“Your tourism kills my neighborhood,” the shiny white paint on the cobblestones read. A few streets away, “Tourists respect or die.”
What a warm welcome; no words less dramatic from the Barceloneta neighborhood, a group of city blocks full of hanging laundry and kids playing football in the street. Until recently, this has been a place where working class residents could live within their means, raising families in apartments so small that the living had to be done out in the neighborhood placitas and bakeries. Recently, the ever-growing upspike in Barcelona tourism has paired with the popularity of Airbnb. Locals are renting out their apartments to tourists for more money than they have to pay each month. This is driving local housing prices up, and the inhabitants of Barceloneta are doing something about it.
Namely, spray-painting the sidewalk and muttering angry perdóns to foreigners who cut them off as they roll on Segways down the streets. This week, they wrote a letter. An envelope with an official seal appeared in my roommate’s box yesterday, which she read but could not completely understand because it was in Catalan. Using her Spanish knowledge and guesswork, she told me that her neighbors were telling each other more or less to spy on the people around them. If they saw any activity that could be called suspicious, the letter said, they should report it to local police.
You don’t have to be here long to see that tourists are a problem, Airbnb apartment or not. They come here to party, and they disturb the neighborhood residents. They overtake the beach, and drug dealers follow. Mostly, they seem to outnumber the locals right now, and that can make things a bit weird in a region that is so proud of its local language and traditions.
(Side note: A reader shared with me this BBC podcast that explores the issue quite well. It also goes into how the artisan laundry hangers of Barceloneta (the elders) have disappeared from the neighborhood’s balconies due to too many tourists having Airbnb sex with the blinds open.)
A city council member came and spoke at the university where I am now working, saying that it is a difficult balance. On one hand, the locals need tourism. Ever since the city was rebuilt for the Olympics in 1992 (and put onto the world map it had practically not appeared on before), Barcelona tourism rose from about a million visitors per year to seven million. The local economy lives largely off of this. But at the same time, the council member said, they do not want their city to become a theme park that exists only for visitors.
How can travelers from Germany and France enjoy the same park as Catalan families on an afternoon walk? I turned to my one Catalan friend to find out more.
I discussed this over two cortados with my friend Albert, who lives just outside of Barcelona and spent the last year au pairing in Paris with me. He’s been feeling pretty happy to be back in Spain because he missed the food and the laid-back atmosphere.
“We have a lot of traditions,” he said. The Catalans eat tiny cakes on Oct. 31, have a special treat that godparents give their godchildren, stuff 12 grapes into their mouths in the minutes leading up to Jan. 1, and even burn a red pair of underwear to ring in the new year. They are proud and generous people who love their own language but do not mind speaking Spanish, which they learn all throughout school alongside their main lessons in Catalan.
We finished our coffees and walked through the Barri Gòtic, the oldest part of the city where small medieval streets are home to artistic local shops as well as souvenir stores and fast food places. On our walks, Albert and I have gone to a lot of places full of tourists: Parc de la Ciutadella, Plaça d’Espanya; Montjuïc. What I have noticed is that either Albert is very good at hiding it, or that he’s rather quite OK with sharing the city’s best spaces with tourists. It seemed really normal to him.
Then we stopped back at the apartment where I am staying to drop off my jacket. I gave Albert a tour of the small place, and we stepped out onto the balcony which looks out on the hanging clothes and windows of nearby Barceloneta residents. I didn’t think to tell him about the Catalan letter. Instead, I pointed down the street and started talking about how you can just see the ocean beyond that surf store over there —
Then we heard a voice from the balcony across from us. “Hey, over there, do you mind —” a young woman in a messy bun was calling out to me in English in a low voice. “There was a letter that the government sent out. It said … to people with Airbnbs … be careful.” She spoke a little too softly. I didn’t know what to say. This was not an Airbnb, but let’s face it, I am not so different than a tourist, especially by her standards. Albert said something back to her in Catalan and she looked confused, replied to him in Spanish, and when he said something else in Catalan she went back inside.
She spoke to me again later that night, except this time I was in bed. I turned my head to glance out my small window and she was there, trying to get my attention.
“Go home,” she might have been trying to say, like the painted sidewalk. But where? Where is home? Where you were born? Where you work? Where you are welcome, or not?
Now, a week later, night has fallen and I’m listening to grown-ups and kids talking as they walk the streets. One of Barcelona’s biggest festivals, La Mercè, is going on. All down the beach, music is playing and fireworks are being set up. In the city center, performers are climbing on one another’s shoulders and making human towers.
The man from the city council said usually, there is a child at the top of the tower, and the organizers normally choose a child whose family immigrated to Barcelona from another country — Morocco or Venezuela, for example. They do it to show that Barcelona is open to people from all places.
Walking through the Barri Gòtic this afternoon, there were locals everywhere. Tiny children sat on the dusty ground at Parc de la Ciutadella as improv dancers competed onstage for a prize. Just up the path, people with English accents tasted wines and talked about London next to Catalan families.
This city is extremely local, and at the same time, very global. And luckily, it is far from being an amusement park. Has the balance been found? I don’t know. But the festival surely offered a sense of mercè — which in Catalan means something along the lines of service, help, or a sense of compassion. Spray paint and window accusations aside, many Catalan people, proud as they are of their own culture, also have the empathy to share it with others.
Could we say the same about my country?
Photos: A second city
Barcelona is the second foreign city I have lived in, Paris being the first. I have found some unexpected similarities between the two.