Lavapiés – Life on the Edge in Madrid

Adrian Pole takes a fresh look at one of Madrid´s most individual neighbourhoods.

The most surprising thing about Pedro Teixeira’s 1656 map of Madrid is not the fact that it was produced, unlike most other maps at the time, for a public audience. It’s not even the extraordinary
scale of the work, which, at almost six feet high and ten feet wide, manages to include practically every house, convent, and street of the seventeenth-century capital within its twenty folios. What is
in fact most astonishing about the map is that so much of it is instantly familiar to twenty-first century eyes. Stamped into its centre is Madrid’s unmistakeable Plaza Mayor, commissioned by
Phillip III not long before the map itself as a space for bullfights, religious processions, and other public festivities.



Today it’s been taken over by overpriced restaurants, tacky souvenir shops, and a veritable army of pickpockets who are in constant competition with each other for tourist euros. If you escape the crowds by leaving the square by the north and turning right down the Calle Mayor you’ll soon hit the Paseo del Prado, the easterly limit of Texeira’s city and now home to the famous Prado art gallery. Over to the west is the royal palace, rebuilt in the 18th century in the same spot where it stands today, proudly overlooking the blue mountains of the Guadarrama not far off in the distance. Although practically every square inch of countryside surrounding Texeira’s Madrid has long since disappeared under miles of hideous high rise, modern visitors to the Spanish capital would have no problem navigating its central streets and avenues by following his almos fourhundred year old plan.

For all its best efforts, Madrid has never been able to compete with London or Paris in terms of impressive landmarks. The most interesting part of Teixera’s map has none of them. Lavapiés is a
working class neighbourhood represented by a tangled web of narrow streets at the southern edge of town. Their essential layout has never been altered, although the original mud buildings of the
quarter were rebuilt as multi-story blocks in the 19th century and have been recently repainted in bright pinks, blues and yellows. Looking up towards the terracotta tiles of their roofs, you’d be
forgiven for thinking that very little in Lavapiés has changed in the past hundred or so years.

If you were to step out onto one of the neighbourhood’s many balconies and look down, however, the impression would be very different indeed. Indian restaurants and Turkish take-outs line the street, buskers swagger down the hill playing everything between flamenco and hip-hop, and the sound of what seems to be every major language spoken in the world fights to be heard within a half-mile radius. The racket rumbles down the sloping streets and swells up to the upper stories of the buildings like an impending tsunami. The walls are so thin that the whole neighbourhood feels like it’s being swept right into your living room. Then, at about ten in the morning, when the nocturnal noise cuts off and the early-risers wake up to walk the dog, it suddenly becomes easy to see why Madrileños continue to treasure Lavapiés as ‘muy castizo’ – really traditional – in spite of its metamorphosis into the counter-cultural capital of Spain.



Now that it sits comfortably within Madrid’s historical centre, it’s easy to forget that Lavapiés has spent much of its life outside the city’s walls. Teixera’s map shows nothing but countryside lying
beyond its last few houses. The descent down its sloping streets was therefore one both to the edges of town and the fringes of society, although the claim that it was once the city’s Jewish
quarter is very likely mistaken. By the 1900s, Lavapiés represented, in the imagination of one of its inhabitants, ‘the end of Madrid, and the end of the world’, the place to which ‘the seething waters’ of the capital ‘threw their scum from the centre to the periphery’.

The Spanish people had long been on the move, and by the late nineteenth-century migration to the capital was substantial – so substantial, in fact, that only forty percent of Madrid’s inhabitants had been born in the province.

The city’s rich reacted to this startling urban growth by barricading themselves within classy new neighbourhoods such as Salamanca, purpose-built with all the comforts and conveniences of upperclass living. Lavapiés, meanwhile, was condemned to remain a working-class world apart. Life in the community operated according to its own unique dynamics, centred, above all, around the corralas, interior courtyards formed by the walls of neighbouring apartments and circled on each side by uninterrupted rows of balconies. The very best examples are shut off from public view, private escapes from the crowded streets outside. In the seventeenth-century they were doubled up as impromptu theatres, but by the 1900s they had reverted back to their original use of housing a booming migrant population.

