Where the city earns all its names

Vista general de la sortida de Barcelona per la Meridiana, amb el barri de Vallbona a la dreta del pont, i Ciutat Meridiana i Torre Baró a l’esquerra.

In Linde, a photographic project by Myriam Meloni and Arnau Bach, we see the Barcelona behind the ring roads. The Barcelona of the Rec Comtal irrigation canal and the old Ribes road. The Barcelona that every train commuter relates to the image, through the train window, of the Fandila bar, when entering the city. More than drawing closer to the farthest Barcelona, the photographs welcome us to the city’s first neighbourhoods.

In their book Linde [Separation Line], Myriam Meloni and Arnau Bach offer a profound contemporary photographic portrait – verging on the ethnographic – of the four border neighbourhoods in the far north of the city: “The primary interest is to photographically portray the limits of Barcelona, and Nou Barris is the district furthest from the centre”, points out the co-author of the book, Arnau Bach. In that district, the four neighbourhoods that mark the city limits and lend them a name are Canyelles, Torre Baró, Vallbona and Ciutat Meridiana. They are neighbourhoods where, if you get sidetracked while walking through the thick forests or up the really steep slopes, or along the rivers of motorways, you physically leave Barcelona.

Following a year and a half of fieldwork, which entailed not only photographing the main characters in the great little stories told in Linde, but also listening to their joys and woes, the book entered the publishing phase, set to be released this autumn. Co-author Myriam Meloni explains the approach she adopted when exploring the neighbourhoods and their people: “First we went to the residents’ associations, because they have the most connection with the social fabric of each neighbourhood, but from there we try not to be bound to be spokespeople for their demands, but to swing between different positions, generations, between different origins, which would undoubtedly provide us with a more complete and, at times, contradictory vision”.

L'Esperanza va passar de viure en una barraca al Carmel a un pis de Canyelles, que, per ella, “era un palau... I encara ho és”. © Myriam Meloni i Arnau Bach
L’històric president de l’Associació de Veïns de Ciutat Meridiana Filiberto Bravo. © Myriam Meloni i Arnau Bach

Historically, these neighbourhoods have been home to people from very different backgrounds and with fairly low economic means. Ciutat Meridiana, Vallbona and Torre Baró, in that order, are the three neighbourhoods with the lowest average family income in the city. Canyelles is ranked tenth from the bottom. As for the number of inhabitants, Vallbona and Torre Baró do not amass even 5,000 residents. Canyelles is home to almost 7,000 and, Ciutat Meridiana, more than 10,000. The latter neighbourhood also has a population density of 28,000 people per square kilometre. Outrageous, although far from the population density of the neighbourhood La Florida, in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, which ranks the highest in Europe with more than 74,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. The houses are also different depending on the neighbourhood. In Torre Baró and Vallbona many self-built, low-rise houses abound. In Canyelles and Ciutat Meridiana there is a profusion of warren-type, developmentalist and huge buildings, many of which lack decent living conditions.

Past (and present) of neighbourhood struggle

Filiberto Bravo is an institution in Ciutat Meridiana. Longstanding president of its residents’ association, his legacy of neighbourhood struggle is an encyclopaedia open to anyone who talks to him: “Filiberto’s vision of the neighbourhood is one of togetherness and social struggle, but the possible vision of Ciutat Meridiana held by a woman who has recently migrated from a small town in Morocco is a sense of freedom”, explains Myriam Meloni. For this resident, having a close-knit community that cares for one another but at the same time does not interfere in each other’s lives is critical for personal development in freedom”. Ciutat Meridiana, Bellvitge on the northern border of Barcelona, is freedom and it is struggle and, as one of the testimonials presented in Linde notes, that of Esperanza, it is also class dignity: “When they proposed we come to live in Canyelles, we accepted because we liked it. […] At night I could only think of the flat – Esperanza lived with her family in a shack in El Carmel – of how it was made, the balcony... A modest working-class house, but for me it was a palace… And it still is.”

