About Xavier Theros

Poet and anthropologist. City columnist with El País newspaper

Liquid Barcelona

El Rec Comtal. 1.000 anys d’història [The Rec Comtal Water Channel: 1,000 Years of History]

Author: Enric H. March

Barcelona City Council and Viena Edicions

260 pages

Barcelona, 2016

This book is very well documented and contains a selection of priceless photographs It also reminds us of how many traces still exist of what was once the city’s main water course. By following El Rec, the book guides us through a thousand years of Barcelona’s history.

In the prologue to this book archaeologist Carme Miró, who heads the Pla Bàrcino initiative to shed light on Barcelona’s Roman past, writes: “Barcelona is water. One cannot have an understanding of this city without water. Two rivers mark the city’s borders. To the north, the Besòs River; to the south, the Llobregat; to the east lies the Mediterranean and to the west, the Collserola hills, that supply so many gullies and streams”. The location of the Roman city and its long-lasting success can be explained by the abundance of water resources that allowed a population to grow and vegetable crops to be properly watered. This is the hypothesis of Enric H. March, a graduate in Hispanic and Semitic Studies. Initially expounded in his blogs on Barcelona Bereshit (enarchenhologos.blogspot.com.es) and Rec Comtal (el-rec-comtal.blogspot.com.es), such views can now be found in a book that is essential reading for anyone seeking a clear picture of the place in which we live.

This is not the first time I have talked about Enric H. March. I interviewed him a couple of years ago for the newspaper El País. When I asked for his opinion on the mediaeval irrigation channel, he answered that “it should be marked by a path of light that follows its route all the way to the archaeological site of El Born”. So this is his personal path of light, a guide that encourages us to discover a legacy that is still visible in certain corners of the modern city. March explains the trials and tribulations of the Comtal channel over its more than 12 kilometre journey. A great work of hydrological engineering – attributed to Count Mir – that brought water from the Besòs River to mediaeval Barcelona.

As the city grew, the channel (known in Catalan as el Rec) became interwoven into the urban fabric, making it possible to set up wool workshops, weaving mills and tanning factories. It also filled tanks and sinks and kept the drains working, in addition to ensuring the hydrological functioning of the plain of Barcelona, its mills, textile factories, industries and later its steam engines. The channel was then covered over, and in the mid-19th century the association of property owners was founded. The new Eixample district altered its route and private initiatives emerged, such as the water tower of the Association of Property Owners of Eixample, and Aigües de Barcelona (The Barcelona Water Company). The passage of time and the successive changes brought by urban expansion would later blur its features and doom it to oblivion.

The book rediscovers landscapes and images that many Barcelona natives will be unaware of. It is very well documented and contains a selection of priceless photographs (children fishing and chasing ducks in the channel, women doing laundry on the bank, bucolic views of its course). It also reminds us of how many traces still exist of what was once the city’s main water course: street names like Carrer de la Sèquia, Carrer del Rec and Carrer de la Sèquia Comtal; the old mill at Sant Andreu; the Casa de les Aigües on Carretera de Ribes; the sections that still have water and are uncovered in Vallbona; the Montcada mine and the bridges that crossed it, such as the one that was recently discovered by the Arc del Triomf and another that has been documented at Plaça de les Glòries. By following El Rec, the book guides us through a thousand years of Barcelona’s history.

A journey to the past through advertising

Advertising defines our times, though its origins are quite ancient. A spooky phenomenon, advertisements often last well beyond the thing they advertise, as can be seen on many of Barcelona’s walls.

© Andreu

The remains of the old commercial signs found in the city’s streets take us back to faraway times, despite the fact most are not included in the Urban Landscape Agency’s catalogue (whereas the Fructuós Gelabert magician’s sign on Carrer del Pas de l’Ensenyança and the Callicida Gras mural in Plaça de la Vila in Gràcia are). This route takes you on a journey past surviving signs, in danger of disappearing, whose modesty contrasts with their spectral appearance in the landscape.

