SPAIN. Madrid: Since June 2020, every Thursday at 19h30, central district neighbors gather to demonstrate peacefully in front of the Alameda health center. The crowd includes elderly citizens, families, young professionals, and college students. Their chant unites their diverse voices: our neighborhood for the neighbors. They protest because the town hall has decided to close down the local health center without an adequate alternative. Transcontinental Times interviews neighbors from the Sol y Barrio De Las Letras local association to understand their demands and concerns.
A local health center with deficient conditions and a political promise
The Alameda public health center treats 20.280 patients, 14% of which are over 65 years old. Their center lacks adequate installations. In fact, its location was provisory from the start, 25 years ago. COVID-19 has underlined its deficiencies. For example, rooms lack windows, so ventilation is a challenge. Also, it has no elevators, so the elderly struggle in the steep flight of stairs.
The current mayor Mr. Almeida (Partido Popular) promised during the election campaign in 2019 to transfer the health center to a municipal building 50 meters away. This municipal building hosted a primary care center (Casa de Socorro) and an office of the National Distance Education University (UNED). Left empty, it was occupied in 2017 by social activists (La Ingobernable).
Mr. Almeida was the least voted candidate in the elections. He governs Madrid thanks to the support of both Ciudadanos and Vox (far-right party). As promised, Mr. Almeida freed the building from its occupation. And then decided to give a concession for its use to a private art foundation instead. The cultural project, a Jewish Museum, has not been fully disclosed as yet.
A municipal building that can meet all neighbors’ demands
The town hall has not offered neighbors clear alternatives. They expect the local government to unite two health centers into one (2 km away) or to send them to a new one still to be built (3 km away). But neighbors already have a suitable building in the neighborhood.
The disputed 3000 m² building is located in Calle Prado 30, right in the Paseo del Arte (Madrid’s Art Boulevard). It looks over the Royal Botanical Garden and is next to museums such as El Prado, Centro Reina Sofia, and Caixa Forum. Its location and dimension are very appealing. Even Airbnb dedicates an article to it.
Although it would undoubtedly benefit the cultural scene in Madrid to add another museum in the area, neighbors would rather have their living conditions protected and improved. They lack a public library, an elderly center, a sports center, and public nurseries.
Gentrification and real estate speculation have modified the city center over the last decade tremendously. With letting prices rising unchecked, many neighbors and local shops were forced to leave. This was the case for Sara Robles, who was forced to move out after 12 years in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, she is still active in the local association.
They ascertained the sanitary use of the municipal building, contacted political representatives, organized weekly mobilizations, gathered over 5000 signatures, and constantly evaluate what future steps to take. The neighbors are determined, and their resolution stems from loving where they live.
Closing down and abandonment of local health centers all over Madrid
In addition, other districts are protesting. Many citizens demonstrate weekly in front of at least 12 closed down or deficient health centers in central districts. “They want to close down the center in Legazpi and unite it with ours,” says Hector Grad, member of Sol y Barrio De Las Letras Association. This would force neighbors to travel 2 km to the new proximity center. As an informal alternative, the major had proposed moving patients to a 3 km distance health center that still needs to be built.
A new hospital to marvel the world
On October 27th Madrid Community president, Mrs. Díaz Ayuso (Partido Popular) opened a new hospital that “will marvel the world.” The brand new hospital is empty.
Local government is not hiring needed sanitary staff nor investing in reinforcing the public health system. They close down smaller health centers to move their resources into newly built hospitals. But health centers in Madrid are already depleted of resources. The situation is so dramatic that the sanitary sector is on strike. Meanwhile, neighbors feel frustrated because they are aware resources are available, just not properly managed. At least, not for everyone’s benefit.
Social mobilizations: the benefits of constancy
“These revindications are never easy but the truth is on our side. (…) economic interests take precedence over community interests”. Says Mariló López, a member of Sol y Barrio De Las Letras Association. She joined them a couple of years ago. “I just felt that I needed to look outside of myself. I wanted to build a better neighborhood.”
Mariló considers politicians should include citizens in decision-making processes especially when they directly affect their living conditions. “They did this 15 years ago when they pedestrianized these streets, neighbors were involved”.
“We voice our demands with neighborhood movements, signature collection, concerts, beautiful things, being there every Thursday, with constancy. I just don’t know if this will provoke the change we need,” adds Sara.
Compromise in the face of uncertainty
Sara doubts social pressure will help them win over Prado 30 building. “They know what they want to use the building for, and it’s not for municipal uses.” She continues: “it’s a pity the only way to get politicians to listen is through a grand gesture, like a hunger strike. The neighbors feel abandoned and abused.”
The current situation is as difficult in Madrid as it is everywhere: crisis, lockdowns, uncertainty, apathy, and mental stress. Yet, the neighbors still gather every week, still relate and help each other. No matter the opposition they face, they are still willing to defend the rights the Spanish democracy grants them. And they will continue to do so until their needs are met.