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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of El Raval in Barcelona

What is El Raval?

El Ravel is a neighbourhood that was embraced by Barcelona’s city walls in the 14th century, and was once considered dangerous but is now one of the city’s most vibrant areas.

el ravel balconies and trees

El Ravel History

If you had asked locals about El Raval 20 years ago, most would have advised against walking through it. Today, the area is synonymous with cultural venues, live music, cocktail bars, shops, and so much more. The name ‘Raval’ originates from the Hispanic-Arabic word arrabád, meaning a suburb on the city's outskirts, usually home to the poor and marginalised. The neighbourhood dates back to the 14th century, when Barcelona was in the grip of bubonic plague as it swept through Europe. King Peter IV of Aragon (also known as Peter the Ceremonious) ordered the third and final extension of Barcelona’s old city walls, which, as a result, embraced the neighbouring area of El Raval.

Up to and including the 19th century, the area continued to house some of the city's poorest residents. In the early 20th century, the southern part of it, nearest the docks, was given the nickname ‘Barri Xinès’, or the ‘Chinese quarter’ (a reference to the Chinatown districts of various North American cities), and was notorious for its high levels of crime and prostitution. It was also known for its lively nightlife and as an artists’ quarter, frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Brothels, nightclubs and music halls created a vibrant entertainment scene in which burlesque and cabaret thrived. One of the most famous of these venues was Bagdad nightclub, referenced in a 2018 song by Spanish singer Rosalía.

The neighbourhood remained mostly working-class throughout the Spanish Civil War and into the 1950s and ‘60s, especially popular with southern Spaniards who had migrated to Barcelona in search of work. By the mid-1970s, around a quarter of Barcelona's population were migrants from more impoverished areas of the country. At that time, whole families would live in one-room apartments in tenements where residents shared a single toilet. The area deteriorated further in the late ‘70s with the arrival of heroin and a stark increase in crime, until it was considered one of the most dangerous in Spain.

el raval apartments

Eventually, when the city won the bid for the 1992 Olympic Games, the city council decided to clean up central Barcelona's image. In a program of urban renewal, El Raval was given an acceptable new face. Derelict housing blocks were renovated or rebuilt, public spaces cleaned up, and brothels and crime hotspots policed more thoroughly.

Nowadays, the neighbourhood has become a trendy and gentrified area of Barcelona, home to both locals and incomers from across the globe. New life has been brought to the centre, along with a vibrant multicultural atmosphere. El Raval now houses part of the University of Barcelona campus not far from the famous Bagdad strip club, that still stands to this day.

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