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In the 1950s, Barcelona City Hall expropriated the land where Assumpta's house is located to implement a new urban development plan for Poblenou. This old working-classs neighborhood by the seaside has become one of Barcelona's most trendy areas. Foto: Andrea Rodés
In the 1950s, Barcelona City Hall expropriated the land where Assumpta's house is located to implement a new urban development plan for Poblenou. This old working-class neighborhood by the seaside has become one of Barcelona's most trendy areas. Andrea…

Barcelona: A little house with a garden resists real estate fever

Mrs. Assumpta, a descendant of working-class immigrants from rural Spain, explains how she managed to keep her little house with a garden in the middle of one…

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Mrs. Assumpta is about to turn 89 years old and since 1936 she has been living in the same house - a two-story concrete house surrounded by a little garden -  at the end of the Rambla del Poblenou, the pedestrian street that crosses this old industrial district of Barcelona from north to south until it reaches the sea. Obviously, her house catches the attention of any passerby, from the American tourist on his way to the beach to a real estate agent looking for potential properties in the area. There are hardly any houses of this type in Barcelona, even less in Poblenou, a booming neighborhood because of its proximity to the water and for being the headquarters of numerous startups and tech companies.

"Six generations of my family lived here. From my grandparents to my great-grandchildren, you can start counting," Assumpta told me. I met her a few days ago, when she was out on the patio, wearing an apron and slippers, cleaning her garden while lunch was cooking in the kitchen. She showed me an empty bottle of rum she found lying between the bushes and cursed whoever had left it there last night. "How can these young people of today spend the night drinking something so strong and leaving it all dirty? What a shame..." she complained, alternating Catalan with Spanish. Her Spanish had the typical accent from Aragón, the region where her family came from. Aragon, in the interior of Spain, used to be a very poor rural region at the beginning of the century, so many Aragonese - like Assumpta's grandparents- emigrated to Barcelona's Poblenou in search of jobs. 

Formerly called the “Manchester of Catalonia,“ Poblenou was the main industrial center of Barcelona during the 19th century and a working-class neighborhood until the Olympic Games of 1992, which led the area to revamp. In the last decade, Poblenou has also become an important district for technology and innovation. The so-called [email protected] District is the home of leading technology companies, from Indra to Schneider or Facebook, which is opening an office in Barcelona dedicated to fighting against fake news.

Miraculously, the little house with a garden where Assumpta was raised, located in the old grounds of a textile factory, has remained standing, trapped between the busy Rambla, a park and a set of social housing buildings built in the 1950s, ending up with the problem of slums and shanty towns where poor workers lived. In 1952, the City Hall expropriated the land to implement a development plan but did not demolish Assumpta's house, allowing her family to stay in exchange for rent.

"I am a privileged person," the friendly elderly woman admitted, still clutching the dirty bottle of rum in her right hand. She knows that having her own garden and the beach less than five minutes away on foot is luxury in Poblenou, where rental prices are skyrocketing and the purchase price can reach $6,000 per square meter. In front of her house - covering the view of the sea, unfortunately - stand the eight social housing blocks, popularly known as the "Tupolev blocks," due to their resemblance to the Russian plane, but also because of their height, which impressed the residents of Barcelona. "I know all the people who live in the blocks," said Assumpta, who has lived in the area all her life.

Well, almost everyone. She corrected herself because some of the Tuplev block residents have ended up selling their apartments, taking advantage of the real estate bubble. 

"Can you imagine? In the 50s, the price for an apartment in those blocks was around 80,000 pesetas (about $560), that is, if you paid about 380 pesetas ($3) a month for twenty years, it was yours," she explained.

Currently, some of these apartments overlooking the sea are sold at 300,000 euros, and the square meter is valued at more than 5,000 dollars. People can also make a lot of money by renting them on Airbnb and other vacation rental platforms, although Barcelona is leading a crackdown on this kind of activity in order to stop the uncontrolled expansion of tourism in the city. 

"It must be said that they were very well built, all exterior, with lots of natural light, and that is hard to find now," said Assumpta, before stopping to say "buenos días" to one of her neighbors, who was walking their dog.

A sea of death

On more than one occasion, Barcelona authorities have announced the intention to demolish these eight blocks for damaging the city seafront, which has been remodeled continuously since the 1990s. "In the old times this area was a field, 'El Campo,' as we called it," explained Assumpta, pointing to the area surrounding her house. "We planted tomatoes, peppers, everything," she recalled. While we talk - the benign sun of June heating our heads - tourists dressed in flipflops and Bermuda shorts walk behind us in the direction of the beach. But Assumpta does not care about the sea:

"The water is so disgusting, dirty. The Mediterranean Sea is the dirtiest sea on Earth, because it is a closed sea, with no way out," she said. "In addition, we have knocked it out. There is nothing left to fish," she adds, recalling that Poblenou was not only an industrial district, but also a fishing district. "You see that man there," she tells me, pointing to an old man in a sailor's cap who moves down the Rambla with the help of a walker, and whom she greets with an energetic "¡Buenos días, capitán!" (Good morning, captain!). "He's an old neighborhood fisherman. He always tell me that it's been years since he last fished anything," Assumpta said.

A few meters from her house, there is a tiny old square protected from the sun by the branches of a massive ombú. This quiet square gets busy at lunchtime, when people from all over Barcelona fill the terrace of restaurant Els Pescadors, (The Fishermen), one of the top seafood restaurants in Barcelona. "In the beginning, it was just a simple tavern, where the fishermen of Poblenou got together to eat grilled sardines," recalled Assumpta. "Then they started serving snacks, like cold-cuts and pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato, a popular Catalan dish) and over the years it has become a luxury restaurant. The food is fine yes, but - between you and me - it's not such a big deal,"  she smiled. Then she asked me: "Do you know how to cook?"

"Not really", I said. 

"Well, you should learn then. In life, you have to learn everything. Also, knowing how to cook will be of good help for your pocket, because your stews will taste better than those of any restaurant. At least that's what my husband used to tell me," she added, assuring me that she cooks really well. "When I got married I already knew how to cook some dishes, but as a good housewife I learned to cook many more," she said. And finally, she added the million dollar question: "Are you married?"

I said no, that I had a boyfriend for eight years, but he left me.

"Ay, you do not understand a thing, these young people today", she replied, holding my arm. "You quit relationships because you say that love is over. And, look, in life many things end, but love, precisely, does never end."

 
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