This is the story of how Somorrostro slum became the hip Barceloneta beach.
Barcelona is a city that embraces innovation, tourism, style and design. However, it wasn’t always like this. The city changed before and after The Olympic Games of 1992. One of the neighborhoods effected dramatically was the seafront avenue of Barceloneta. The story of how we went from Somorrostro slum to Barceloneta beach is worth to remember.
Somorrostro slum in the late fifties. To the left picture, the Montjuïc mountain can be seen in the background
During the decades after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), migration brought to Barcelona thousands of people from rural areas, mostly from southern Spain. Trying to improve their quality of life, these newcomers worked in the booming manufacturing industry and construction growth. The city could not provide enough housing for these people. So by 1950 around 20,000 shacks had already been built in different parts of Barcelona. Segregated shantytowns with no facilities but a strong atmosphere of solidarity. Can Valero by the Montjuïc mountain, Camp de la Bota, and Somorrostro by the beach, were just three of them. In the late fifties about 100,000 people, 7% of Barcelona’s population, lived in slums.
While you are walking down the seafront avenue of Barceloneta Beach and the Olympic Port Marina, with its vibrant atmosphere, casinos, restaurants, clubs and 5 star hotels, imagine that a slum existed there until late 60s, squeezed in between old factories, warehouses and the sea.
The neighborhood was known as Somorrostro. It was home to some 15.000 people and today it only exists in the memories of those who once lived there.
“We were poor but full of dignity, son”, says 82 year old Maria Luisa while smiling proudly. She was born next to Somorrostro, on the street behind the Olympic Port that nowadays is called Avenida Icaria. Today she lives in an apartment close to Sagrada Familia. She moved there in the late fifties with her husband and new born child. “I was working in a textile factory in Poblenou district – close to the modern Arts Hotel – since I was a child. My family didn’t have enough money, so I and my siblings had to assist with some income. When I was 25, I got married. I had been working already for more than 10 years”.
Daily life in Somorrostro was difficult, especially during the winter, because of its proximity to the sea. Waves battered the shacks whenever there was a storm. As a result, firefighters and ambulances were sent out to help residents on several occasions. Besides the lack of electricity and running water, the muddy streets of Somorrostro were a breeding ground for epidemics. Frequently, raw sewage and industrial wastewater ended up there. However, for many people from the countryside, living under these circumstances was their only option.
Maria Luisa’s parents came to Barcelona from a village in the rural part of Aragon region. During the economic boom of the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. They were working class people with little financial resources but with a big sense of community and hospitality.
“Everybody knew and supported each other. The conditions of life were difficult, but we were happy to have a slice of bread, a cup of soup. Occasionally we’d have some wine on the table for dinner”, continues Maria Luisa. “The shacks were made with wood plaster and material found around. A mixture of sand, cement and water was enough to keep the walls steady. But when the southeastern wind hit the shore, many shacks would be taken away by the waves”.
Maria Luisa’s storytelling of her childhood is strikingly vivid and lucid. “The wages were low, we didn’t have enough money to make it to the end of the month. The grocery shops in the neighborhood were selling their scarce variety of products on credit. We would purchase something and, if we didn’t have money, we’d pay the balance at the end of the month.”
The Somorrostro settlement was more widely known for the Gypsy community that lived there. Legendary flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya was born there in 1913. From a Gypsy family, Amaya became successful around the world because of her fast footwork. She perfected some of the steps that had previously only been performed by a select few male dancers. She also took part in several Hollywood films and was even received in the White House.
The transition from Somorrostro slum to Barceloneta beach begun in the late 50s. The beginning of the end of the Somorrostro shantytown started during the construction of Barcelona’s seafront promenade in 1957. In 1963 the neighborhood was portrayed in the movie Los Tarantos, which shows how people lived there. The end came in 1966, during the runup to the First Naval Week. Somorrostro beach was to host military maneuvers under the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Franco didn’t want U.S. 6th Fleet observers to see the poverty of a shantytown. The forced resettlement set a precedent in Barcelona that was to be followed several times.
This story – like that of all the other slums of Barcelona – became an «uncomfortable memory» for the authorities.
Until 2009, when a cycle of activities themed «Shantytowns, the informal city» were organized by Barcelona’s City Hall. The beach where once was the slum called Somorrostro, is now the site of the Olympic Village and the Olympic Port. These zones were built for the Olympic Games in 1992. Since 2011 a plaque dedicated to the shantytown honors the memory of Somorrostro. Sometimes the waves uncover some remains of the old neighborhood. This is a part of Barcelona’s history, our own history.
Barceloneta beach is part of the tour route during our city tours: https://brightsidetours.com/barcelona-tours/