Wednesday 15 July 2009

Disculpen Las Molestias

By Richard Morley.
When I came to Spain I looked out of the Windows of my hostel in Gran Via and saw some pretty intensive building work going on. The Plaza Callao was being remodelled and its Metro station was getting a facelift. The work continued causing great disruption in the centre of Gran Via for about eighteen months, but was eventually completed and left us with yet another pleasant plaza in Madrid. I went past there this afternoon and they are digging it up again!

Shortly after that, work began on what seemed like an improvement to the metro station in the Puerta del Sol. Indeed, the station did get a lick of paint and a new entrance in the Calle de Preciados, but the work didn’t stop. A huge hole appeared and the Calle de Montera became a cement works, much to the chagrin, I am sure, of the ladies who regard that street as their place of employment!

That, of course turned out to be the excavation of what is claimed to be the world’s largest man-made cavern to house the new Cercanías commuter train station at Sol.

Surface work on the plaza slowly shrunk over the years, leaving most of Sol once again open to tourist cameras. Then a couple of months ago the entire plaza was ring-fenced by builder’s safety barricades.
My four year old memory of an open Puerta del Sol, although looking a little shabby with stained concrete bus shelters and gridlocked traffic in it pre-pedestrianised hey day is rather dim now. But now the Cercanias station is open for business, with its smart new, albeit controversial, twin-domed glass entrance, they obviously thought the plaza needed a further remodelling.
Finally, I understand the joke I heard shortly after arriving here that “Madrid will be nice – when it’s finished”.
How could a four hundred year old city (from its modern inception) not be finished?
But wherever you turn in Madrid today they are digging up the roads, laying new pavement, (sidewalk for our US cousins), rebuilding intersections, moving monuments, tunnelling, excavating, and rearranging the metropolitan furniture. John Maynard Keynes argued that in times of national financial crisis, it is better to have men digging holes for a wage than to have them sit idle. The Ayuntamiento of Madrid has taken to this philosophy in spades. (Or with spades, shovels, excavators and pile drivers.) I have been around the town in the past few days to attempting to augment my photo library for the blog. I needed shots of places historic and famous. Nearly everywhere I pointed my camera there were construction workers digging, slabbing, widening, deepening, demolishing and building. A rumour has it that one of the companies contracting these works for the Ayuntamiento was told only to hire men who had been out of work for six months or more.

But the politics of the situation only has a mild interest for me. I have gazed into some of the holes that have been opened up along the entire length of the Calle de Serrano and seen the rusting, rotting pipes and cracked cable trunking. This is work that obviously has a need to be done. Our city leaders have turned “La Crisis” into an “Oportunidad” to perform some much needed maintenance.

Madrid has one of the best public transport systems anywhere. But is also a very easy city to negotiate on foot. To that end pavements are being widened and whole streets pedestrianised. The company charged with the modernisation of Calle Serrano has produced a glossy flysheet (left) describing the wonders of their work. When they are finished, they claim, the two kilometre long street will have five traffic lanes, a cycle lane, five metres of pavement on one side and ten on the other, underground parking for two thousand cars, and 813 new trees. To this you can add that below the work being done on the surface, a high speed rail tunnel is being bored between Atocha and Chamartin railways stations.

Planner's vision of a finished Calle Serrano

I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating; the Madrileños say their town is like a gruyere cheese. Not just because of the Metro and Cercanias tunnels that twist their way all over the city. There are service tunnels too, never seen by the public, except on a series of TV programs earlier this year. The new tunnel that runs through the new cercania station at Sol is seven kilometres long, the original tunnel that connects Atocha with Chamartin via Recoletos and Nuevos Ministerios stations is just under six. And the new AVE high speed link will come in around seven and a half. The original tunnel is known as the “Tunel de risas” or the tunnel of laughs as it took so long to construct and became a laughing stock. Of course, that was dug out by hand. Today, like moles, Madrid has huge Tunnel Boring Machines named “Excavolina” and “Dulcinea” burrowing everywhere. Lines 2, 3 and 11 are being extended as well as the new AVE link. In some areas of Madrid there is nothing below the surface at all.

Both the historic surfaces of the Plaza Mayor, Sol and Oriente are just veneers on the skin of the city, as will be most of the Calle de Serrano when it is finished.
Probably the least obstructed part of calle Serrano.
None of this comes cheap. These works are costing billions of Euros. Contributions from the European Union are much less than they were; the Spanish tax-payer is already stretched to the limit. And today Esperanza Aguirre, the president of the Comunidad of Madrid has complained central government is not giving the city enough.
M30 construction work.
So what does the city hope to gain?

Well, in the short term the people of Madrid, more than 97% apparently, are eager to attract the Olympic Games in 2016. The deciding committee has already visited the town a couple of months ago and was shown the work being done to improve the city’s infrastructure. I presume they will be back to check all is going to plan. According to signs all over town the Madrileños are so sure they will be the chosen city they can feel it in their bones, or in Spanish, “Tengo una Corazonada”. So, with shiny new roads and plazas, more metro and Cercanias lines, and swish new shopping areas (although I’ll have to win El Gordo before I can afford to shop in Serrano), Madrid hopes to welcome and dazzle millions of visitors. And in the long term the population will have a city to be even more proud of than now.

At least I hope they think it is worth all the disruption. Right now the barrio of Chamberí is protesting that work being done in the Avenida Pablo Iglesias means that for the first time in thirty years this barrio with its population of 150,000 people will have nowhere to celebrate its Fiesta del Carmen. And when I say protesting, I mean just that. There’s a plaza in Chamberí that could take, perhaps, a thousand people at a pinch, and tonight the entire population has been invited to go there and demonstrate.

I was picking my way through one of the worksites on Sunday afternoon. The standard of work looked excellent to my untrained eye and the quality of materials of the highest order. So, I am sure Madrid will be nice when it’s finished. The only question is, when?

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