El pont del Congost del Besòs, inaugurat a finals del 2005, uneix el barri de Vallbona amb Torre Baró i Ciutat Meridiana. Algunes famílies aprofiten per reunir-s’hi a sota i compartir un àpat. © Myriam Meloni i Arnau Bach The Congost del Besòs bridge, inaugurated in late 2005, connects the Vallbona neighbourhood with Torre Baró and Ciutat Meridiana. A few families take advantage of the space underneath to come together and share a meal. © Myriam Meloni i Arnau Bach
Un adult i un nen asseguts sobre un pont improvisat que travessa el Rec Comtal en passar per Vallbona, l’únic tram al descobert d’aquest rec i que encara proveeix d’aigua els horts urbans de la zona. © Myriam Meloni i Arnau Bach An adult and a child sitting on a makeshift bridge that crosses the Rec Comtal on its way through Vallbona, the only exposed stretch of this irrigation canal that still supplies water to the vegetable gardens in the area. © Myriam Meloni i Arnau Bach

Although denouncing social injustice has helped keep the feeling of attachment alive among its residents after so many generations, lapsing into showing Ciutat Meridiana just as Evictionville, far from raising awareness, stigmatises. It has been like this for many decades, and the x of the equation was already resolved by Candel in Els altres Catalans [The Other Catalans]: “In reality, immigrants form a separate society here, in the same way that they formed it there. It is the sad fate of their status as a low proletariat.” In Linde, the exploration of reality of four of Barcelona’s poorest neighbourhoods seeks to express itself through beauty and eschewing drama. What’s more, it moves away from the constant historicist examinations that are made of the now thirteen “nou barris” [new neighbourhoods]. Beyond precariousness, the realities of the four neighbourhoods portrayed in the book are woven together in a narratively richer whole.

“It is easy to indulge in pity, in the exaltation of poverty, in paternalism and in stigmatisation”, posits Meloni, “but in Linde it was not our intention to speak of the other objectively, but to afford a glimpse within a much more complex reality”. When a journalist has to cover a story about precariousness, they should always be attuned to the signal that warns of the danger of yielding to the romanticisation of poverty. Stories of precariousness are passed on orally by the person concerned; the journalist listens to them, internalises them and contextualises them (or, at least, they should); then they portray that story, whether in words or in images; and, lastly, they publish it for the scrutiny and judgment of public opinion. However, that story doesn’t end there, neither with the publication nor with the payment received by the journalist, but continues to be the unique and current reality of that person and their environment. The great balancing act entails telling the story in a manner that is mindful of otherness, and that is only achieved over time and through an honest relationship with the sources, among other things: “The main idea was to decipher and understand the day-to-day life of these neighbourhoods, which end up being the fringes of the fringes when they are not and should not be considered as such. Neither socially nor politically”, claims Myriam Meloni.

Neighbourhoods taken house by house

Beyond the economic reality and the historical institutional neglect of these neighbourhoods, there is another factor that explains how the distinctive characteristics of their residents are structured and how the feeling of attachment has been ignited here: all four are recent neighbourhoods, built in many cases by the actual residents who still reside in them. Or, if not, their children do, who inherited the homes that their parents built. More often than not, four walls and a roof were raised at night so that, the following day, the wardens couldn’t demolish the construction, since it was an inhabited house. It is not the only example of neighbourhoods built home by home by their own residents: Huertas Clavería tells us in his Barrios de Barcelona [Barcelona’s Neighbourhoods] how the residents provided some rudimentary steps to spare the residents the slopes in Torre Baró, which were veritable slides on rainy days. Another example: during the hijacking of bus line 47 in May 1978 (which served to demonstrate to the city council that the bus could climb the slopes of these neighbourhoods), using picks and shovels, the residents widened a number of bends, too steep for the Pegaso Monotral steered by the bus driver Manuel Vital, a resident of the neighbourhood. And, today, people continue to make small improvements in these neighbourhoods, motu proprio, without asking for permission or pardon: “Here, the feeling of attachment is very different from that of a neighbourhood that was built centuries ago, by people already forgotten and whose history has been lost”, explains Myriam Meloni.

Cases a la muntanya de Collserola, a Torre Baró. Moltes van ser aixecades pel seus propietaris a mitjan segle xx. © Myriam Meloni i Arnau Bach
Blas, veí de Vallbona, amb Rosita, un porc senglar femella. © Myriam Meloni i Arnau Bach

They are isolated neighbourhoods, in good times and in bad. Until the Congost bridge was built in 2005, after decades of neighbourhood demands, Vallbona was separated from Barcelona. Only a goat path connected it with the adjacent neighbourhoods of Torre Baró and Ciutat Meridiana. Arnau Bach says that, around here, if there is a relatively flat terrain, someone prepares what is needed and in a couple of days children are already playing soccer. And if there is waste ground, young people will adapt it to rehearse urban music choreographies: “The legislation is the same as in the rest of the city, but there might be more permissiveness. Nor do they need to direct thousands of tourists each day.” Myriam Meloni rounds off the reflection: “There, in Barcelona (sic), every piece of public space has been allocated a use, ‘you walk here, you cross here, the terrace goes here’, but here, in these neighbourhoods, that’s not the case. It ends up being a matter of economic interest. In the Barcelona for tourists, each piece of city has a huge potential for economic revenue; but not here”.