All these years later, they remain at the very heart of the community. A particularly beautiful example, now serving as the Madrid Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, can be found on the Calle de Carlos Aniches. The working-class world of Lavapiés fascinated foreign writers seeking what they imagined to be the ‘true’ essence of Spain. Although an upper-class Englishman by the name of Richard Ford had warned readers of his 1830 guidebook that the country’s popular masses were ‘brutal and corrupted’, fellow traveller Henry Inglis was thankfully undeterred from investigating further. On bravely venturing into the poorer quarters of Madrid, Inglis found himself taken aback by a surprising lack of conspicuous wretchedness, suspecting that the fashion for wearing cloaks did much to disguise the more obvious signs of poverty – a conclusion he was forced to accept when the garment of a man sitting beside him on the Paseo de Prado caught a wall, revealing that the individual beneath was completely naked. ‘Spaniards’, Inglis promptly concluded, ‘sacrifice everything to the exterior’. Inglis wasn’t alone in his curiosity about working-class Spain.


An eccentric bible-salesman by the name of George Borrow had little to say about well-to-do Madrileños, much preferring the ‘proud independence’ of the city’s poor.  Nothing represented that independent spirit more powerfully than the so-called ‘manolos’. Rebelling against the pernicious influence of all-things-French, these fashionable young men and women hung around the Plaza de Lavapiés in ostentatiously Spanish clothes, affecting an attitude of arrogance bolstered by the knives tucked into their waistbands. The manolos faced a major test of mettle when Napoleon invaded the peninsula in 1808 and proceeded to occupy the Spanish capital.

On the 2 May imperial troops opened fire on a crowd outside the royal palace, causing a major rebellion to break out all across the city. Some of the fiercest fighting took place in the Puerta de
Sol, a few minutes walk from Lavapiés. Francisco de Goya immortalised the dramatic encounter in an enormous canvas of the riotous mob pouncing on the Emperor’s Imperial Mamelukes. The
charging horses flurry forth in a chaotic scene that could rival Picasso’s Guernica for sheer delirious drama. The mounted soldiers hold their scimitars aloft, seeking out those that haven’t already been trampled underfoot. The French authorities vowed afterwards that ‘all those arrested in the uprising, arms in hand, will be shot’, making good on their promise the very next morning by
executing hundreds of prisoners. A plaque at the Puerta de Toledo recalls how ‘In this place on the 2nd May 1808, the women and men of Lavapiés, El Rastro and La Paloma fought against the French cavalry’. Today, ‘Dos de Mayo’ is celebrated as Madrid’s regional holiday.

The women of Lavapiés enjoyed a reputation for riotousness long before they faced off Napoleon’s troops. In the late eighteenth century an enormous tobacco factory was established in the quarter
which, at its height, employed thousands of women, much like its more famous counterpart in Seville. One writer described the Tabacalera workers as ‘the joy of the people and the nightmare of
the authorities’. Little wonder, when in 1830 some 3,000 Madrid workers staged a five-day riot as a result of wage cuts and poor working conditions. Today, the four-floor industrial complex has been converted into a community arts centre where a maze of underground corridors, once used for storing and drying tobacco, now lead to rooms hosting art workshops and impromptu rock gigs. The walls surrounding the complex have been painted with a number of impressive murals, living up to the neighbourhood’s well-earned reputation for urban art.



Life in Lavapiés, as the tobacco workers knew all too well, has rarely been easy. Crippling poverty meant that Spanish childhood ended early and abruptly. For most parents, providing their children with a formal education was an aspiration but seldom a reality. From an early age Spanish writer Arturo Barea longed for a good job so that his mother could give up clothes-washing by the river and move out of her dark, tiny garret. Privacy in the miniscule apartments of Lavapiés was nonexistent and, unless shared, so were basic utilities. In the 1930s Spain’s new republican government sought to remedy the everyday conditions of the city’s poor, with a lasting example of their efforts continuing to stand, barely noticed, half-way up the Calle del Meson de las Paredes.

What looks like an unimpressive drinking fountain is in fact a testament to the Republic’s commitment to bringing clean water to a long-neglected neighbourhood. The faded words ‘Republica Española, 1934’ can still be seen etched onto the fountain’s unassuming surface. Two years after its construction, the democratic government of Spain was facing a military insurgency led by a group of ultra-reactionary generals who could count on the support of both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the form of tanks, troops, and planes. One of the rebels blamed the war on modern sewage systems, since, in his estimation, ‘unimpeded natural selection would have killed of most of the red vermin’ he imagined himself to be saving Spain from.



The Spanish Civil War triggered appalling outbreaks of violence against conspicuous symbols of hierarchy and power, and no symbol was more conspicuous than the Catholic Church. For years
ecclesiastical officials in Spain had stubbornly maintained that social inequality was an unavoidable part of God’s divine plan. Many Spaniards were unconvinced. Parish priests were extremely thinly spread, and attendance at mass was miniscule. In 1936 latent distrust of the church turned manifestly violent, as anarchists and other extremists set about murdering thousands of priests and destroying religious buildings all over the country.