As for neighbourhoods, we ought to start with the Raval, at the old factory-house of the Magarola brothers on Carrer dels Tallers, 22, which housed the Hijos de Esteban Bachs store from 1881 until very recently and whose sign remains at the entrance: “Papeles Bachs. Papeles, cartones y sus anexos” [Paper, cardboard and their products]. A place where young art students used to go in search of old paper. Further along, on the same side of the street, you will see the half-rubbed-out letters of the famous El Siglo department store, which moved to Carrer de Pelai after a fire on the Rambla. And above the door at number 16 you will find an announcement for the Laboratorio Químico Médico Pelayo, which still manufactures medical and dental ma­terials. A stone’s throw away, on Riera Alta, 44, you will find an advertisement for the Pérez Ares wood store decorating part of the facade. And at Sant Antoni Abat, 13, you can see an advertisement for a 19th-century shoe shop: “Grandes y variadas existencias. Especialidad en últimos modelos” [Large and varied stock. Specialising in latest models]. Whereas you can see the red Muebles Padró advertisement at the junction between Carrer de l’Hospital and Plaça del Pedró, before the shop moved.

© Albert Armengol
Mural of the La Bombeta bar in Barceloneta.

Not all adverts are recognisable at first sight. Inside the Boqueria market you can read an anonymous sign that says: “Ventas al por”. Though you can still make out the considerably worn-out advertisement on Carrer del Carme, 29, for the Ftes. de Naipes de España factory, the trade name for the Successors de Francesc Torras i Lleó firm (this element is particularly important, as it is the only record of one of Barcelona’s great industries, when the city was famous world-wide for the quality of its playing cards). If you go to Sant Rafael, 2, you can still see a cup on the facade of the old Tremoleda chemist’s, along with a snake and four opium capsules which someone has repainted red. What you can no longer see is the old advertisement for purgative syrup “Jarabe Duval, para el dolor del sistema nervioso” [for pain in the nervous system]: an act of vandalism committed with municipal indifference wiped out all trace of a product very popular since 1851, when it was marketed here along with the famous Licor de Cafè digestive and Tónico Vital.

If we cross the Rambla and search the Barri Gòtic we will find letters that have been painted over on Carrer de les Moles, on the house corner at the junction with Comtal (“La Industria. Instalaciones y reposiciones del alumbrado eléctrico. Timbres, teléfonos, fuerza motriz, calefacción”) [Industry. Installations and replacements of electrical lighting. Doorbells, telephones, motors, heating], although it is still legible when viewed against the light. And an advertisement for Relojes Portusach can still be seen at the entrance to the Espolsa-sacs alley, after which the passage was named for a number of years. Some advertisements refer to businesses that are still going to this day, such as the “Books” and “Select Antiques” lettering on Carrer de la Palla, 21, which belong to the old Àngel Batllé bookshop, one of the oldest in the city. Others speak of long-vanished businesses, such as a first-floor advert on Carrer del Cardenal Casañas: “J. Torrens. Calzado de mujer. Despacho Rambla de las Flores” [Women’s footwear. Office on Rambla de las Flores]. Or what can be seen above the Piera shop on the same road: “Posada Nueva del Progreso. Se sirve a cubiertos y a raciones” [Posada Nueva del Progreso. Dishes and portions served].

© Albert Armengol
The former sign for Muebles Padró, on Plaça del Pedró.

Some are no more than indecipherable shadows, such as the word “Herramientas” [Tools] on the building on Carrer de Ferran that opens to Passatge de Madoz and which could correspond to the Clausolles Paulet company, manufacturers of orthopaedic equipment and surgery tools. Much better preserved, by the doorway of a cultural centre at number 52 on Carrer d’Avinyó you can still read the letters announcing a “Taller escuela de artesanía” [Craft School and workshop] specialising in “Alfombras y tapices” [Rugs and tapestries]. And on the facade of 19, Carrer d’en Serra, you will find one of the most fantastic advertisements to have survived: “Cava Española. Vinos de mesa Pamies y Vallés, Priorato, Alella, Rioja y Valdepeñas. Anís y cognac, vinos de Jerez”, an advertisement that gives the low-down, in a flicker of an eye, on the drinking tastes of a whole era, when cognac was still something of an exotic drink.

Let’s walk over to the neighbouring road, Carrer Ample, where we’ll find a large “22” painted over a front door, a reminder of the local custom of enlarging the numbers on houses where a brothel was operating. Not far from there, at the Set Portes restaurant, you can read: “Antiguo café y billares”, the last sign of there once having been billiard tables at this establishment, where the great Carmen Amaya used to perform. An advertisement for an old boarding house remains in Placeta de Sant Agustí Vell: “Del Parque. Fundada en 1869”, on a building at the chamfer with Carrer del Portal Nou. Opposite – on the corner at the junction with Les Basses de Sant Pere – you can find a 19th-century advertisement for Bazar de Santa Margarita written in black letters, half-hidden away behind a street light. The loveliest letters in the vicinity are the ones at 1, Carrer dels Canvis Nous, on a facade decorated with an advertisement for the Fonda El Canigó: “Casa de viajeros, hospedajes económicos, servicios” [Accommodation for travellers, budget board and lodging, services]. It was an old boarding house, renamed in 1926 as Pensión Valencia, and, after the Civil War, as Pensión Real, and has been a block of residential flats since 1996.

