COOL CARABANCHEL, DIVINE WHEN NOT FLAWED

Madridslider

Carabanchel 24: A six-story, energy-efficient building of 18 affordable housing units for young
homeowners in the neighborhood of Buenavista. A project of the municipal government
with multicolor panels wrapped around the building, it was inspired by Swiss painter
Paul Klee’s colorful abstract Tunisian landscapes, thus earning  “The Spirit
of Paul Klee” nomenclature. The vibrant turquoise, green, orange
and pink of the panels have ensured that Carabanchel 24
is one of the best-known affordable housing projects
in Europe, and certainly one of the most colorful.

by Rose Maramba

Artfully graffitied waste receptacle

 

Working-class Carabanchel, complete with a colorful population, a vibrant street life, a picturesque urban scene not overly sullied by unsightly graffiti, and a notorious prison to remind one that evil has a stealthy way of lurking in a democratic country, is one of the coolest barrios in the world!

 

A London-only magazine at the start, the award-winning culture, entertainment and events guide is present in more than 70 cities in ten languages and has a 33-million following worldwide.

When in 2023 Time Out asked 12,000 urban dwellers the world over to tell what in their opinion was the coolest spot in their city, and “grilled” (that’s Time Out word for it) homegrown folks to use their intimate knowledge of the neighborhood to come up with their own choice, Carabanchel, a “barrio” in southwestern Madrid, was elected one of the world’s coolest spots.

Gateway to one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world

Carabanchel: Strictly speaking, Carabanchel as a neighborhood is a misnomer. Carabanchel is a district in the city of Madrid, the most densely populated district. It comprises seven neighborhoods (barrios): Abantes, Buenavista, Comillas, Opañel, Puerta Bonita, San Isidro (closest to the heart of Madrileños), and Vista Alegre.

A peaceful coexistence? Surely it’s more than that! It’s what you sometimes get when you live in multiracial Carabanchel.

However, Carabanchel might as well be just one big neighborhood instead of an extensive district. Its seven barrios are homogenous in feel and ambiance. Hence, Time Out is treating it as a spot in the city. A neighborhood. With a very visible presence of immigrants, mostly from North Africa and Latin America but also East Europeans throughout the district, Carabanchel is singularly and distinctively picturesque in its demographic diversity. Almost a model barrio of multiracial coexistence.

Chulapos and chulapas of the Federación de Grupos Tradicionales Madrileños (Federation of Madrid Traditional Groups) posing proudly during the San Isidro festivities (2019)

Another Carabanchel feature is that it is redolent of history. It just can’t help it, having first appeared in written records in 1181. San Isidro Labrador, Madrid’s patron saint, was born in Carabanchel c. 1082. That long ago, Madrid wasn’t even a place in the Kingdom of Spain if only because there was no such kingdom. Madrid was part of the Taifa (Muslim kingdom) of Toledo. (It was only when Madrid became the seat of power during the time of King Felipe II that what is now the Spanish capital came into its own. The Spanish king, of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, decided to establish his Court in 1522 in what has since then been referred to as the Villa y Corte de Madrid, roughly the Madrid Town and Court).

Lawyer and judge Manuela Carmena Castrillo, while serving as mayor of Madrid, dances the chotis at a San Isidro verbena

San Isidro’s feast day on the 15th of May is a much-awaited religious and gastronomy festival in Carabanchel topped off with a very animated verbena where many participants from all over Madrid dress to kill in the traditional chulapa and chulapo (native woman and man’s) costume. The epicenter of the whole load of festivities is the Pradera de San Isidro (San Isidro’s Meadow).

There is hardly any other district/barrio in Madrid that is as castizo (true-blue traditional) as Carabanchel.

Looted and ravaged Carabanchel Prison just before it was demolished in 2008

Apart from its long history and the vibrant mix of its foreign and native population, another earmark of Carabanchel is, unfortunately, the Carabanchel Prison which colors one’s perception of the district even today. The Carabanchel Prison, whose construction between 1940 and 1944 was forced upon political prisoners of the newly established Franco dictatorship, was one of Europe’s biggest and most notorious prisons. And even though the prison had been decommissioned in 1998, two decades after democracy was restored in Spain, leaving no room for that kind of institution, the mere fact that it once existed in the barrio haunts and stigmatizes Carabanchel.

Thousands of inmates, be they political prisoners, trade unionists, homosexuals, or terrorists, walked into the ugly confines of the prison; few came out alive. Executions, torture, abuse, and unpunished accidental deaths defined the existence of the Carabanchel Prison. Before it was demolished in 2008, not without much controversy, with Carabanchel folk protesting against alleged real-estate speculation, it was heavily looted. A kind of protest against the brutal repression of the old regime.

Good old bars

And yet, ignoring its historical past, ugly or delightful, is not on the cards for Carabanchel. While this barrio castizo is slowly but surely gaining a firm foothold in a modern milieu and, some fear, getting gentrified, Carabanchel retains its “localness”, thereby preserving its definitive character. Locals are proud to point out that families stay foot in the barrio, from generation to generation. However, while the stalwart old guard is sticking to its customs in its old haunts, people from the outside are flocking in, helping themselves to what is temptingly on offer locally and at the same time enriching the culture in the barrio.  It seems Carabanchel has been morphing into Madrid’s So-Ho while nobody was looking. Slick art galleries and hotspots of creative design are making their presence felt.

“Dog Bless You” exhibition by Juan de Morenilla in Carabanchel’s VETA Galería. VETA is Madrid’s largest contemporary art gallery and participates in national and international exhibitions such as the one held last March 2024 at Hong Kong’s H Queen, home to non-traditional spaces for art exhibitions.

Artists are definitely among those who are moving in when they aren’t homegrown and have been there for decades. Oh, and before one gets the idea that Carabanchel is all bars,  art studios and abandoned prisons, this district has its fair share of green open-air spaces to stroll in or simply to park one’s self among trees and blossoms. Los Jardines de los Palacios de la Finca Vista Alegre (The Gardens of the Vista Alegre Palaces), declared in 2018 by the regional government of Madrid as an Asset of Cultural Interest under the category of Historic Garden, deserves a special mention.

The historical park-size Gardens of Vista Alegre

Going back to Time Out’s 2023 cool neighborhood survey, Carbanchel is third to Laureles in Colombia’s city of Midellín, and Dublin’s Smithfield, first and second places respectively. The world’s fourth to tenth coolest neighborhoods are Havnen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Sheung Wan in Hong Kong; Brunswick East in Melbourne, Australia; Mid-City in New Orleans; Isola in Milan, Italy; West in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Tomigaya in Tokyo, Japan.

Gloria & Mila in the Vsta Alegre Park

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Acknowledgment: Our thanks to Gloria and Mila who unstintingly shared with us the scenic beauty and the spirit of the Vista Alegre, Carabanchel’s biggest barrio. ¡Un millón de gracias!

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Images
>Featured image/xGaztelu, C C BY-SA3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
>Graffitied waste receptacle/©Jack Wright
>Time Out London cover/Time Out Images, CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikipedia
>Carabanchel Metro station/Liezel Abdala
>More than peaceful coexistence/©Jack Wright. All rights reserved.
>Federation of Traditional Groups/Diario de Madrid-Ayuntamiento de Madrid, CC BY4.0
>Madrid mayor dancing at verbena/Ayuntamiento de Madrid
>Carabanchel Prison section/Mánel, CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons
>Old Bars/Liezel Abdala

>”Dog Bless You” exhibition in VETA Galería courtesy VETA Galería
>Gardens of Vista Alegre/©Jack Wright
>Gloria&Mila/©Jack Wright