C/ Nou de la Rambla is the main street of what was once Europe’s biggest red light district, the section of the Raval nearest the sea and the sailors. It was called the Barri Xinès, but not because of any Chinese immigrants: a journalist named Àngel Marsá, having read the lurid descriptions of Chinatown in San Francisco, applied it to this roughest and most piquant of all Barcelona’s slums, and the name has stuck around like herpes.
Its huddled masses were painted by Isidre Nonell, and then by the impoverished young Picasso, who had his first studio here and who used the district’s poor, mad, blind and ‘mothers whose milk has dried up’ as the subjects for his Blue Period. Connoisseurs of the low life have immortalized it in other ways, most famously Jean Genet, who recorded his experiences as a rent boy, drag artist and thief in his Thief’s Journal. (He’s recently been remembered in the new Plaça Jean Genet, at the corner of Avinguda de les Drassanes and C/ Arc del Teatre). Much to the disgust of proper Barcelona, the notoriety of the Barri Xinès brought thousands of tourists to peep up the city’s skirts instead of to the Eixample, where they could have been admiring its fancy dress.
Although still insalubrious and unsafe after dark, the Barri Xinès has been so decaffeinated that neither Genet nor Picasso would recognize it today. A series of nasty heroin-related deaths led to a massive clean-up before the Olympics and to the closing and demolition of the worst flophouses. Old blocks of flats are being restored; new ones are being built. In the 1960s, Porcioles, the mayor appointed by Franco, took the first steps in cleaning up the slum by driving Avinguda de les Drassanes up from the sea to Nou de la Rambla (a project that’s being continued by the Ajuntament to C/ de l’Hospital) and by planting a lofty eyesore, the Edifici Colom, right on the site of the most notorious brothel, Can Manco. A bit up from here, the once crapulous C/ del Cid leads to the Mercat del Carme, which was built over a school for thieves.
Further north, the Rambla de Raval represents Barcelona’s urban planners’ ongoing efforts to transform the Raval into a more airy, liveable place. Several blocks of dilapidated housing were demolished in 2000 to make way for this wide, new, tree-lined Rambla, stretching from Plaça de Pere Coromines (named after an Anarchist writer of the 1890s) to C/ de l’Hospital.
While it still lacks café life and the trees look a little too transplanted, the Rambla has promise, and it has already become a gathering point for the local community. Fernando Botero’s bronze sumo wrestler-cat, the Gat de Raval (1981) was recently moved here; it is a favourite with the local kids, who scramble all over it.
The streets around the Rambla de Raval may look grim and eerily quiet today, but there's a quiet transformation going on: Carrer de la Riereta, just a block west, is one of the grimmest, but there are over forty artists working in its old workshop spaces.
metro: Liceu, Paral.lel
Images by: Laura Padgett