El Cabanyal, Valencia’s last window to the Mediterranean | Fèlix Beltran
El Cabanyal, Valencia’s last window to the Mediterranean Print
Fèlix Beltran   
The eyes of the Spanish society have been once again focused on Valencia’s neighbourhood, El Cabanyal during the past weeks. The reason behind this interest was the disproportionate action of the Spanish National and Local Police against the demonstrators who had hit the streets of this old fishermen quarter to protest against the demolition of some of the neighbourhood houses. According to the local government, such a demolition can be interpreted as the first step towards the partial destruction of this maritime district of the city in benefit of a “regeneration”.
El Cabanyal, Valencia’s last window to the Mediterranean | Fèlix Beltran
After walking around for a while through El Cabanyal, one can immediately realise that some kind of measures should be taken. Valencia’s City Council with popular mayoress Rita Barberà in the lead, has previewed a budget of 60 million euros to demolish more than 450 houses in the near future rather than investing part of the sum in the urban renewal of the houses in the neighbourhood. The lack of public services aims at making the area look less attractive. In other words, it is easier to “regenerate” a quarter in a project that plans to enlarge the avenue of Blasco Ibáñez to connect the city centre to the coastline dividing El Cabanyal in two parts destructing most of its valuable houses.

The members of the active platform Salvem El Cabanyal (Save El Cabanyal) prefer “rehabilitation” rather than “regeneration”. “Don’t demolish the houses, rehabilitate the quarter” vows one of the many voices that has joined this popular initiative since it was created in 1998. Salvem El Cabanyal was initiated by neighbours, shopkeepers, opposition political parties and cultural associations as a reaction to the City Council’s project. This movement aims to fight against social injustice, that is making people move from their own neighbourhood for the sake of conservation and “rehabilitation” of El Cabanyal rather than plundering its historic, artistic and social heritage.

El Cabanyal, Valencia’s last window to the Mediterranean | Fèlix BeltranEl Cabanyal’s history
The creation of the district of El Cabanyal dates back to the 13th century, when a group of fishermen settled here. It was the trade era and the city of Valencia was starting to flourish thanks to its openness to the Mediterranean. These fishermen, as well as the sailors who used to live in the area by that time were the ones who built up the barraques , the traditional Valencian houses built mainly in rural areas. They can still be seen in the outskirts of the city and in some villages of the region.

For many years, El Cabanyal was an independent municipality also known as Poble Nou de la Mar (New Village of the Sea). Therefore, its origin could not been understood without the importance of the fishermen trade and sailors and the proximity of the borough to the sea. Nevertheless, the neighbourhood was not officially given the name of El Cabanyal before the end of the 15th century.

The above named barraques were East-West oriented in order to make the most of the sun light and benefit from the refreshing sea breeze in summer. Due to its privileged location next to the seacoast, El Cabanyal soon became a famous summer vacation place for Valencia’s inhabitants. By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th the district became more distinctive.

The owners of the houses in the neighbourhood followed up and copied the modern tendencies coming from the capital. They adopted the moulding, woodwork and frameworks in undulating motives as well as the coloured tiles on the facades. The barraques turned out to be houses of two or three floors separated from each other by narrow streets perpendicular to the sea. All these elements have made El Cabanyal one of the most interesting quarters in Valencia. As interesting as El Carme located in the old city center.

Never-ending dispute
It is not that hard to understand that the local Valencian government declared El Cabanyal Bien de Interés Cultural (Heritage of Cultural Interest), also known as BIC, in 1993. Even though the idea of launching a new urban plan for the area had been in mind since 1988, the City Council of Valencia made it official in 1998 with the announcement of the Blasco Ibáñez’s Avenue’s enlargement. A project that implied the destruction of El Cabanyal as it is known today, destructing part, if not all, of its cultural heritage by demolishing houses and adding blocks of cement on both sides of the new enlarged avenue, literally cutting the core of the quarter in two. That same year, the platform Salvem El Cabanyal was born.

El Cabanyal, Valencia’s last window to the Mediterranean | Fèlix BeltranSince then, the situation has been full of ups and downs, especially regarding judicial implications. The High Court of Justice of the Valencian Community has countersigned several times the local authorities’ position towards the demolition and “regeneration” of the borough. It is important to point out though that the president of this body is a close friend of Francisco Camps, the elected president of the Valencian Community and head of the Popular Party in the region. A president that it is also currently under investigation for a corruption case that affects many elected public offices in the whole Valencian region.

On the other hand there is the General Council of the Judicial Power and the Supreme Court of Spain, both higher bodies than the High Court of Justice of the Valencian Community, that have denied the local Valencian government the capacity to proceed with the urban planning. Furthermore, the Ministry of Culture depending on the central government ruled by the Socialist Party has strongly expressed its position against the continuation of the works in El Cabanyal until an agreed solution is found. Valencian authorities defied the central government and the judicial orders one more time by passing a quick late law in the local parliament allowing the demolition. This lead to the appearance of the bulldozers and police officers in the maritime district some weeks ago. The use of violence to keep the demonstrators gathered in El Cabanyal to stop the demolition reminded several people the Spain of old times. The central government described the local law as unconstitutional and asked for the situation’s clarification. The local government in Valencia claims the central government to be responsible for what is happening in the quarter. A never-ending dispute has been going on between the local government in Valencia and the central government of Mr Zapatero and his Vice-president María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, right hand of the president and above all Valencian.

“El Cabanyal resists”
Given the circumstances, it seems to be rather difficult to find a solution for the complicated situation in El Cabanyal. Several architects and urban planners in Spain have vowed for another “regeneration” of the quarter; important associations such as the Architects Association of Valencia and prestigious city planners and like Oriol Bohigas, Manuel Portaceli, Giorgio Grassi or Carlos Salvadores. If another design could be outlined, Blasco Ibáñez’s Avenue could be enlarged without demolishing the houses. It looks as if there are many hidden interests; it is not the first time that an urban plan comes up as the perfect excuse to build up blocks of expensive apartments in the Spanish coast.

However, there are some neighbours in the area that support the demolition. “We have been waiting for someone to take action here for a very long time. The quarter is not habitable any more” states a retired man at the door of a small traditional bar of the borough. One can easily see that El Cabanyal has been abandoned by the authorities for the last few years. Rubbish collection and urban cleaning is quite irregular and public transport inefficient. There is no doubt about the fact the something needs to be done in El Cabanyal.
El Cabanyal, Valencia’s last window to the Mediterranean | Fèlix Beltran
It is ironic that the avenue to be enlarged dividing the quarter in two carries the same name as Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, the most famous Valencian novelists of the beginning of the last century. Many characters and descriptions of the Blasco Ibáñez’s books are based on this part of the city. Same thing as the Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla. The artist actually painted many of his works in El Cabanyal, taking the borough and beach scenes as main topics in his paintings throughout his career.

At this stage, the future of El Cabanyal still remains unknown. The latest news was the decision of the Constitutional Court of Spain to stop the demolition of the houses some weeks ago. Nobody knows how the situation will evolve. It is uncertain how the local authorities will proceed despite the numerous court decisions and whether the central government will be keen on stopping further unconstitutional actions. One thing seems to be sure, the members of Salvem El Cabanyal will not stop fighting for the “rehabilitation” of their quarter. “No more speculation” or “Cabanyal resists” can still be read on some of the walls in the streets of this historical maritime district. Whatever happens, El Cabanyal still remains Valencia’s last window to the Mediterranean.

Fèlix Beltran
(08/06/2010)


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