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Old City Turns on Its Tradition : Olympics: Barcelona used the Games to modernize itself, destroying homes and businesses of its workers.

August 12, 1992|SANDRA ANN HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Sandra Ann Harris is a free-lance writer living in Barcelona on a Fulbright scholarship

BARCELONA — The Barcelona Games have come and gone, leaving both impressions and scars on this city. It used to be a city with its back to the sea, but now, according to seaside residents adjacent to the Olympic village, it has turned its back on the traditional backbone of Barcelona--the working class.

Palm trees have replaced smokestacks along the Barcelona waterfront. Sandy beaches have replaced train tracks. And there is more sand where more than two dozen seafood restaurants once stood.

It's all part of a plan to turn the city's dirty seaside, industry's back yard and garbage dump for more than 100 years, into an upscale development.

But big cities such as Barcelona step heavily, and two seaside neighborhoods got caught underfoot.

"The poor have always lived on the waterfront near the ports in Barcelona," restaurant owner Camilo Costa said. "The rich were on the surrounding hillsides, but now they're coming down from their perches and pushing the working class out."

Lower-income residents in La Barceloneta and Poblenou, waterfront barrios immediately north of Barcelona's main port, are clearly Olympic victims, according to sociologist Elisabet Tejero of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. They are paying dearly--with their businesses and homes--for the city's efforts to sit pretty in the international eye.

Twenty-seven seafood restaurants, famous for their shack-like appearances and beautiful views of the Mediterranean, were demolished this year in La Barceloneta, the fishermen's barrio, to make way for a beach and palm trees.

Orphaned by demolition of its neighbors and sitting uncomfortably next to a glaring patch of new sand, Costa's restaurant is the lone survivor. Eminent domain proceedings against the restaurant have bogged down, and its lease on life has been extended for maybe a few months more.

"It makes me so sad, so mad," said Costa, 54. "I grew up here as a boy, lived in what is now the pantry and worked in the restaurant my whole life. My father started the restaurant out as a shack on the beach during the summer of 1930, and it grew into a Barcelona tradition."

This humble barrio is sandwiched between the Olympic village to the north and the new port where the cruise ships for VIP Olympic guests were stationed to the south.

Although La Barceloneta always has been located close to Barcelona's center, until recently the barrio was treated as a poor relative.

The demolition of restaurant row, however, has cleaned up La Barceloneta's image and opened access to the central city. The improvements are having the effect of "soap in a hot bath," Costas said. The economic climate is "foaming" with activity.

Under the burden of rising property taxes and strict rent-control laws that hold apartment rents to as little as $5 a month, landlords are eager to cash in on the boom.

Economic pressure is on, and residents in La Barceloneta see a tide of change coming to their traditional fishing neighborhood.

Change is even more dramatic in the industrial barrio of Poblenou, which was built in the mid-1800s when workers came to join Barcelona's industrial revolution.

These days, Poblenou's layout looks like a crazy quilt under repair--mismatched, old and new fabric scraps pieced together in an irregular pattern. Balconies sag on old apartment buildings.

Poblenou was cut off from Barcelona's center, physically and spiritually, until pre-Olympic revitalization projects began. For more than 100 years, Poblenou was boxed in by a river, a major highway and two sets of train tracks, one cutting between the barrio and the seaside.

"Poblenou was the armpit of Barcelona," said Javier Roca, who has lived there for 33 years. "The beach was filled with industrial waste, empty oil barrels, metal pipes, chunks of concrete, animal parts from the slaughterhouse. It was so bad that you couldn't even walk down here. Now my dog and I come every morning and night to take a stroll and see friends. It's beautiful."

The tracks have been moved, the beach cleaned and a seaside greenbelt has been planted. Residents have taken quickly to their new seaside. On Sunday evenings, the boardwalks are crowded with ambling senior citizens and stroller-pushing families.

Roca appreciates the beautiful changes but is fearful for his future.

"Everyone wants to live in Poblenou now," the 63-year-old retiree said. He has been paying only $60 a month for the three-bedroom apartment he rents in one of the high-rises facing the Mediterranean, but city plans call for the demolition of his building and a half-dozen more to make way for upscale apartment complexes.

Roca has friends who were forced out. The city took the land and compensated renters, based on their rental costs, for the hardship. Land owners made out OK, Roca said, but renters, many of them senior citizens with fixed incomes who planned to live out their days in the cheap shacks with fixed rents, had to move out of the city to find affordable housing.

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