By the sea (an evocation from the Big Apple)

Downtown Manhattan is by now a city of props. El Raval is a district in the throes of destruction. After so much beautification, Barcelona is running the same risk as New York. By wanting to be a capital city and a metropolis it may lose its provincial personality.

© Pérez de Rozas / AFB
Plaça Francesc Magrinyà in September 1934, decorated for the neighbourhood festivities.

We must live by the sea. To feel it close to us. To “intuitively” know it is close by. The city and the island, face to face, on either side of the sea. I grew up in Barcelona, like an island graft. Son and brother of Majorcans, my memories of the island, amassed summer after summer, are like a slideshow depicting the destruction of the environment and the annihilation of a culture that was the culture of my parents, my grandparents and my ancestors. A process known worldwide as “Balearisation” that should be a source of embarrassment to the proud defenders of “what is ours”. “My whole life is bound to you, / like the flames to the darkness of the night,” wrote Bartomeu Rosselló-Pòrcel, evoking Majorca from the Principality during the Civil War. These lines are rightly famous and effective, even although, when the flames die, only darkness remains.

I felt Majorca in Barcelona; we feel it, by the sea. My grandfather – a sailor, who went off to Cuba, as the habanera goes – “commuted” between Majorca and the peninsula in the Santa Eulàlia schooner. Beautifully restored, this vessel built in 1918 has been moored at the Moll de la Fusta for some years now, and has brought the Magi to Barcelona many a time. At an age when it is possible, at least once a year, for wishes and dreams come true, the three kings come from afar, from overseas, until they reach our coast and alight onto dry land.

Feeling Barcelona from across the sea also conjures up contradictory feelings. In Majorca, before the arrival there of the Catalan television channel TV3, I avoided xava accent like the plague: the slightest hint of a Barcelona drawl heralded the end of summer, the invariably traumatic Back to School campaign advertised by El Corte Inglés, of darkness without flames. Things slowly changed. On the banks of the River Clyde, in Glasgow, the city of seagulls, I experienced, for a few months, the pride of being from Barcelona after the success of the Olympic Games; games in which I had evidently not competed or even worked as a volunteer, but which I somehow appropriated, like a medal, for myself and for many other locals. While I was becoming familiar with the burgeoning Scottish nationalism, and to spare myself explanations, I discovered that there was no need to introduce myself as Catalan or Spanish, as it sufficed to say that I was from Barcelona, that the city had definitively regained its category of Mediterranean metropolis, and that it had become, in itself, my homeland.

Every land wages its own war

Comparisons are odious. Barcelona is and will continue to be a metropolis, but Barcelona is not New York. Barcelona and New York play in different leagues. With almost nine million inhabitants, more people live in New York than in the country of which Barcelona could be the capital. In fact, they say that New York, a homeland in itself, is the nearest country to the United States.

If, by the sea in Barcelona, we sense the nearness of Majorca, for decades the island that watched over Manhattan was Ellis Island, which was like a world in itself. From the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, it was a reception centre and a veritable concentration camp where immigrants waiting to enter the city and the country were quarantined. Converted into a museum decades ago, Ellis Island documents and attests to the subsequent waves of immigrants who gradually formed the city of cities that is New York.

Looking for Barcelona in New York, however, is an absurd undertaking. In Hell’s Kitchen there is a Barcelona Bar that purveys Barcelona-style shots, although I have yet to muster up the curiosity to ascertain what they actually are. In the Upper East Side, an elegant Italian restaurant called Quattro Gatti is obviously inspired by the modernist establishment of the same name in Barcelona. If at first glance the West Village and Chelsea are at least on a par with the gaixample, let us not compare Chelsea market to the Boqueria market: every land wages its own war. I am not interested in touristy evocations or forced comparisons: every capital must have something provincial about it. The Mediterranean taverns of New York are in Astoria, Queens, the Greek neighbourhood par excellence, where I feel at home even although “it’s all Greek to me”. Coney Island means, etymologically, rabbit warren: while it is not, despite its name, an actual island, it is certainly close to the sea. The popular New York beach has a certain touch of the charm, both vulgar and delicious, of La Barceloneta. There is no topless or – alas – nudist area (and it should be said that New York could do with a bit more Mediterranean hedonism), but among the young people strolling along the sand, I glimpse Latinos sporting Barça tops, and, as I wander into the streets of Brighton Beach, I discover a Russian tavern whose ambiance and grilled fish are the closest you will get to Can Ganassa or the Cova Fumada in this neighbourhood.

If it is absurd, and the mark of a bad traveller, to look for Barcelona in New York, it should be said, clichés aside, that it is sometimes difficult to find New York in New York. The phenomenon known as gentrification was originally supposed to transform run-down neighbourhoods into habitable zones for the middle and upper classes, but the astronomical ascent of housing prices has ended up corrupting working-class neighbourhoods and auctioning off the middle and upper class ones to the extraterrestrial classes. Downtown Manhattan is now a city of props. El Raval is a district in the throes of destruction. After so much beautification, Barcelona is running the same risk as New York. I emigrated, like many others, because my wage could not cope with my rent. On returning to Barcelona, even on holiday, I do not want to see a city whose features are disfigured by umpteen face-lifts and silicone, a city that, through aspiring to be a capital and a metropolis, renounces its provincial personality; a gentrified Barcelona, not even a Balearised one, where Barcelona is hard to find. On the way home, on the underground, I encounter a group of Catalan tourists clutching an open map of the city. One of them asks me in English if they are headed in the right direction. I respond in English: they have come to New York, so who am I to spoil their fun? Balearisation, gentrification, globalisation? Travelling and looking at Google Maps are not one and the same.

© Albert Armengol
Plaça Francesc Magrinyà in the seafront neighbourhood of Barceloneta, 2014.

The sea does not separate; it unites

When I get homesick for Barcelona, and I got used to living with that years ago, I have two options: either Skype my family or friends or go and see my friend Mary Ann. Mary Ann Newman, a student of Catalan, translator, among others, of Josep Carner and Quim Monzó, and author, among other things, of her own fantasy of Barcelona and New York in the pages of this magazine (no. 89), feels such a great love for Barcelona and Catalan culture, as great as the ocean that separates them from New York. Apart from all the people and institutions that work to establish connections between one city and the other, and beside shuttles and government delegations, this woman, honoured with the Creu de Sant Jordi for services to Catalonia, with her eternal student mien, talks to me, from the roof of her house in Chelsea, of The Farragut Fund for Catalan Culture in the U.S., which she created, or the BCN-NYC Urban Bridge, the year of Catalan architecture in New York, also sponsored by her foundation; she talks to me about projects and things to be done. For someone like me, who left his city and country years ago, it is sometimes difficult to understand that someone else can feel so attracted to it. Mary Ann Newman’s generosity reminds us that the sea does not separate, but rather that it unites, and perhaps for that reason alone we should live by the sea.

Melcion Mateu

Poet and translator. University of New York. Author of Illes lligades, Jocs Florals Prize 2014

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