Los Barrios

In Presentation on November 16, 2012 at 9:41 am

I’m looking for purity.

Natural wholesomeness. Clean, untainted goodness. Healthy, nurturing freshness, whatever you like – you get the picture.

My search has brought me to an industrial estate just outside Tarifa – I’m walking on a cracked, ill-maintained pavement, along a rusting and dilapidated steel fence beyond which a patch of wasteland is a mess of weeds and debris. A little further up I can see a car-wash place and various noisy workshops. Trucks pass by. No sign of the goodness, as yet. I must have walked up and down every “street” in the place.

Ah, here it is: Tarifa Natural, it says over the warehouse loading dock. It doesn’t look like the kind of place I should be walking into, but I do. I’ve been directed here, by the nice women in the herbolario in the old town, and I must have walked a mile all told, so I’m going in.

I step past a forklift and somewhere at the back of the building, out of sight, someone is using a pneumatic drill. The noise is deafening and there’s no one around. I wander about and when the drill stops for a moment I yell “hola!”


Rows of pallets piled with organic produce separate refridgerated shelving units lined with things made of soya. You can’t move for lentils.

I could do without this to be honest. Did I mention I’ve walked a mile? Probably more, most of it lost. Lost has its charms in the medina at Tangier or Granada’s Albayzin, but here in this industrial estate, no charm at all. Another gap in the drill’s roar.


Nothing. Jesus, all I want is a jar of tahini. Too much to ask? I want to lay on a bit of a feast for K tonight, a bit of a mezze, without asking her to go to the dreaded Carrefour. I’ve got sweaty back and dry mouth and I’m in a warehouse and the noise is deafening. Finally a girl appears on the gallery of an upper level and comes down to take my money. Mission accomplished, I leave.

I loathe industrial estates. They’re not built for people. Anyone who doesn’t drive and has walked around an industrial estate will know what I mean – you have to be a pedestrian to truly appreciate how inhuman these places are. There are no through-ways, no footpaths connecting the streets. You can be looking across a fenced patch of open land at the building you’re trying to get to, yet it’ll be a twenty minute walk to get there.

Not person friendly, they can at least be defended thus; people just work there – afterwards they get to go home. The thing is we’ve started building neighborhoods that aren’t much better. When I finally get out of the estate and head back in the direction of town I find myself walking past Tarifa’s tail end – a strip of relatively new-built apartment blocks, some still in construction. I’m getting to know it a little better this week because I’ve been doing a little photography here for a local property agent.

The developments have the requisite hugeness and are completely fenced in. I get the occasional peek through the railings at swimming pools and fitness gyms and not a single building here is without underground parking. It’s heaven for cars; the streets are wide, their surfaces well-maintained and they are utterly devoid of anybody to run over.

There are no shops, no bars, although I imagine there’s a “designated zone” for that somewhere. There are no children playing, no lottery sales booths, no hairdressers, nothing. You have no business being here if you don’t live in one of these things, or own one of them – and I have a problem with that, because if you look at a map of Tarifa, these developments are taking up an awfully large area.

A whole swathe of a small and growing town built not with the interests of the townspeople in mind, nor really of any of the new residents, who will be holed up in the solitary confinement of their gated communities. Not to mention the fact that said swathe of gated communities will lie empty for most of the year. No, the place is tailored pretty much exclusively to the interests of the property investor, at the expense of all other considerations.

It’s wrong.

I’m relieved to get back on to the bustling main street. There’s a general strike in Spain today but Tarifa isn’t exactly  a hub of leftist activism and everything carries on as normal. Shops, bars, services, everything. People. A real place, with people in it. It’s unlikely that the new area at the other end of town will ever mature into this, simply because of the short sighted way it’s been designed.

I could be accused (and have been) of being a romantic, with my preference for the cobbled, pedestrian lanes of the old town, for old towns in general with their crowded buildings and churches, their little squares with benchs, the fountains, the public spaces, the places to gather, the opportunities to commune. So be it.

Actually you don’t have to live in the past to appreciate the difference I’m talking about, the difference between places built for the people who live in them and places built for the people who build them, and it isn’t a question of designing it like this or designing it like that. In fact, it’s probably a more a matter of not designing it at all.

I work in a barrio of Algeciras called El Cobre. It has this reputation for being down-at-heel but, whereas where I come from that would almost automatically make it a crime-ridden, hostile place, when I walk around this neighborhood killing time before my classes, I get a good feeling.  It’s a comfortable, relaxed place with a family feel, and it’s built in a “style” that I thought you only saw in antique Spain. People sit by their open doors, front rooms opening out onto the street.

It isn’t beautiful and there doesn’t appear to have been any coordination whatsoever in terms of planning. It’s an organism. A higgledy piggledy hodge podge, certainly, but not a mess. It isn’t asymmetrical to these eyes.

The uncoordinated construction over time, and by any number of individuals, of so many houses crowded so closely together, not one of which looks anything like its neighbor on either side, has its own symmetries.

Symmetries plural. A richer matrix. Something better than design, something more beautiful.

A story.

That it’s a living neighborhood, devoid of pretension, makes it some kind of answer to the people who roll their eyes at my romanticism and tell me I’m harking back to the past, who insist that their own blindness to the sensory, social and human impoverishment these gargantuan new developments cause is actually an embracing of modernity or – even more insultingly – of reality.

They’re wrong.

  1. Don’t get me started on gated communities, Robin. They should be limited to gun-toting Republican communities in the States. I really feel ill at ease in them. Having said that, I’ve only been to one in Gran Canaria where I live now. That was in Valsequillo. I do experience the same queasy feeling when I have to go to functions at private members’ clubs here. One overlooks a chiringuito and a beach that’s by no means my favourite on the island. But if I ever have to be in that club, my wife has to watch me as I’m so intent on making my escape: over the gates to freedom from pijos.

  2. It’s really interesting that I read your article today. This weekend, I spent some time apartment hunting and what I’m noticing in Washington, DC is a trend for un-gated, gated communities. By that I mean, that they don’t have the fence around them, but they make it so residents NEVER have to leave. They have movie rooms, fitness centers, pools, a grocery store on the bottom level, restaurants, libraries, etc. It’s an interesting progression to see developers create miniature cities within these buildings. Didn’t they get the lesson from WALL-E?

    I also prefer a community feel, where things are close, but you may have to walk a block or two to reach them. Oh, and don’t forget the yard space. That’s disappearing in this city of condos and row houses!

  3. […] neighbourhood is called Los Pastores and the one behind it, where I work, El Cobre. Neither of these places will ever feature heavily in Ideal Home or Town & Country and the […]

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