© Albert Armengol
The huge 22 painted by a doorway on Carrer Ample.

It’s not just in Ciutat Vella or from the 19th century that you can see these wall advertisements. Plaça Molina still has an advertisement, “Brandy Centenario Terry ‘me va’”, which takes us back to the 1960s, when cognac was advertised during radio broadcasts of football matches. You can also find an advertisement for Liebig packet soups at the junction between Balmes and Laforja, which proudly announces: “Regalamos calidad y dinero” [We offer quality and money]. At Sants, in Melcior de Palau, you can see an advertisement for Academia Vianney, a parish school. An advertisement on a whole stretch of wall on Carrer de Sugranyes announces the Niker properties, and an old sign can been seen in Carrer del Guadiana for “Bodega Llopart cervecería” [Bodega Llopart. Beer bar], where a clandestine performance was once given by the North American singer Pete Seeger in 1971.

If you go to Barceloneta, to the junction between Carrer del Mar and Carrer de la Maquinista, you will find a mural for the La Bombeta bar: “Bodega cervecería, calidad en tapas, pan con tomate, buen jamón serrano” [Wine and beer bar, quality tapas, bread with tomato, fine cured ham]. And Carrer de Pere IV, in Poblenou, offers a whole collection of long-disappeared commercial brands, such as “Aceites de oliva” [Olive oils] by “Fernando Pallarés y Hermano” at number 67, and the “Taller de construcción de F. Carné” [F. Carné’s construction workshop] at the junction with Carrer de Zamora, where textile machinery had been manufactured since 1881. A series of advertising elements, far from exhaustive, which every reader can elaborate on, no matter how brief their glance.

Albert Sánchez Piñol: “Our city is a like big factory that produces Barcelona inhabitants”

I have an appointment with the writer Albert Sánchez Piñol; we have arranged to meet for coffee in the Canigó bar in Plaça de la Revolució. In all the years we have known each other, we have always shared a curiosity for our city, “a place where you never see it all”, as he says. Albert readily defines himself as a “Barcelonian  to the bone”, although it was not until Victus that he wrote a story with Barcelona as its backdrop. I ask him why and he looks at me, half-smiling.

My books could have been written by a Bulgarian or a Turk; I never link the plot to a given landscape. For me, the actual story always matters much more than its setting.

Did it strike you as not being much of a literary city?

These kinds of definitions are stupid, an annoying cliché. Barring Tirana, every place in the world is literary.

So why have you taken so long to add Barcelona to your fiction?

It is very hard to know why writers talk about some things and not about others. Topics choose you, not the other way around. In fact, Victus had been in my head for some twenty years, but I found it more difficult to talk about my city than an island or a jungle, which are more metaphor­ical settings.

You often say that you are a Barcelonian through and through.

I was born here and have always lived here, so maybe that’s why I’m convinced that all us Barcelonians call ourselves Sánchez Piñol; we are the result of a fortunate mix. My fellow citizens remind me of the old baron of Maldà, always angry, criticising everything constantly. The local is obliged to be wary, and is therefore more forward-looking. People say we are cold and aloof, and perhaps there is some truth in that. For newcomers, it is very difficult to strike up social relationships, but if you manage to break the ice, friendships are usually for life. We have a reputation for being unfriendly, but I think we are a society where it is easy to take root.

What’s the reason behind this complicated personality?

I think the answer is probably to be found in our own history. This city has two lines of conflict, which become even more acute in a capital without a country. On the one hand there is a national conflict, that of a Catalonia that sometimes has to be unpleasant if it wants to survive. On the other hand there is a social or class conflict, the result of us being the only peninsular territory where there was an industrial revolution, and therefore a working-class mentality. The double dichotomy, between Catalan and Spanish and between proletarian and bourgeois, has shaped the way we relate to the world.

