The Cat Rides Away on Its Bicycle

Jesús Barrera in his bookstore Un Gato en Bicicleta / ALEJANDRA CORNEJO

From Paris to Berlin, from Madrid to New York, from Barcelona to London and now Seville. Gentrification is a process that affects neighborhoods in the most important cities of the world, forcing neighbors and businesses out in favor of those with greater purchasing power.

It is a rainy Monday in the middle of November. The Metropol Parasol of Encarnación Square, better known in the city as “Las Setas,” provides a roof for those who have nowhere to live, while the street becomes an uncontrolled stream of umbrellas. Despite the downpour, the plaza at the beginning of calle Regina is filled with tables. Although the tables are empty, their presence is evidence of the vibrant neighborhood that bridges calle Feria with the center of the city.

“This was a dangerous street, the property of junkies and prostitutes. It was scary to come here,” remembers the ex-publicist Jesús Barrera, sitting on the stool where he assists his customers in the specialized bookshop, Un Gato en Bicicleta, at number 8 of calle Regina. However, with the flowering of these wooden mushrooms in 2011, businesses also sprouted in the surrounding streets. Regina was one of the most productive and it filled up, little by little, with young entrepreneurs that believed in fair trade, crafts, ecology, alternative fashion, independent literature, and local and responsible consumption. “I believe in the need to purchase local products; if we all help each other, we all move forward,” observes Jesús.

“The creation of the cooperative Regina Market by some of the businesses’ owners, began to give life to the street: we organized a market once a week, theatres, art exhibitions, poetry readings, concerts and book launches,” he continues. “That was when the mass media made a big deal of the street and gave us relavence. We appeared in the Diario de Sevilla, ABC, El Correo de Andalucía and then, in the New York Times and The Guardian and the national TV channels. Now, we’re in every travel guide.”

Calle Regina with a view of the structure of the Metropol Parasol by architect Jürgen Mayer / ALEJANDRA CORNEJO

Jesús owns a bookshop with a different concept than the ones we are used to, and it is an essential piece for the street and neighbourhood where it is located. It has an art gallery with pieces made by emerging artists and a ceramic workshop where Jesús’ partner and bookshop co-founder, Raquel Eidem, works and give ceramics lessons. “I support free and independent work; there are big publishing houses that I refuse to work with because I know what’s behind them and I don’t want to contribute. Most of the books I have here are written by Spanish authors, and many of them I know personally,” explains the owner of the bookshop Un Gato en Bicicleta. “For example this one,” says picking up a book from a pile that is on a small white table, “this one is Erika’s, who is a menstrual pedagogue. This is a feminist book about menstruation, and since I know her, I know how and why she wrote the book. I am aware of the production process and I want it in my bookshop.”

Nevertheless, this mix between bookshop, art gallery and craft workshop is not having the luck that Jesús expected almost six years ago when el Gato parked his bike in calle Regina. “It’s been a year since the owner of the premises died and her sons left it in the hands of a consulting firm; since then, our situation has beeen unsustainable,” reveal Jesús.

“This building is from the 19th century and it has a weak rooftop that has caused a few floods,” complains the tenant. “Two years ago, a waterfall cascaded from the rooftop and surprised us during a play. It’s a good thing there were a lot of people here and everyone helped by drawing water out with plastic buckets. I lost all of my papers and my computer, and it took me two months to recover the information.”

Raquel, who is working at her workshop on the top floor, but needs something to stop a leak, interrups him. “At the end of the store, over there, we have a few more”, says Jesús with a hint of irony, who on days like this always prepares for the worst. “Our insurance company didn’t respond” he continues, “so, we had to fixed it all at our own expense. Subsequently, the new owners of the place anounced a 40% rent increase, which we totally rejected.”

Raquel Eidem at her ceramics workshop on the top floor of Un Gato en Bicicleta / A. CORNEJO

The sociologist Daniel Sorando and the architect and city-planner Álvaro Ardura analyse the gentrification process in their book First We Take Manhattan, The Creative Destruction of The Cities. They say that it is a process in which property assets are bought at a low price in a run-down neighborhood and sold when the place’s value increases due to regeneration. It is a controversial process of urban elitism, causing people with a high socio-economic level to settle an area and displace its small entrepreneurs and neighbours who can’t afford their rent anymore. Gentrification is a common form of city transformation in countries like Sweden, Germany, the United States, France, Spain and England, but distinct, depending on the socio-economic features of each place.

Following Sorando and Ardura, this phenomenon began in Spain in the post-Olympic Barcelona, followed by Madrid’s Chueca neighborhood and after them, Malasaña. These are unique neighbourhoods, and in the last few years, they have become a product that attracts sybarites who pay exorbitant prices for apartments, souvenirs, commercial spaces and cups of coffee with impossible milk foam, just because these things have the appelation of origin. Meanwhile, the shops that have been there since the neighborhood became a neighborhood, these fish shops, shoe shops, groceries shops and haberdasheries-all family businesses- were forced to move to the suburbs, where they could pay their rent.

In Seville, the gentrification current has travelled from Triana to the Alameda and on to San Bernado. West to east and south to north, the city is a victim of this phenomenon. Now, it’s the young entrepreneurs’ turn, those who conquered and revived calle Regina. “If we talk with the people working in City Council, they will say that gentrification is positive because of economic growth. The big enterprises that replace us will hire people, paying them less than they deserve, but they will be off the unemployment list, and that’s the only thing they care about. But, where’s the quality work?” Jesús wonders. “People are complaining about tourism ruining cities, but it’s not travelers’ fault- it’s city councils’; they don’t set limits,” he continues.

Jesús Barrera at his bookstore Un Gato en Bicicleta, days before moving to a new location / A. CORNEJO

To this cultural activist who describes himself as a romantic person, gentrification is killing small businesses. “If this problem didn’t exist, we would be better off and we could offer someone a real salary. That’s the difference,” says Jesús.

“We were one of the first that came here and we are now the first whose rental contract is up, but the others will be notified about increases in their contracts soon,” explains Jesús with a sad shadow in his eyes. “The street is now full of franchises, and because of the price of the rentals, it won’t take too long until more will come,” he concludes.

This is why el Gato is gathering its books, its art and its bike and moving to another area of Seville, though under the shadow of the same mushrooms, where the merchants in the Alfalfa Square call Soho Benita. “In calle Pérez Galdós, we are paying less than we paid when we came to calle Regina. I would like to stay here with my neighbours, but I’m so tired of this situation that I’m not sad about leaving anymore.”