despite tensions caused by the Olympics, they were an overwhelming global success, cementing the city’s future success to rival London, Paris or Rome. The area was ripe for investment and continued renovation and in 2000 a new 22@ district of technology plan would continue to reshape the economic and physical landscapes of Poble Nou.
This unassuming neighborhood has experienced more production, construction, revolution, migration, dereliction and regeneration than perhaps any other European city. Is this the perpetual curse of being calledThe New Village, despite being subjected to more disruption in two hundred years than entire cities might in one thousand?
* The Icarians were a French-based utopian socialist movement, established by the inspired readers of the politician, journalist, and author Étienne Cabet (January 1, 1788 – November 9, 1856).
He was a French philosopher and utopian socialist. He was the founder of the Icarian movement His goal was to replace capitalist production with workers.
* José Pepe Carvalho was a literary figure of acclaimed writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939-2003). Montalban achieved international success with the fictional figure of Carvalho acting as a private detective.