Nevertheless, you say that it is easy to take root here…

Yes, the city is a like big factory that produces Barcelona inhabitants. In Madrid they like to say that nobody is from Madrid, that they are all from somewhere else. In Barcelona, we say that everyone is from Barcelona if they want to be. Here we want to integrate even those who do not want to be integrated. Sometimes I think that many of the disagreements between the two cities are due precisely to this simple difference. Being from a hospitable place also means you have to manage diversity, and that is tiring; you have to make a huge and ongoing effort.

What are the usual channels for this integration process?

To begin with, you have to understand that Barcelona does not exist, and that in any event there are different Barcelonas. The Barcelona concept is very difficult to define; it is a city with many nuances, where the districts have played a fundamental role in creating an identity. Traditionally, immigrants were integrated through the language: anyone who spoke Catalan was Catalan. For a certain period the other route to integration was Barça, but the club has become too cosmopolitan. Anyone in the world can support Barça – from Bahrain to Tokyo, from Alaska to South Africa – which, when all is said and done, means nothing. For a long time I was a member of the Europa team, and there were no half measures there. Camp Nou is visited by Russians sporting Mexican sombreros as if they were going to a bullfight, who don’t even know what Catalonia is. At Europa’s ground, if there is a Pakistani it means he is integrated. Nobody can be integrated into universality; everyone is from somewhere, wherever that may be.

With a surname like Sánchez I  assume that your parents also went through this process.

The first Sánchez in my family to settle in Barcelona came by sea, from Murcia. He was a cabin boy in a slave ship in the mid-nineteenth century, when slavery had already been outlawed. They were stopped by an English ship off the coast of Cata­lonia and he jumped overboard and swam to the neighbourhood of Barceloneta, where he decided to stay. On the other hand, the Piñols were Catalans from Matarraña, in Aragon, who came after the Spanish Civil War because the area was devastated. My paternal grandparents lived in Barceloneta, and the furthest they ever got was Wellington Street, where my father was born. My maternal grandparents set up in Guinardó, which was still a rural land peppered with orchards. My father lived by the sea, and my mother lived in the mountains. He worked in the iron and steel industry and she was a shop assistant at the El Águila department store in Plaça de la Universitat. It’s a strange world, because they met at the Gràcia street parties, at a dance in Plaça del Diamant, and I was born of that happy coincidence.

You are from Lower Guinardó. You are the only person I know who still talks about Lower Guinardó or Upper Guinardó. What do you remember about your neighbourhood?

Sociologically we were from Gràcia, but I studied at the Pare Claret religious school, and my schoolmates from Gràcia didn’t understand it that way. Lower Guinardó still had a small town-like structure; my friends were the children of my father’s friends, people who had known each other all their lives. It was a very wild, rough and difficult place, a border area between the city and the immigrant suburbs. I was always fighting with gangs of kids from Carmel, which was still a shanty town. Ours was the last generation where people spent more time in the street, and we bore the brunt of the conflict between city and children, between traffic and people. Definitive city de­velopment took longer to reach my neighbourhood than other areas. You could still play football on the street corners, despite accidents and knock-downs. Cars and children were fighting over space.

You are part of the 1960s baby boom.

Yes, we were the ones to suffer the Transition. There was an economic crisis like the present one, there was heavy unemployment and there was lot of everyday violence. It seems like it was a very civilised process, but that is not true. You spent more time in the street because the houses were uncomfortable – hot in summer and cold in winter. I lost half of my friends to drugs. Children now seem to be made of china; we were the last free generation. The problem with freedom is that it is dangerous; you can die.

It was a testosterone-heavy society.

There was political violence, then the violence that ruled the neighbourhoods – knife-toting juvenile louts. The small-time crooks came to our neighbourhood to steal from us; we were irreconcilable enemies. We later found out that the poor guys were even worse off than we were. It wasn’t an ethnic conflict, it wasn’t a language war, it wasn’t a problem of origins. We were facing off to be unique.

You were defending your territory.

We never left our block! It was a very property-related thing, a turf war with territorial pissing. Only occasionally did we organise forays beyond our borders. Outside the neighbourhood was all uncharted territory.

You spent a large part of your childhood in the street.

I learnt nothing at school. You spent time outside the house because it was uncomfortable at home; you got attacked on the streets and all just to get to a religious school! I learnt important things in the street, such as solidarity. My friends from then are still my friends now, regardless of class dif­ferences or personal development. On the other hand, I have no contact with any of my Pare Claret schoolmates.