The centralist and productive conception of here and there is blurred in these neighbourhoods. In other words, here is usually the mountains, the forest; and there, the rest of Barcelona, what is beyond the motorways. For a resident of Barcelona at sea level, however, Collserola, Tibidabo, remain there. Candel was referring to this type of peripheral neighbourhoods with his famous Donde la ciudad cambia su nombre [Where the City Changes Its Name], and while it is true that the residents (including the photographer who has spent a bit more than a year in these neighbourhoods, as read in the previous paragraph) say “go to Barcelona” when they are already in it (something that also happens in the neighbourhoods that centuries ago were independent towns), the historical aspiration of the residents of Canyelles, Torre Baró, Vallbona and Ciutat Meridiana is to overcome this otherness and be treated just like the rest of Barcelona.

Giving new meaning to sometimes monstrous spaces

The relationship with nature is much closer at these latitudes of the city. In Vallbona, for instance, the last vestiges of the Rec Comtal irrigation canal are still used by young people to go for a dip, and the last vegetable gardens in the city also lie in this area. In Linde we become acquainted with the story of Rosita, a wild boar that roams the area: “When I call her”, says Blas, a neighbourhood resident, “she always comes to me and we spend time together. This is pure nature. This house is my life, it’s everything that I want”. Blas works the land and has raised animals, especially doves, although no longer for competition, just for exhibition. When his daughter died, he buried her ashes in the garden. Such is the sense of attachment.

In these neighbourhoods, the landscape changes in a few hundred metres. From the mountain surroundings we enter the hub of roads (C-17, C-33, C-58, AP-7), the city’s quintessential non-place that has been reappropriated by its residents. If in Canyelles, Torre Baró, Ciutat Meridiana and Vallbona they have learned to live next to the mountains, they have still had more to learn to live hemmed-in between piles of concrete. The entry road links to Barcelona to the north have marked the life of these neighbourhoods, separating them from the rest of the city and from each other. Bridges, overpasses, motorway entries and exits and columns of implausible diameters to hold it all together ooze through the hovels, the little vegetable gardens and the waste grounds of Barcelona’s northernmost neighbourhoods. The photographs of these landscapes featured in Linde convey that overwhelming sense of insignificance of human measure in the presence of such architectural abominations.

Dues integrants del grup de ball la Virgen del Quincho, anomenat així en honor a una verge molt popular a l’Equador, que assagen cada diumenge en un descampat de Ciutat Meridiana. © Myriam Meloni i Arnau Bach
L’ascensor inclinat de Ciutat Meridiana comunica l’estació de Rodalies de Torre Baró i la parada de metro de Ciutat Meridiana de la línia 11. © Myriam Meloni i Arnau Bach

Many of the residents who use these non-places to meet up come from realities in which many people had to live in miniscule places, such that all social life took place on the street, explain the authors of the book. Similarly, many of the flats in Canyelles and Ciutat Meridiana are tiny and are still inhabited by lots of people, often overcrowded, so to a certain extent they are not only reproducing customs, but also they are still adapting to the circumstances. “This also occurs in the Raval neighbourhood. People playing ball, cricket, on the street. Occupation of the public space is a very cultural thing, and which is inherited”, recalls Meloni. It is a reappropriation of space without too much press, but it is effective. The residents of these neighbourhoods have given a new meaning to the non-place, breathing life into it, meeting up with their families and friends, giving it a use, denying it the nickname of non-place. In short: “The space outside homes is given new meaning, turning it into something to be shared by the community”, explains Meloni.

Under tons of cement and countless cars that travel in and out and cross the city limits in a frenzy of movement, productive, endless and jarring at all times, a few meters below, at ground level and availing of the shade under the bridges, the residents set up a picnic. And they are dressed in regional costumes that they have been sewing for weeks, and they dance, chat and laugh and, from being there so long and having made the place their own, they have also internalised the constant and piercing noise of rolling tyres and rattling engines, and that no longer bothers them.

  • LindeMyriam Meloni and Arnau Bach. Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2020

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