Cities

Where the siesta spirit is no more

David Baird February 26 1979
Cities

Where the siesta spirit is no more

David Baird February 26 1979

Where the siesta spirit is no more

Cities

Hemingway would surely cry into his wine if he could see it. No need to ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for the old Madrid where the wine was strong, the matadors brave and the siestas lasted forever. The Madrid where traffic was sparse and life had a small-town intimacy and you could live like a pasha on the change left over from Paris. Heaven help $5-a-day travellers in the Spanish capital today. Better that they should rush on to Crete or Marrakesh. Gone are most of the history-steeped cafés with their marbletopped tables around which some of Spain’s keenest minds gathered for intellectual debate. Fine old buildings have tumbled into dust. Las Ventas bull ring is up for auction. Chrome and glass have replaced wrought iron and carved stone. Modern Madrid is seized by disco fever, studded with hamburger joints, splintered by noise. The proud Gran Via—once a leisurely thoroughfare—is an inferno of buses and cars. Madrid has for better or—as many would claim—for worse, caught up with the 20th century.

Last week Madrileños were wondering whether it was worth it. Following the recent terrorist killings of three policemen, a judge and the military governor, they are used to the sight of guntoting police patrols. They have become accustomed to suffering the extreme pollution of a city once proud of its Velázquez blue skies. They hardly bat an eyelid at political demonstrations or the wave of pornography that has rolled over cinemas and nightclubs. But in the past few weeks they have suffered strikes by garbage collectors, newspaper printers, gas company employees, restaurant and hotel staff, hospital interns, automobile factory employees, metal and construction workers. For some the daily frustrations are becoming too much. Tempers boil over frequently when municipal tow trucks haul away illegally parked vehicles, averaging 300 a day. This has recently led to violent confrontations between drivers and tow truck workers, causing even more traffic chaos. Socialist candidate for mayor, Tierno Galvan, a respected academic, notes gloomily: “Today Madrid is ruled by noise and contamination and the rats below.”

Most of the city’s problems spring from its dramatic growth, from only 800,000 inhabitants in 1940 to close to four million today. Poverty-stricken rural workers flocked to the city seeking employment. Thousands still exist in more than 40,000 shacks on the city’s fringes, though most have found homes in scores of high-rise suburbs, many of which lack paved streets, parks and essential amenities. Last month residents of San Bias suburb marched in protest at the lack of medical facilities—the local clinic intended for 70,000 people has to serve 600,000. In the heart of Madrid

the fine avenues of Castellana and Generalisimo Franco are dominated by a jumble of lofty bank and insurance buildings. And a tower block destroys the vista toward the 200-year-old

archway, the Puerta de Alcalá built by King Carlos III who gave the city some of its noblest monuments. But since the coming of democracy the speculators who cheerfully ignored regulations during General Franco’s regime have been on the retreat. In a new mood of civic pride, pressure groups are trying to repair the damage and impose stiff planning regulations.

“Things have changed,” mourned a member of a family which made millions out of the construction boom. “When I wanted to build a restaurant and the bylaws and the residents blocked it, I simply spoke to Pilar [Franco’s sister]. She fixed it.”

But for Madrid, which is burdened with a $450-million debt, the greatest problem is the automobile. Less than 20 years ago all of Spain had only 400,000

vehicles. Today—despite gas prices of $2.80 a gallon—more than one million vehicles circulate through Madrid streets. They are the principal cause of dangerous pollution levels—an estimated 30 tons of noxious chemicals fall on the city daily. Set on a plateau at 2,120 feet, Europe’s highest capital is shielded by mountains so that choking fumes can hang around for days. Stiff laws have been introduced to curb use of sulphur-heavy fuel oils and a special 100-strong “green patrol” checks vehicies for noisy engines and smoking exhausts.

Though prices have soared and ordinary cafés now close at what Madrileños think is the ridiculously early hour of 1 a.m., Madrid’s night life offers some of Europe’s wildest entertainment. The

city has welcomed sex shops, topless bars and striptease. Youngsters flock to discos featuring nude go-go dancers. Madrileños have a tremendous capacity for living exuberantly which somehow overcomes the frustrations surrounding them. Far from dying, the downtown area throbs with life. At 20 cents a trip, underground travel is still incredibly cheap. A greenbelt is proposed to girdle the city. Neighborhood associations are campaigning for improved environment. Old Madrid is dead but modern Madrid is very much alive. Maybe Hemingway would not weep after all but merely call for another bottle of Rioja. Strong wine and true, that still costs

only about $1.50.

David Baird