How did you cut the umbilical cord?

The first time I ventured outside the neighbourhood was after my brother’s death. Until then I had worked at an insurance company and learned that no company can insure anything; life is not a guarantee. I quit and went on the dole. I went to live by myself in a flat in the street of Sant Jacint and ended up sharing a flat with the anthropologist Gustau Nerín. I was very happy there. My lack of pretensions gave me plenty of free time, and I took advantage of it by writing. At that time, the neighbourhood of Santa Caterina was highly populated. It exuded history; you could feel the weight of the centuries just walking along the pavement. Then came the trips to the Congo, and when I came back I took a large flat on Carrer Petritxol, in a much less popular neighbourhood.

Now it’s a tourist area.

It’s incredible how much it has changed in so few years. I wouldn’t go back there. Having said that, I think it’s very easy to criticise tourism. If we said the same things about immigrants that we say about tourists on a daily basis, we would all get sued. The problem is not tourism, but an industry which socialises damage, but not profits. The profits from tourism reach precious few people, but we all suffer the consequences. We have to learn to manage it in a different way. No city in the world would not want to be attractive to the rest of the world, but I think we have underused symbolic assets. The city is governed by a Catalan nationalist mayor but I don’t see “Welcome to Catalonia” posters on the walls. Why are we still selling Mexican sombreros and flamenco dancers? The tourism industry is not regulated. France is just next door and they don’t have the same problems as we do.

We don’t have the type of tourists we want?

And neither do we have the kind of tourist industry we want. At the tourist hot spots, prices rise and quality falls. We treat them terribly instead of looking after them, because after them come us. Barcelona cannot have the same city model as the one they allowed in Lloret de Mar.

Do you think Victus might attract tourists who come in search of the Barcelona of 1714?

I hope it does. Although they would quite possibly find it hard to see the people of that Barcelona in us. You have to remember that it was a very isocratic city, where rich and poor were mingled, lived wall to wall, and they realised more than we did that national rights and social rights are one and the same thing. Barcelona was basically a port, a very recreational port. The locals of the Baroque times were die-hard gamblers; even the clergy bet at ball courts and in the taverns, and then condemned gambling from the pulpit.

Did people gamble a lot?

There was a ball court on every corner where people gambled playing cards, dice, billiards and a primitive kind of tennis. That is something that has only changed in the last fifty or sixty years; before the Civil War many people gambled away their wages right after getting paid. They lived in a much poorer society than the present one, where personal solidarity networks brought security, not money. Life expectancy was very short, and generational changes were therefore very fast. At that time the future heritage was part of a person’s capital; it was normal for people to gamble it even when their parents were still alive. Nowadays people never die.

What do you think is the main difference from the city today?

People lived with the sea in mind and in sight. Barcelona was an Italian republic overlooking the Mediterranean. In fact, with the exception of Madrid, all the world’s capitals were ports. That explains why it was also very well connected with the outside world. Fashions in Paris reached us in a mere two weeks. It was a more dynamic society than ours today, in which the popular classes defended the institutions because the latter guaranteed their rights.

And then came the fall.

The bombings of the siege changed the appearance of the city and its inhabitants. In fact, we still suffer the consequences of that defeat. We are a people with many contradictions and doubts, the famous Catalan fatalism. We have not achieved a single military victory since James I of Aragon. Nevertheless, no one would have thought that we would manage to survive between two giants such as France and Spain, which have been anything but good neighbours. The Civil War hammered the last nails into the country’s coffin. No nation can endure so many losses and remain standing. In such a demographically weak country, the bloodshed of war has also been compounded by firing squad executions and exiles, in 1714 and in 1939. But when there is a period of peace, this feeling is revived, and always in the same direction. Therefore, we have to believe that democracy is Catalonia’s natural ally.

Could you recommend a good book for learning about Barcelona?

La ciutat del Born by Garcia Espuche. We really should be grateful to people like him. And then there is Narraciones históricas by Castellví, a book never released in Catalonia and published recently by a Carlist publisher in Madrid.

And a place to go for a stroll?

Carrer Verdi, because it is the heart of Gràcia, a neighbourhood I love. And then the area behind the Passeig del Born.

Do you like the tribute being carried out?

