BURGOS, Spain — Until recently,
Spaniards associated this chilly capital of the northern Castille region mainly
with its magnificent Gothic cathedral and morcilla, or pork blood sausage.
Ask anyone about it today, however, and you’re more likely to hear about a working-class neighborhood that made international headlines in January.
That’s when Gamonal was rocked by massive, sometimes violent demonstrations against an $11 million municipal development project to convert its main drag into a boulevard with a bicycle lane and underground parking.
Two months on, locals say the protest movement provided strong evidence that five years into Spain’s economic crisis, society is fragmenting.
With unemployment rates still reaching 26 percent — and up to 40 percent among young Spaniards — and a growing income gap between wealthy elites and a middle class sliding toward poverty even as the economy slowly improves, very little was needed to set tempers flaring.
Flanked by tall brick buildings, four-lane Calle Vitoria lacks parking spaces because many residents don’t own cars. According to an informal free parking strategy, drivers park on the side of the street in two rows. Cars in the outside row blocking the inner one are left unlocked and with their hand brakes off so other drivers can move them to get out.
Most residents like the system well enough — and certainly better than the city’s plans. Parking in the proposed new garage would have been affordable only for those able to pay more than $27,000 for a 40-year lease — a significant sum for most Spaniards, especially Gamonal residents.
Most believe the money would be better spent on social services.
Adding insult to injury, a controversial tender awarded the project's master plan to a businessman connected to the ruling conservative Popular Party who had been convicted for corruption.
The public’s response was to take to the streets.
“We spent two years saying 'No to the boulevard’ in every way,” says protest organizer Manolo Alonso. “They didn’t budge an inch. So what happened was kind of like saying: ‘Hey, listen to us for once, OK?’”
White-bearded Alonso’s biography is typical for Gamonal. He arrived as a child from a poor nearby village, made his living carrying out hard manual labor and recently lost his job.
Once a small traditional village on the outskirts of Burgos, Gamonal saw a population boom in the mid-20th century, when people from the countryside flocked to the growing industrial hub.
Decades of harsh factory conditions transformed many of the typically conservative Catholic migrants into class-conscious workers.
Although the poor neighborhood grew to house around a third of the city's 180,000 residents, it remained largely peripheral. Most visitors to the cozy, tourist-friendly downtown never heard of it — until January, when Gamonal became a Spanish household name after young protesters smashed bank windows and set dumpsters on fire.
Dozens of arrests fuelled the demonstrations, which prompted a wave of national solidarity and more protests in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities organized with the help of the Twitter tag #GamonalEffect.
The pressure led Burgos’ mayor to suspend the construction project.
Residents say their protests forced the conservative-led government to listen to the people.
“The boulevard was the straw that broke the camel's back,” says Mila Calvo, an outspoken housewife who heads Las Eras de Gamonal neighbors' association. “Yes, there was violence, but personally I’m more stirred by the sight of some of my neighbors scrounging for food in the trash than by a burning dumpster.”
“We just want to be respected and taken into account,” says Ana Moreno, president of the Francisco de Vitoria neighbors' association. “You can’t spend all that money in an area where civic and cultural centers need investment.”
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Nevertheless, officials appear unmoved.
“It’s unexplainable,” Burgos deputy mayor, Angel Ibanez, says of the protests. “We don’t think we lost, we think the neighborhood did.”
He blames local left-wingers for fanning the flames. “The project was probably more an excuse than a problem,” he says.
Nevertheless, the plans for Calle Vitoria remain shelved for now amid lingering signs of the protests.
“Politicians and bankers, same cr*p,” says a graffito spray-painted on tin sheets still protecting the windows of a well-known bank.
Nearby, an activists’ tent advertises a line that seems to summarize the disaffection shaping the public debate here: “You’re forcing us to hate more and more.”