One of the first casualties was the Escuelas Pías, a religious school in Lavapiés. Despite his resentment at being used as a proletarian poster boy for well-to-do candidates, Arturo Barea, who was a student at the school, recounted the day it was burned down by local anarchists with undisguised horror. ‘The Escuelas Pías was burning from inside’ he wrote. ‘It looked as though shattered by an earthquake’. A group of men emerged from the blazing building with a stretcher bearing his old chemistry teacher. The square in which the burnt-out shell of the school still stands (now renovated into a university library) was renamed in Barea’s honour in 2017.

The military rebels tried and failed to take Madrid, and for most of the war the city was under siege. Barea had an apartment on the Calle Ave María in Lavapiés but worked (and often slept) in the
censorship office in the centre of town. The American-built Telefonica building where he was based was then the tallest in the city, and had been put up just in time to prove an excellent range finder for enemy artillery. Nazi planes began to drop bombs on the capital, causing the wooden rafters of Madrid’s ancient buildings to rain fire and ash onto the narrow streets below. The city was blackedout, and families passed their time huddled in windowless back-rooms where no light could escape.

Barea described a pitch-black, ghostly Lavapiés going about its wartime life: ‘The people thronged the streets as they did every night, but they were only half-visible in the penumbra, shapeless black bulks from which voices came and, at intervals, the dazzling spark of a lighter or the little red glow from a cigarette lighting a few heads’. In 1939, after almost three years of resistance, Madrid finally fell to the military rebels. The war had been lost.

It would be almost four decades until Francisco Franco, the Spanish Civil War’s ruthless victor, died. Lavapiés entered the new era of Spanish democracy with the unfortunate reputation of being a
‘vertical slum’. In 1936 Barea had watched as one of the towers of the San Cayetano Church came crashing down after an anarchist attack: in 1980, the landmark building threatened to collapse once again unless millions of pesetas were urgently invested in its restoration. The old convent of Santa Catalina was a pile of unshifted rubble yet to be cleared into the modern-day Plaza Nelson Mandela.



Local apartments were in a wretched state. The era of ‘okupación’ was underway, with bohemians, musicians and artists squatting next-door to pensioners living on fixed rents. With the 1990s came the first signs of gentrification, followed in the 2000s by so-called ‘touristification’. Today, a refurbished attic overlooking the Plaza de Lavapiés will command a high price on Air B&B, but it
wasn’t built to house British tourists. Recent reports have shown that the disparity between local rent and income is widening at an alarming rate, with several long-term residents having to move
out of the area altogether. The neighbourhood is home to over eighty nationalities, with young professionals attracted to its central location and cool cultural scene living alongside undocumented
migrants working in the country illegal.

The continued challenges faced by Lavapiés were put into stark relief by the events of March 2018, when a Senegalese street vendor died on his doorstep despite police attempts to resuscitate him.
Conflicting accounts were soon circulating, with some locals claiming he had been pursued by the police from the centre of town – a version of events staunchly denied by the authorities. Riots broke out that night, resulting in smashed windows, uprooted trees, and arson. Anti-racism demonstrations took place the next day in the Plaza Nelson Mandela. Signs reading ‘black lives
matter’, ‘Mmame Mbage, murdered by police’, and ‘against racism – enough, enough, enough’ were beamed across social media before making their way into the national headlines.

Lavapiés has changed a lot since Pedro Teixera etched its crooked streets onto his map of Phillip III’s Madrid, but there’s still no mistaking it. It’s a neighbourhood that, in one way or another, has always had to fight for its existence. Sitting in the Plaza Tirso De Molina on a quiet Sunday morning, watching as the waiters weave between the chairs and tables in their white suits, it’s easy to
imagine that it has left its radical past far behind. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the book sale which takes place in this particular square each weekend is particularly striking evidence of that. Anarchist tracts, histories of communism, and political biographies are laid one-atopanother. Framed prints of Madrid during the Civil War are on sale, the most popular example being a famous image of the Plaza Mayor with a huge banner declaring ‘No Pasarán’ – ‘they shall not pass’ – strung across one of its entrances. Little wonder the anti-establishment party Podemos was founded just down the road.

The dagger-wielding manolos may have disappeared and the chimneys of the Tabacalera may have stopped spewing forth smoke, but there can be no doubt that Lavapiés continued to embrace its outsider status with pride.

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