At the crossroads in La Latina, the old-town barrio at the heart of Madrid, a scruffy blue-and-white painted fence of corrugated steel runs the curve of the corner. Peer through a porthole, and you’ll find yourself looking down into a wide, space of poured concrete and graffiti, scattered with tiered benches, a basketball hoop at either end. This is El Campo de la Cebada, a community space created por y para los vecinos – for and by the neighbours – when the local authority demolished the swimming pool. The money for a new one ran out early in the project, leaving a gaping 5,500-metre scar.
Here, raucous, friendly teenagers gather on the benches, watching street performers practising their juggling. Couples sprawl between the railway-sleeper garden boxes, sharing bocadillos de calamares (squid rolls). A homeless man finds a place to sit, away from the road. Solitary readers, such as myself, inch around, following the sun, occasionally looking up to listen.
I attended Podemos rallies here in the last drawn-out weeks of summer, the sun hot into late October, and heard impassioned calls for change in a country with the second-highest youth unemployment in Europe. Another day, I came down to find slapstick musical comedy playing here, and paid €4 for a share in a hot-tub-size paella and a cold can of Mahou. Salsa dancing, fitness sessions, outdoor cinema, the list of activities goes on.
I hear the days of Campo de la Cebada are numbered – though the city is threatening a garish, unwelcome shopping mall in place of that much-needed swimming pool. With vecinos as organised, ambitious and community-minded as this, I hope they’re ready for a fight.