At the edges of many great cities, the social fabric begins to unravel. Far from the densely packed urban core, the individual threads of the city tapestry become visible. The extremes of poverty and wealth. The conflicts of industry versus nature, pollution versus wilderness. New development, empty lots, vernacular architecture, towering mansions, abandoned buildings, forgotten landmarks, bomb shelters, villages, graveyards. All of these things can exist at the city center, but they become much more apparent in the isolation of the edges.
The edges of these same cities are often actively hidden from visitors. Maps are created especially for outsiders that focus on the center. A truncated version of city boundaries is presented. Tourist zones are created, offering up an urban experience designed by the governing bodies. These zones are often located at the historic heart of the city, a region that is known, controllable, and organized. Here, the authorities can present their vision of a city identity, one that they are heavily invested in maintaining. In New York, this tourist zone is in lower Manhattan and Times Square. San Francisco's zone is Fisherman's Wharf, Seattle has Pike Place Market, New Orleans has the French Quarter, and Havana is focused on its old city center, Habana Vieja. In Barcelona, the central tourist zone is situated around the Gothic Quarter, a warren of narrow alleys and small shops crowded day and night with out of town visitors.
Barri Gòtic, Barcelona
The Gothic Quarter, where the Romans built their city walls, is much like lower Manhattan, where the residents of New Amsterdam lived behind their own walls. From this tightly packed historic center, a more modern city has radiated out. From Manhattan, New York City spread out to annex its neighboring cities and towns, creating the five boroughs. In Barcelona, the modern city was created in a series of concentric circles - like Paris - moving out from its old core to overtake the small villages and towns surrounding it. The Barcelona that most visitors know today - Gaudi's architecture, La Rambla, the Eixample, the city beaches - is within short walking distance of the Gothic Quarter. The tourist map is also centered here, and does not extend out to the edges of the city.
As in New York, the outskirts of Barcelona are excluded from regular guidebooks and left to the poetic imagination, explored in works like "Secret Barcelona" and "Barcelona Noir." Scant mention can be found in mainstream publications of the neighborhoods along Barcelona's fringes. What mentions there are often devote just a sentence to a neighborhood's history, usually with a dire warning. "To be avoided." "A shantytown." "Dangerous." It is the same story in many large cities. The neighborhoods at the edges are unknown to visitors, sidelined by the government, and remain a mystery even to nearby residents. And in the side streets of these neighborhoods, the unwritten story of the city can be seen.
Vernacular Sarria #1
Vernacular Sarria #2
In Barcelona - like many cities - these neighborhoods are not particularly hard to find, although it is sometimes difficult to catch more than a glimpse into their stories. They include places like the far side of Montjuïc, where over 150,000 hand-decorated tombs are stacked onto a steep hillside, looking out over the blue waters of the industrial port. In nearby Poble Sec, the neighborhood bomb shelter built underneath Montjuïc is one of the last surviving shelters from more than 1,400 built in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. Further into the hills above the city, the winding streets of the village of Sarria lead to dead ends and empty lots, a contrast to wealthy monasteries and mansions hidden behind walls nearby. Above Horta, outside the outer ring road, narrow vegetable gardens are carved into canyon walls near an abandoned home and a forgotten cemetery. Below, in the densely packed row houses of Nou Barris, each unique home is a single floor, sharing a common wall with all of the neighbors. Closer to the ocean, in the crumbling industrial ruins of Poble Nou, squatters and artists are being displaced from old factories by new development, a story familiar to cities around the world. And at the edge of town, where the Besos River meets the sea, children swim in factory outflows, as noxious chemicals are pumped out into the Mediterranean.
Throughout the city of Barcelona, a constant whir of cranes and the pounding of jackhammers makes it clear that all of these unique neighborhoods are under threat of replacement, to be transformed into the gleaming modern glass towers that have eviscerated many of the greatest cities of the world.
--- On the 6th anniversary of this website, this photo essay is dedicated to Keary and Kathy Kensinger, in gratitude for all of their generosity, support, and encouragement.