Tuesday 15 September 2009

Breaking Out

By Richard Morley.
Calle del Principe de Vergara running through the District of Salamanca.

In 1789 the population of Madrid, confined within Felipe the second’s ancient walls, was 140,000. Not quite seventy years later, in 1857, that figure had doubled to 281,170. The walls were bulging.

This had been foreseen by the writer, statesman and leading figure in Spain’s Age Of Enlightenment, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos a century before, and by Juan Merlo, a Madrid engineer, in 1842. Merlo, who had been one of the original designers of the Plaza de Oriente near the Royal Palace, had actually drawn up some plans to expand the town, but they were rejected.

It wasn’t that the citizens were breeding like rabbits; this was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The rural population was leaving the fields and coming to Madrid in large numbers, lured by the better pay, and hopefully better lifestyle found by working in one of the increasing numbers of cast iron foundries and weaving factories. Something had to be done.

Luckily, this was a time when great public works were begun. Anyone who has seen a manhole cover in Madrid will see that the public water system is known as the Canal de Isabel II. She was the queen at the time.

The Minister for Public Works, José Posada Herrera tried to introduce legislation called El Proyecto de Ley General para la Reforma, Saneamiento, Ensanche y otras Mejoras de la Poblaciones. (The General Law for the reform, health, expansion and other improvments of the towns.) To, I am sure, his great disappointment this, like Merlo’s plans eighteen years before, was rejected by the senate. It was a pity he did not have a crystal ball to offer in evidence. Twenty years later the population of Madrid would have almost doubled to 400,000. Mid IX century Madrid.

Eventually the burgeoning populations of all cities persuaded the parliament to promote expansion. The first “Ley de Ensanche”, law of enlargement, was passed on the 29th June 1864. It allowed local authorities to compulsorily purchase land outside of the existing boundaries. Three more “Laws of enlargement” were passed in 1867 in which developers had to have their plans approved; in 1876, which were no more than a redefining of the rules; and in 1892, which made the regulations nationwide.

The job of expanding Madrid fell to the city’s chief engineer, Carlos María del Castro and his associate, Carlos Ibáñez de Ibero. They had actually published their plans in 1860, but had to wait for the Ley de Enlargement before beginning their implementation.

The first thing to happen was that the ancient walls of Felipe Segundo came tumbling down.

Castro thought that Madrid could expand in three directions: North, North East, and South. It shows how cramped Madrid must have been prior to this time when it is realised that the three areas he had in mind are today very much inner city neighbourhoods: Chamberi, Embajadores / Atocha, and Salamanca.

This was a time of an expanding middle class. Great social change was upon the city. With all the public works, the sanitation and water supply, a gas supply, a postal service and the first trams and railways, the expansion of the military, the increasing numbers of civil servants, lawyers, professors and serving officers required homes to befit their station.

Chamberi had already felt the effects of the Industrial Revolution and had two main industries: Brickworks and Tile manufactures. I apologise to those who live their now, but this was always a working class neighbourhood! And the river, with its smell and insects made going south a poor choice.

Where were the new middle classes to go?

Their hopes rested on one man. His name was José de Salamanca y Mayol, who would later become the Marquis de Salamanca. A wealthy entrepreneur and sometime banker, Salamanca was the epitome of Madrid’s commercial leaders and a driving force for progress.
José de Salamanca y Mayol, the epitome of Chulo, looking down his nose at the rest of us.

But he was a man who had gained and lost several fortunes in his lifetime. He had done well with an investment in Spain’s first railway, which went from Madrid to Aranjuez, and also with the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad in the United States. He has a town named after him in New York State. Google Earth view of the Salamanca District.

In the 1860s he began to develop a huge area directly to the northeast of the current city. Delineated as a rough triangle whose base ran from the Pueta de Alcalá, one of the old gates of the city, to what was then called the Plaza del Roma, but now known as Manuel Becerra and up to the Republica de Argentina. His plans for the district predated Cerda in Barcelona and Soria in Madrid in that streets were laid out on a grid plan similar to New York.
The streets were wide and tree lined, the buildings modern, for the time, and well served with amenities. The upwardly mobile moved there in droves.
And the new distrct carried his name – Salamanca.

But great plans are expensive. The nouveau-riche might have wanted to move into this new development, but the old, more influential money stayed put in old Madrid. Greater expansion was put on hold for lack of funds; Properties did not sell quickly enough and the money ran out.

This was the beginning of the end for the man. He lost money on the stock market and in his involvement with the Banco Isabella II, meant to be Spain’s first central bank, which was a disaster. The endeavour won him his nobility, but when he died in 1883 he was in debt.