There is a lot of hypocrisy in the criticism. Nobody cared about the library or the market until the archaeological remains were found. The problem is that the ruins are, in themselves, rather unspectacular. They do not contribute much. More than a tribute, what we need to do is avoid revisionism. Make it clear that those people defended constitutions and liberties they already had and did not want to lose.

Do you realise that you have become an ambassador for Barcelona?

Cities are a brand that helps writers, but writers consolidate the brand. It is fiction that creates imagery, and not vice-versa. Victus is a universal story, the story of someone defending his home against tyranny. What we have to sell to the rest of the world is our point of view and our creativity.

Absent-minded and very secretive by nature

I don’t know whether to put it down to age or headaches, but I tend to leave little bits of myself strewn all over the place, as though fearful of getting lost, or distrustful of those who govern me. Wont to look back at my childhood, I have to leave a trail of beans behind me. To see me properly you have to look up, seek me out behind a stone bench or peep into some hole. I am clumsy with details, wary and reserved. I stow my treasures with the avarice of one who is always on their guard. It is no coincidence that the archaeologists find mainly cannon balls of all sizes and from all eras. So many explosions and bombs have numbed my memory. I have allowed myself to be dazzled by ambitious projects all too often. I have not been a big planner; I have grown hastily and on the spur of each moment; I tend to change the decor of the house out of the blue. When I stop, I fall into a stupor, lulled into a kind of post-Sunday dinner spleen; that oh-so Catalan penchant for indifference which we call “seny” (good sense) here.

I was such a mere slip of a lass that I was barely visible behind my walls, which subsequently lay hidden for centuries between party walls. I sold the water to the ships that sailed from Empúries to Tarraco (now Tarragona). Now I can show off a chunk of a false aqueduct just in front of the Cathedral; for the tourists, of course. Afterwards I jumped over the walls and a whole bunch of new villages sprang up like an outbreak of adolescent pimples: the churches of Pi, Mar and Sant Pere, bequeathing numerous gothic facades and stonemason’s marks. The gate of the Orchard of the Templars is still with me, as is the hole of a Jewish mezuzah in a doorway in the Call Jewish Quarter.

Il·lustració de Stéphane Carteron

© Stéphane Carteron

Making the most of the sea traffic, I availed myself of new walls to contain the emerging neighbourhoods. And while I was at it, in the conviction that I was erecting houses for emigrants-to-come who would bring me good fortune, I also encircled the vegetable gardens of the Raval neighbourhood. Unfortunately, the Black Death came, and instead of growing I lost almost a third of what I was. Few memories remain of that nightmare, only my most beautiful churches: Santa Maria del Pi, Santa Maria del Mar and the cathedral. Those epidemics dragged on for more than a century, after which the soldiers arrived like a plague of locusts. The reapers revolted, and many of my stone corners still bear the marks of bayonets being sharpened. I was just about to make do with my size when they lopped a piece off me, just after the War of the Spanish Succession, to build the Ciutadella fortress. Half of my Ribera district was amputated; I still bear the scar of a house rent asunder in the passeig del Born. My skin is darned with symbols of the masonry, tattooed with old hurrahs with bull’s blood for ink, on the portals of the old university doctorates.

Years of dumping debris spawned a peninsula in front of the old island of Maians, which was baptised Barceloneta, home to seafaring folk and taverns, and where the old lighthouse still stands. Once shot of the walls I began to grow outwards, in all directions. The military granted me permission to populate Vinyars, a large security area which sheltered their cannons, and I called it the Eixample. Then I had a growth spurt. All of a sudden I grew up. I swiftly moved in from the plains, gobbling up all the municipalities in my path. The small villages encircling me never forgave me for that, and to this day they still look and feel independent. If you peer carefully into the folds of my dress you will find the main bars or centres that once stood in each little hamlet, where a village-like smell lingers on.

Fotografia del moll de pescadors de la Barceloneta, presa entre 1880 i 1889.

© Josep Esplugues / AFB
Alongside, a picture of the fishermen’s quay in Barceloneta taken between 1880 and 1889.

