Torn between decadence and renovation, traditional markets can become powerful tools for gentrification when opting for radical modernisation changes the way they are used and at the same time the offer in products and the prices in force.
The restoration of Barcelona’s Sant Antoni market was long overdue. Residents, traders and the City Council saw this event as an opportunity to revitalise the neighbourhood. Now, a decade after work began, the opening of the new facilities, along with developments in real estate and trade, are seen as a threat to the life of the neighbourhood. The process of gentrification in the area is undeniable. Property prices have rocketed, both for housing and for commercial premises. Residents complain that they are being expelled by an invisible wave of rental terminations and exorbitant prices.
Gentrification, which consists in replacing an area’s original working-class or low-income population with population with greater purchasing power, is going on in both the residential and the commercial fields. Local shops offering everyday consumer products at affordable prices to a low-income population are pushed out of gentrified neighbourhoods by establishments aimed at middle- and upper-class consumers. Shops selling frequently purchased articles (mainly food) are replaced by others selling articles for sporadic consumption, in reply to new patterns of consumption in the middle and upper classes. Some people have described this process as boutiquification.
The concept of local trade, a sector in which we can include the traditional municipal markets, refers to the physical location of establishments in residential districts with respect to the consumer –as opposed to department stores, which are located in the urban periphery–, but also to relational proximity. These are establishments where we find frequently consumed products and that offer personalised attention. Neighbourhood shops provide places that encourage social and neighbourhood relations, associated with values of familiarity and of participation in local community life.
The absence of a new generation ready to take over, the liberalisation of the property market and the end of the moratorium of the Law of Urban Rental for old rents in 2015, along with trends in consumption of one sector of the population with purchasing power, mean that, where once there were local shops, now designer shops, galleries, organic and gourmet food shops, bars, restaurants and franchises now move in that fail to fulfil this community role.
This has affected the traditional markets, which, torn between decadence and renovation, become new settings for gentrification when the way they are used changes along with prices and the usual offer in products. Sometimes, renovating the market is the consequence of a process of gentrification in the neighbourhood as a whole, but on other occasions renovating the market is precisely what acts to trigger or accelerate a more global process of gentrification.
Remodelling and change of model
In recent years, Barcelona’s municipal markets have been through a process of physical remodelling and a change of model that has affected this relational role of neighbourhood trade. Since 1955, 25 markets have been restored and in each case a self-service establishment, or supermarket, has been incorporated that has helped to fund the restoration. The aim of the Institut de Mercats Municipals (Institute of Municipal Markets) was to modernise the offer in the markets by adapting them to new consumer habits and offering services like parking or centralised home delivery, extending working hours and reducing the number of stalls. The reduction in stalls has been largely a result of the very process of stallholders retiring without a new generation to take their place, but also of difficulties in covering the expense to stallholders of covering their part of the cost of renovation. In the new Sant Antoni market, for example, it’s calculated that stallholders invest between 60,000 and 150,000 euros in the new stalls.
In some cases, the idea of turning the run-down market buildings into modern, competitive facilities marked a new frontier in the process of gentrification. The generation of an undoubtedly classist discourse on the deterioration of the municipal markets justifies their commercial and urbanistic upgrading, an upgrading that involves the inclusion of stalls selling gourmet products and meals along with the expulsion of the more precarious traders who are less able to adapt to the new situation. As Luz de Lourdes Cordero and Luis Alberto Salinas wrote in the Revista de Urbanismo of the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Chile (No. 37, December 2017), ‘in this context various traditional markets aspire to become gourmet markets in a pattern of urban competitiveness in which cities have evolved towards the development of comparative consumption advantages, and this makes these places a first-rate tourist attraction’.
The fact is that the renovations municipal markets undergo often involve a loss of part of their role as promoters of social cohesion, especially in the ones located in the touristic centre of the city. Markets like La Boqueria or Santa Caterina in Barcelona, San Antón, San Miguel or San Fernando in Madrid, La Ribera in Bilbao, La Bretxa in San Sebastián or La Encarnación in Seville are examples of this loss of physical and symbolic spaces for use by locals that is taking place in municipal markets, which are therefore turned into tourist attractions or places for eating out. These converted spaces become show markets that exclude large sectors of the population that can’t afford the gourmet products on offer there.
This alters the market user profile and also the offer in the market, adapting it to a client who isn’t looking to buy food supplies for home, but to experience food culture in situ. Consumption of gourmet products and meals takes space away from fresh produce for day-to-day consumption. Prices in the market go up and regular users get less quality in their shopping experience, where the relational aspect was key.
In Barcelona, the most emblematic case of this phenomenon is La Boqueria market, under threat from its very success as a tourist attraction. But Santa Caterina is another good example. Restoration of this market began in 1999 and didn’t finish until 2005. The years of building work, which coincided with a profound town-planning reform of the surrounding area, and the subsequent temporary relocation of the market, had a devastating impact on the neighbourhood’s social fabric. Almost 200 establishments closed and Santa Caterina market ‘stopped fulfilling its function as a focus for economic and social life, a process some residents describe as the death of the neighbourhood’, as Adrián Hernández writes in his article ‘De la botiga a la boutique’ (‘From the “botiga” to the boutique’), published in 2016 in Volume 6 Number 1 of the Revista de Estudios Urbanos y Ciencias Sociales of the University of Almería.
Tourist spots and new consumer offers
The new market model – conceived, according to the author mentioned above, ‘not as a trading centre for supplying food to residents of Ciutat Vella, but as a tourist spot and a point of consumption for the middle classes who would gradually arrive in the neighbourhood following the process of gentrification it was going through’ – also impregnates the surrounding area, where the offer in restaurants, gourmet eateries, designer shops and boutiques has proliferated and the offer in small local shops has not recovered as they can not afford the new prices of commercial premises.
The process affecting Santa Caterina can give us an idea of the dangers of gentrification linked to the opening of the new Sant Antoni market. The market, which as well as the fresh produce stalls, flea market and second-hand bookstalls of the municipal market, will include three restaurants and six food shops offering tastings, as well as a large car park, with the added bonus of the ‘superblock’ surrounding it, will change the dynamics of the neighbourhood. The danger that the market will become a place for tourists and elites, with its architectural appeal and its offer in eating out, is obvious.
The locals view the situation uneasily and as a paradox, as both the market renovation and the ‘superblock’ are demands going back years. But the process of gentrification is undeniable, due to the expulsion of local residents and shops. The stallholders in the Sant Antoni market have said they don’t want to become La Boqueria 2, but what tools are being made available to them to prevent this happening? The new usage plan (and the temporary suspension of licenses this has meant) is a step in this direction. However, more support will be needed from the public to protect local shops and, especially, to stop residents being driven out of the neighbourhood.