He died in the neighbourhood of Carabanchel; he could not afford to live in the district that took his name. This is ironic as the district of Salamanca is home to many of Madrid’s rich, famous and royal. Before “La Crisis” it was not unusual to see an apartment in Salamanca sell for three million euros. I doubt if the crisis has affected the residents too much.

As an administrative district it has overflowed its original boundaries to take in the neighbouring barrios of Guindalera, Goya and Ibiza, which has definitely raised the snobby tone of those poorer barrios – and the rents that are charged in them. Given the nature of its population the district has always been staunchly right wing. During the civil war, before Franco’s Nationalist forces took the city, many of his supporters lived there by keeping a very low profile. In fact has been said that the squadrons of the German Condor Legion were ordered not to bomb the neighbourhood for fear of alienating the Nationalist faction.
This leads us to a second irony in this Nationalist stronghold. Running east-west through the barrio are two major thoroughfares: Calle de Juan Bravo and the Calle José Ortega y Gasset.

Juan Bravo was a leader of a rebel group during the Castillian War of the Communities. This was an uprising by the people against the king, Carlos V. The rebels were defeated in 1521 and he was beheaded. He has, incidentally, nothing to do with the cartoon character Johnnie Bravo, despite that being what a friend claims.

José Ortega y Gasset was not actually a rebel, but did lead the intellectual opposition to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera and played an important role in the overthrow of Alfonso XIII in 1931. His main occupation was as a writer, journalist and editor. He did become, for a short time, a politician for the republicans, but soon abandoned politics and exiled himself to Argentina at the start of the Civil War. He did not return until 1948.
Being a philosopher, he is often quoted. His best known line is, “I am I and my circumstances”, which is almost theft of Descartes “I think therefore I am”, but he also claimed that, “A revolution only lasts fifteen years, a period which coincides with the effectiveness of a generation”, which given that Franco’s regime lasted thirty five years meant that was a little mistaken. I find it strange that he is held in high enough esteem to be quoted on the web page of Spain’s ultra right party, El Frente National, as he wrote, “Under the species of Syndicalism and Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions”, and “Rancor is an outpouring of a feeling of inferiority”. I won’t dignify the party who thinks I should return from whence I came by quoting the out of context paragraph.

All of life's little necessities can be found in C/José Ortega y Gasset.

Nowadays, the name José Ortega y Gasset is a by word for luxury. Together with Francisco Serrano, Duque de la Torre, who helped depose Isabel II in 1868 and whose eponymous Calle runs perpendicular to Ortega y Gasset and is known as “Madrid’s fifth Avenue”, the two streets are a mecca for those seeking luxury labels to impress their friends. They are all there: Dior, Chanel, Burberry, Tiffany and several more. It’s a good place to walk. I know my money is safe – I can’t afford to spend it!
No, I am wrong! There is one shop that does get my money. Calle José Ortega y Gasset boasts the highest class of green-grocer in Madrid. The Gold Gourmet is the only place in Madrid that sells Parsnips, the infamous, on this blog anyway, Chirivias. And I live nearby. Sometimes it’s good to have rich neighbours.
Any comments? Feel free below.


  1. What a fascinating history - I never stopped to think about it when visiting Sol. I have a new appreciation for the center of Madrid.

  2. Came to this from tracking down Jose de Salamanca whom I came across in relation to the Atlantic & Great Western Railway. The A&GW, which became the New York Pennsylvania & Ohio and eventually the Erie's main line Salamanca NY to Marion OH, was a colossal "money pit" that had to go through several bankruptcies each more drastic than the previous; the basic problem being poor location away from sources of business; its eventual fate would be to serve as part of a circuitous main line for a larger railway, the Erie's New York City-Chicago main. No wonder Salamanca died broke; worse, he got the Queen Regent for Isabel II to sink a lot of money in the A&GW.
    By the way, I do have some familiarity with Spanish history as well as American history and I regard Franco as the Abraham Lincoln of Spain, the man who saved Spain from becoming the Pol Pot's Cambodia of Europe under the increasingly radical socialist and incipient communistic Second Republic. Imagine Spain being ruled with the worst features of Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, Castro's Cuba, and Pol Pot's Cambodia; that is the inevitable progression of the Left and why I worry for Spain under the Socialists.
    Sorry to rain on your great piece on the Salamanca neighborhood which gave a good feel for the area and also demonstrated the tight control Spanish governments have on their people's activities; in 19th America real estate developers would have just bought the land and put up buildings with no need to get state permission!