Later on I split the orchards of Sant Bertran into plots, whence Poble-sec, Paral·lel and the 1929 Expo eventually sprouted. You should have seen what a simple field of beans threw up! My playful nostalgia engendered my first shanty town in Montjuïc, surrounded by hen coops and tomato plants. Yet another civil war bequeathed me numerous little squares and avenues; the Italian air force city planners blasted an empty row where houses once stood in the Arc de Sant Agustí as a memento. Many years would pass before the square of the Unknown Militiaman was found, by chance, marked by a tar sign in Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol. No matter how hard the dictator tried to chastise me, rendering me bereft of new buildings in the centre, he unwittingly helped to save many of my old nooks and crannies from speculation. In the course of that protracted post-war period I welcomed some half a million new residents, even though I was unprepared to do so. The shanty towns Somorrostro, Pekín, el Carmel and la Perona; sites in my geography that were quickly demolished to avoid embarrassing the regime in the eyes of the world. With shockingly poor improvisation, the right to profit prevailed, as always, and I emerged laden with blocks of concrete, devoid of the basic services. The districts of Guineueta, Canyelles and Verdum shacked up with the adjacent municipalities, also chock-a-block with immigrants from the south. I thus became the centre of a metropolitan area with four and a half million inhabitants.

The last pieces of land conquered in my municipality paved the way to the sea and the Olympic Village. Others were cover-ups, such as the Fòrum, which conceals the much-feared Camp de la Bota execution ground. And some were conceived as a technological district, such as 22@.

Temporal a la barriada de Pekín, febrer 1919.

© Alexandre Merletti / AFB
Underneath, the Pekín shanty town, located between Poblenou and Sant Adrià, hit by a storm in February 1919.

I continue to grow in fits and starts, resisting the temptation to surrender my personality and become a neutral and international place. I feel the melancholy of one waiting for a happening that will give me an excuse to turn things upside down. Meanwhile, my centre has become a monumental shop window.

I have always known that cities are more than just planning and statistics. We are all made of fragments of times past. I have a long and dense history to be proud of. I have managed to conserve a heap of places where the passions and longings that have shaped my life can be perused. Elsewhere in the world my walls would be adorned with metal plaques marking somebody’s birthplace or extolling some kind of event. On the other hand, I have always been a bit lazy about remembering some things. And I have often ended up having to do so due to local lobbying. There are whole parts of my biography which it pains me to show, while I often tend to pay too much attention to others. Opening the Civil War shelters was not easy for me, and I cannot stop thinking about what I am doing with the old theatres on Paral·lel. I barely talk about the libertarian period, as I do not I like to admit I was once a North American port. I seem to have just found out about the shanty towns, and we shall see what I eventually do with Montjuïc castle. Thank God I am by nature absent-minded and drop things along the way. Bird tracks on the sand that have to be sought out in private.

Despite my efforts, I talk very little to young people. Much of what I am lies outside the tourist circuits; my main clients should be the actual citizens of Barcelona. I harbour some hope of an increase in the range of guided tours, not just for schools, but also as a leisure activity. My documentary and photographic archives, many of them digitised and networked, should be publicised. I would like to see the Diari de Barcelona, one of the oldest daily newspapers in Europe, on the Internet. Local research groups must be fostered and their research disseminated. Initiatives such as the CERHISEC in Poble-sec, the Gràcia History Workshop, the Ignasi Iglésias Study Centre are good examples of this. Absent-mindedness has made me secretive, but not because I want only the initiated to read the messages on my walls.

Barcelona has been so successful in selling its image to the rest of the world that this has become its main source of income. The pressure of tourism in Ciutat Vella has driven out many inhabitants towards a series of metastases outlying the centre. There is a tangible and nostalgia-tinged reactivation of life in the neighbourhoods.

Imatge de passejants a Montjuïc entre 1910 i 1920.

At the foot of the page, people out strolling on the mountain of Montjuïc between 1910 and 1920, before the major reform of the International Exhibition.

In recent years, the maintenance of centennial public establishments, shops and businesses has been below par. At the same time, fancy private elements such as decorations on facades, public clocks and ornamental streetlights have vanished from the cityscape in the wake of the refurbishing of the buildings that once harboured them. The city is full of signs of old businesses waiting to be catalogued. The same can be said about the appearance of Civil War street lettering, and of sewer covers still in use that still bear the coats of arms of when the districts were independent municipalities.

History is everywhere, and the task of conserving it and publicising it must involve both the public organisations and amateur historians, who often make important findings. The most obvious case is that of Valerie Powles (1950 to 2011), the resident of Poble-sec who fought for the survival of air-raid shelter 307 and El Molino. As occurred with the first democratic city councils with the civic centres, nowadays the danger of depersonalisation could be staved off by leveraging local history, promoting a perception that sees the past as a recreational possibility, a sign of identity and an added value of living somewhere in Barcelona.