Rather than submit to the noxious dynamics of Spain’s colossal underground economy, the migrant workers of Mount Zion built an informal city in the backdrop of 'brand' Barcelona. On the 24th July the community was forcibly evicted and a humanitarian crisis was born.
At the Verdaguer transfer station on the Barcelona metro, tourists on holiday slowly trickle towards the beach as locals rush to work. From this point on, the city’s yellow metro line offers a formidable cartography of gentrification. Heading towards the end of the line at La Pau, one travels through the city’s divergent social classes. Much like centuries ago, the Citadel (now part of the Olympic City) marks the border of this city-turned-brand. English-speakers and Scandinavians in swimming trunks and tank-tops step off, and the train continues on toward the Sant Martí district. From here on, save for the construction bubble islands at Selva de Mar and Fòrum, the physical fabric of the metro stations deteriorate, and faces darken. When I first moved to Barcelona, it was at this point on the line in which a stern-looking accordion player with a glass eye would often board, tickling an ominous, low D-minor chord until the next stop, where he would get off, board the next car, and repeat. He never asked for money, never said a word.
The Besòs neighbourhood lies near the end of the line, on the border between Barcelona and neighbouring Badalona. It is a historically low-income area in the shadow of the Parc del Fòrum, a massive complex that was built to host the 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures. Today, the complex hosts international business conventions and trendy music festivals, such as Primavera Sound. The luxurious high-rises that surround it are a lumbering reminder of the gentrification imposed on locals, for whom the skyline serves as a backdrop to an epidemic referred to as “aluminosis”, a type of urban decay affecting houses built in the 60s and 70s using cheap cement with excess aluminium. Humidity, CO2 and high temperatures combine to make the concrete porous, occasionally leading to the collapse of entire building blocks.This rot is not limited to housing blocks, however—the entire Sant Martí district is scarred by dozens of abandoned factories and warehouses, crumbling reminders of Catalonia’s industrial past.
Two streets over from the Besòs Mar metro station, one of these abandoned factories was, until recently, the workplace and home of anywhere between 300 and 800 people. Known to many as Mount Zion, for over two years it was the largest occupied space in all of Spain. The community was largely made up of West African men who worked collecting scrap metal all over Barcelona, yet it included people from all over the world. In addition to the scrap metal collectors, Mount Zion was also home to dozens of artists, musicians and intermittent temporary workers in sectors ranging from agriculture to construction. Just two years ago, most had precarious but formal employment, rented homes, and their documents in order. Some were enrolled in universities. Yet the collapse of the construction sector forced them out onto Barcelona’s streets, and the termination of their contracts meant that their documents could not be renewed. Rather than submit to the noxious dynamics of Spain’s colossal underground economy, they built a small city.
The main entrance to Mount Zion greets you with a flurry of text and brightly coloured murals. Flowery revolutionary poetics sit adjacent to pragmatic explanations (“We recycle all types of scrap”) and blunt statements reflecting the apartheid imposed on the space’s increasingly desperate inhabitants (“We are not animals, we are people!”). As you pass through the gate, you quickly find yourself immersed in the harsh, industrial sounds of clanging metal, circular saws, trucks loading and unloading and multiple diesel generators (the Endesa power company, in cooperation with the Catalan police, cut off all electricity and water to the space). Occasionally, the sounds of a drum and balafon band rehearsing in one of the complex’s many warehouses float through the noise, their sweet, tumbling melodies flirting with the dissonant repetition of the hard labour on the ground level. On the westernmost wall of the main corridor is a stunning mural depicting the voyage from Africa to the Spanish coast, and until recently, towards the end there was an improvised temple belonging to a group of Baye Fall, a Mouride sect who consider work to be a form of adoration.
In addition to the shanty homes and warehouses, the complex also features several bars, a bike repair shop, a hair salon, a restaurant, a cinema, tailors and a few small clothing and shoe shops. Together, these constitute a sort of micro-economy; a combination of bartering and highly reduced prices keeps what little money residents make circulating through the community. None of this activity is taxed, and it would be a pittance of it was. Yet Thaís, a young Argentinean resident, thinks that this may, to some extent, explain city hall’s urgency to evict the Mount Zion community. “If you manage yourself, you can stay here for a long time and never have to leave, except to get water from the public fountains. For instance, I can sell some of my clothes, give that money to the cook, he gives it to a scrap-metal worker who spends it at the reggae bar, and so on,” she tells me.
While the most hopeful aspect of what took place in Mount Zion is this exercise in autonomy rooted in a situation of extreme necessity, it would be dishonest to portray the experience as utopian or emancipatory. Living amongst precariously stored scrap metal implies constant exposure to lead, and the lack of an adequate sewage system is a major problem. Vermin such as rats and bed bugs are also highly present. “This is a squat, and it is not fit for us to live in. It’s a free prison,” says Mamadou, a talented Senegalese percussionist. “There’s no electricity, no water. We didn’t come here with our families to live like this. There are other ways of living your life, but it’s an injustice that we have to do this. We just live like this because we can’t do anything else about it.”
On 24 July, a considerable police unit of 55 vans and 385 Spanish, Catalan and municipal police officers evicted the remaining hundred or so residents of Mount Zion. The eviction date had been announced some days before, and most of the inhabitants had already left to find shelter elsewhere. That won’t be difficult: according to an October 2012 census carried out by the City of Barcelona, Mount Zion was just one of 62 occupied factories housing hundreds of scrap-metal workers and others involved in the informal economy.
The approach taken by the mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias, and the Catalan Generalitat in dealing with this humanitarian crisis has been aggressive in its evictions, and paternalistic and deceiving in its public relations strategy. On 9th July, Trias and other city officials met with a delegation of residents, neighbourhood organisations and activist collectives in order to negotiate a solution. The meeting yielded several promises, yet nothing in writing. Trias promised residents a roof over their heads, participation in a year-long worker training program (which would both train them for and force them to leave the work they were already doing) and to facilitate a regularization of their documentation status, regardless of their current situation. Naturally, this last empty and irresponsible promise (considering Barcelona lacks the competencies to make it a reality on its own) could provoke serious conflict between the Mount Zion community and undocumented men and women from elsewhere. And the “roofs” Trias promised were 6m2 rooms with beds for 7 or 8 people, in shelters provided by Barcelona’s already overwhelmed social services.
Upon eviction, many of the former residents of Mount Zion occupied the Sant Bernat Calbó church in the Poblenou neighbourhood, where they were received with open arms by local assemblies and Pastor Francesc Romeu. The occupation ended after three days, though members of the community contend that the struggle will continue until their demands for equal rights and a fair solution are met. “Until now,” said one man during the final assembly at the church, “we have been suffering and resisting. Catalans, city officials, please—do not toy with us for political purposes. Do something. As brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters. This is what we want. To share with you. To respect things with you. To feel, with you, what life really is. To be critical of things, together. Because, really, truly, we need your help. The struggle cannot end here.”