The Raval is the most contrasting area in Barcelona. Depending on who you ask the Raval can be many things for many people. Some still consider it the Barrio Chino, a marginalized and dangerous neighborhood that is best to be avoided especially at night. Others believe that it is at the vanguard for design and contemporary art. There are many aspects to the Raval, this is mainly due to it’s dark history and the efforts being made to turn it into a chic neighborhood just like the Born is now.
Up until the 18th century the Raval was mostly comprised of fields and farms that harvested the crops for the rest of the city. This was the case until the industrial revolution hit Barcelona. The main industry during this revolution was the textile industry and most of the new factories were built in the Raval taking advantage of all the empty land. With these new factories came a massive wave of immigration that is still noticeable in todays raval where over 47% of it’s population in foreign.
To fit these new immigrants into the city, the Raval began a very rapid construction without using any urban criteria, the houses were frail and there was a big lack of hygiene in what quickly came to be known as the Barrio chino. This lack of hygiene brought many diseases into the Raval as well as an escalating drug trade and prostitution and it turned into a marginalized ghetto which the rest of the population avoided at all costs.
The Raval remained a poor and dangerous neighborhood up until the 92 Barcelona Olympics when the city decided that it needed to clean up some of the key areas of the city. Mainly the waterfront, and the Raval. Many of the old housings were torn down and new ones were erected and the city cracked down on a lot of the drug trade and the crime that took place in the old Barrio Chino. Ever since the 92 Olympics the Raval is stuck in between two worlds. The remnants of the old Barrio Chino are still very visible, you don’t have to look very hard to find extreme poverty, drugs and prostitution, and the Raval is still also focal point for immigration. However the old Raval now shares a space with the new.
Many public and private initiatives have been taken to transform the Raval, most noticeably the MACBA and the CCCB.
Starting in the year 1994 up until today the Raval has turned into an important center for art and design. This began with the inauguration of the CCCB in the year 94. The Center for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona is maybe the best museum in all of Barcelona, with an ever changing listing of temporary exhibitions, no two are alike and all of them interesting. It is also housed in one of the most impressive and beautiful buildings of the city. The Pati de les Dones and the old Casa de la Caritat, an old charity house that clothed and fed the poor back in the 19th century has now been transformed into a state of the art exhibition and conference center with it’s central square being one of the most peaceful and relaxing spaces in Barcelona.
After the CCCB came the MACBA, which is the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona. This big white building is probably the most emblematic of the Raval. It was designed by the architect Richard Meier. This museum was inaugurated one year after the CCCB, it was originally criticized for being an empty box, meaning it was nice on the outside but there was no art inside. Now the MACBA has built up it’s permanent collection, and also houses many temporary exhibitions. If someone wants to see what the Raval is today, they only have to spend some time in the Plaça del Angels in front of the MACBA. This is where the two worlds collide. Since the square in front of the museum is private property the museum allows for people to skateboard there, they also allow people to drink, and they allow the homeless to use the space around the museum to sleep and to live.
This means that you often see the young students, the tourists and the artists sitting almost side by side with the poor and the homeless, and it is a fascinating sight for anyone seeing it for the first time.
Along with these two art centers many more have been built up around the Raval, such as the FAD which is design center which is free to enter, and many small art galleries. The crowds that the museums attract have also caused the opening of many stylish bars and stores that cater to the same target all round the Raval giving it a great night life.
As well as the Museums, Bars, and Shops many public constructions are underway to gentrify the Raval even more. The new Filmoteca de Catalunya is being built right next to the Rambla del Raval, as well as a new Library to accompany the already opened four star hotel which have been strategically placed around one of the poorest and most dangerous streets in the city, carrer de San Pau.
This in some way is forcing the Ajuntament to pay more attention to the Raval and obliges them to clean up this historic neighborhood if they want people to feel safe and to visit all these new establishments that the Raval has to offer.
Today this area of the city is at a crossroads, and the future could go either way. The future could be bright for the Raval if the drive is there, because the pieces are in place but there is still a long way to go in order for the Raval to be all that it can be.