Damn paradox: the Las Letras neighborhood does not have a library. The streets are adorned with literary quotes in gold from the classics of the Golden Age and Romanticism, but no one can borrow a book if it is not in La Latina or in Retiro, where the nearest libraries are. In Madrid, 86 other neighborhoods such as Las Letras suffer from the library blackout. In reality, Las Letras does not have any public endowment except for a saturated health center, which has provided provisional care for 24,000 health cards for thirty years in a basement with no ventilation or emergency exit or elevator to go down to the lower floor. “If an elderly person needs to go to a consultation and cannot go down the stairs, they have to carry them by hand,” says Víctor Rey, president of the neighborhood association of the neighborhood who today has reasons to toast.
La Ingobernable, the symbol of Almeida’s crusade against the occupation: “It is his electoral promise and he wants to make a profit”
– We have not won the lottery! Say two neighbors who go down one of the streets of this quiet neighborhood trapped between the Retiro park and the Plaza Mayor, between Atocha street and Moratín. Half past eleven. They are punctual for their coffee date at ‘Matilda’, the bar that Fernando runs and that today goes out to greet his loyal neighbors on the street to congratulate them with open arms.
– Have you heard?!, Asks Fernando.
– About what?
– That they are going to set up the health center down there!
– In La Ingobernable? Great! Finally!
– It won’t be an innocent, no? One of the neighbors responds.
– No, it was announced last night [por el lunes, cuando se conoció el acuerdo entre PP, Ciudadanos y los díscolos de Más Madrid para sacar adelante los presupuestos municipales para 2022], answers Fernando.
– So, yes we have won the lottery! Although it was thanks to the agreement of the Carmena dissidents and the rejection of Vox, one of them points out, biting her tongue so as not to go further in front of a stranger.
– We will organize a festival, right? Asks one of them.
– The day we have the signature of the City Council and the infections are not triggered, we will celebrate it in the street, says Víctor Rey.
– Luckily, because I’m up to the point of protesting, singing and dancing.
They will celebrate it with a coffee at the bar. No Christmas bubbles. They are more from the sidewalk of the working class than of the privileged class. This neighborhood is an island that separates the world of the privileged from the rest, crossed over and over again by tourists unrelated to the claims. This morning in ‘Matilde’ a toast is offered to one who has taken people from their homes in up to three demonstrations. The Mixed Group of the City Council has forced Mayor Martínez-Almeida to fulfill his electoral promise and provide the neighborhood with a decent health center and a library, in the old self-managed building known as ‘La ungovernable’. Once Vox announced to withdraw its support, the mayor of the PP sought the votes of the former councilors of Más Madrid to approve the budgets for next year. A three-way political carom that points to a happy ending on this matter.
A six-year struggle
This is the chronicle of a resigned neighborhood that woke up and refused to be a bed for tourists. That was the first campaign they launched as an association. “We are in danger of extinction,” said the banners that hung four years ago and that can still be seen in some windows in the area. Gentrification hit the gas in an aging neighborhood in the heart of the city, the cobbled streets were filled with suitcases that came and went and the social fabric disappeared. “We could not create a community, we did not even have a space to meet and be able to talk about our needs to complain to the City Council,” says Víctor Rey.
They found that meeting place when the doors of ‘La Ingobernable’ were opened, in the building that was a UNED delegation and which is located at the confluence of Calle del Gobernador and Paseo del Prado. In November 2019, the Police evicted the self-managed social center, with José Luis Martínez-Almeida already mayor. After four years of cooperative work with the neighborhood, the mayor insulted the members of ‘La Ingobernable’, calling them “faces.”
The councilor promised in the campaign a health center and a library for the residents of Las Letras in the building, but since he was elected as mayor, thanks to the support of Ciudadanos and Vox, he had not shown interest in complying with his word. First he thought of donating it to the Hispano-Jewish Foundation for a museum, then the Patrizia Sandretto Foundation appeared … Until today. The residents say that the 3,400-square-meter building will be divided into two: one part will be destined for the health center, which will be recovered and paid for by the Community of Madrid; and the other will be for the neighborhood to decide what to do in it. “We have 1,700 square meters and 300,000 euros for the reform that they have promised in the pact,” says Rey.
