Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On Barrios and Ghettos

Yesterday we met with a Sociologist of immigration from the Complutense University in Madrid, who I had heard speak at a conference on "the challenge of big cities in the context of crisis: present and future of the children of immigration." We talked with him at length about the differences in the contexts of immigration in Spain and the U.S. Most interesting to me was the issue of ethnic barrios. A major narrative here in Madrid (that was prevalent at the conference) is that there are no ghettos/ethnic barrios here, and therefore there are fewer conflicts and immigrants are better integrated. I am naturally skeptical of this argument from my U.S. context, both because of the insinuation that ethnic barrios are inherently negative and the suggestion (that seems too rosy to me) that immigrants are well integrated here. I am more inclined to believe that the absence of ethnic barrios leads to a weakening of ethnic identity and solidarity, which is ultimately detrimental to positive integration. Without ethnic barrios, where would rights-based activism and social movements come from? So I pressed our friend on this issue, asking him whether the absence of ethnic barrios wasn’t simply a question of time and the newness of immigration here (still in the first generation). He answered, “We’re never going to have ethnic barrios like the kind you have in the U.S. here in Spain.” He went on to give the example of Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona. There is a big concentration of Pakistanis in El Raval, but that does not make El Raval a Pakistani neighborhood. It is a tourist center with popular restaurants of all kinds. Like El Raval, most city centers in Spain have mixed neighborhoods, filled with young people at night, tourists, artists, immigrants and bohemians. “There is no ‘white flight’ here,” he explained. And that’s when it dawned on me. No white flight! The absence of ethnic ghettos is not the absence of ethnic concentration; it is the absence of white flight. Immigrants are concentrated in central city neighborhoods, but Spaniards have not abandoned these neighborhoods; nor will they ever, Spaniards insist. Lavapiés and Malasaña, where we live, are two great examples in Madrid. They are points of reception and concentration of immigrants, but they continue to be populated and visited by Spaniards of all kinds, for their vibrant night life (Malasaña) and ‘exotic’ ethnic restaurants of all kinds (Lavapiés). Having spent countless hours on the plazas and sidewalk terrazas of Malasaña, it does seem hard to believe that Spaniards would give this up any time soon. City street life, or “la vida en la calle” as our friends like to say, is simply too integral to the Madrileño identity to be abandoned at the first wave of ethnic migration. So maybe the historical use, and cultural premium, of urban public space—crowded, mixed, noisy, vibrant—the proud tradition of rubbing shoulders—guards against the abandonment and isolation that have created the American ghetto. Is this too rosy a view?


  1. I think your friend has it right about the lack of white flight. I think the other side of the coin is the relative insignificance of suburbia and the suburban dream in Europe: the McMansion is a rare, not a mainstream phenomenon. White flight was exacerbated in the US because immigration and integration occurred at the same time as low fuel costs, the interstate highway system, and the concomitant explosion of cheap, large, modern suburban homes. I agree with your rosy view in some ways (people love their public spaces) but I don't think Spaniards or other Europeans are above such temptation either. They're certainly not above anti-immigrant animosity - I am still amazed at the depth and openness of casual racism among Italians...

    1. Absolutely, anti-immigrant sentiment is alive and well (and openly endorsed by some in the PP). And yet, I can't see the government subsidizing highway construction and fuel to create the same confluence of forces that facilitated white flight in the US. So I just wonder, how does the valuing of urban public space change the immigrant dynamic over the long run? Will Spain eventually see the suburban ghettos that Paris has?