A living space for the neighborhood
What will they dedicate that space that corresponds to the neighborhood? Víctor Rey and Sara Robles comment that it will have three pillars: youth, childhood and the elderly. For the former, they want to create a new space inspired by a model they discovered in 2018. “It is a living library, a non-traditional model, for the exchange of books. We started it in the courtyard of Medialab Prado with two boxes of fruit with some books and we ended up assembling shelves. We had to begin to classify them from the volume of copies that people brought to take others. I put messages inside. It was active for more than two years, until the pandemic, ”says Robles. He takes out his mobile and shows some photos of those days. “This is the origin of the public library in the Las Letras neighborhood. Put down your book, ”said the home-made welcome sign.
They will also incorporate a reading room so that they study and do not have to go to the La Latina or Retiro library to prepare their exams. “We want things to happen, for there to be activity and workshops. A living proposal ”, says Rey. For children, they will create an area where the girls and boys of the Palacio Valdés public school, with just over 200 students, can attend. “They don’t have a green area nearby where they can go to play at the start. We will set up a toy library for them like there was with ‘La Ingobernable’, thanks to the AMPA ”. Víctor Rey is happy with the years of occupation of the abandoned building: ‘La Ingobernable’ has left many things that have benefited the neighborhood, such as meeting spaces ”, he acknowledges. Finally, the neighbors will create a space for the elderly, something similar to a day center.
A neighbor climbs one of these slopes laden with laundry detergent and fabric softener. In one of his hands he carries the strap that ties his dog. “Don’t screw me! We finally made it! ”. He didn’t know anything and he says we’ve made his day. He came to the neighborhood twenty years ago from Argentina. “This is very good news. Most of the residents do not go to that health center, but to Carrera de San Jerónimo because this center is saturated, it is small and does not have the minimum conditions ”, he comments. In the health center there is no longer a pediatric service. They also don’t have windows to ventilate.
Feeling of victory
For more than twenty years, the Corzón art store and framing workshop has occupied one of the most emblematic corners of the neighborhood. It is the place attached to the building that was occupied. “We never had a problem with them. They were very kind, they did not give problems. Once there was a water leak and they offered to fix it. They did a lot for the neighborhood. It was time for the City Council to hand over that building to the neighbors, because they only wanted to speculate with it. We have finally won, ”says the Corzón saleswoman. He assures that they needed it because their plans were to blow it up for tourism.
A milestone that made them get up comes to the memory of the neighbors we asked. It was 2015, the last plenary session of the City Council of Ana Botella as mayor before the elections that gave the mayoralty to Manuela Carmena. Bottle signed the free transfer for 75 years of the old UNED building to the Emilio Ambasz Foundation. Nobody knew the Argentine architect but he would build there, on the gold mile of art, a museum in honor of himself: 3,400 square meters for free, thanks to the architect’s close friendship with the “clan of Valladolid”, led by Miguel Ángel Cortés , former Secretary of State for Culture between 1996 and 2000 with former President José María Aznar. José Pedro Pérez-Llorca, a man loyal to the PP that Mariano Rajoy appointed president of the Prado Museum Board of Trustees, was the lawyer who managed the interests of Ambasz.
Bottle lowered the protection of the building so that the new owner could tear it down in a month and do whatever he wanted on that lot. The municipal elections of 2015 brought Manuela Carmena and ‘La Ingobernable’ was born. The lawyer Pérez-Llorca pointed out before the new mayor paralyzed the project that the revocation was not possible because there was “an administrative concession”. To break it, the City Council compensated the Argentine architect with 1.4 million euros. The idea was to allocate part of the building to the women’s library, with the funds of the librarian Marisa Mediavilla, made up of almost 30,000 volumes. Nothing was done of everything planned. The new elections and the mayoralty of Martínez-Almeida arrived.
It is a day of peace and quiet in the neighborhood that looks like a town, as described by a real estate worker who sells and rents apartments in the area. He says that this year has been very good for sales, that they no longer find investors in tourist rental but people who want to go live in the neighborhood. Now, on Fúcar street, the foundations of what will be a sports center are being raised. The rebellious neighbors have managed to stop the exodus. “We have learned not to celebrate ahead of time. Until I see it voted and signed, I will not go out to celebrate it ”, Víctor Rey warns with a huge smile on his face.