How a Barcelona Neighborhood Fought Developers... and Won

“Freedom is never given; it is won.”

- A. Philip Randolf

"I've got to say, it makes me uncomfortable that most of these community organizations receive so much funding from the city government," I confessed to Victor Giménez as we sat at a cafe outside his office early Friday morning. 

"I’ve seen this kind of funding derail the mission of an organization. Sooner or later, the group becomes more accountable to their financial backers than the people they exist to serve.” 

Prodding a step further, I asked Victor: “What happens if the government threatens to take away that money unless the community organization does what they want it to?" 

He gave me a puzzled look, his shoulder-length curly brown hair framing a serious face. It was as if I had asked him why pedestrians don’t try to stare down oncoming cars in the notoriously belligerent Barcelona traffic.

"Here,” he replied simply, “the government knows that if it threatens to take away money from the community, there will be thousands of people in the street tomorrow to get it back." 

I stared at him in silence for a moment, trying to decide if he was exaggerating or just extremely optimistic. But he was earnest. And as he sat there our the growing silence, not showing any need to elaborate further, the possibility dawned on me slowly, that maybe for him, this was a simple fact. In his world, if people thought something was wrong, it was only expected that they go grab their neighbors and do something about it.

Victor Giménez is the Lead Coordinator The Solidarity Economy Network of Barcelona (XES Barcelona). The entities that make up this network include cooperatively owned businesses, mutual aid societies, community-owned banks, and community-managed facilities (like La Lleialtat Santsenca). They come together in a single entity as XES Barcelona to promote an economy aimed at community wellbeing, ecological sustainability, and satisfying the needs of people over profit. 

Collectively, these entities amount to 10% of Barcelona’s overall economic activity and they provide roughly 8% of the city’s jobs. XES Barcelona is also part of the larger Solidarity Economy Network of Catalonia which spans the entire region. They leverage this power through everything from public policy to marches and protests. So, as the coordinator for all this, Victor was the perfect person to help me gain insight into the rise and fall of social movements and community issues across his City. 

But, nonetheless, my first reaction to his statement was doubt. “Sounds great in theory,” I thought, “but either he’s talking about this kind of mobilization in the abstract or he’s exaggerating.” 

So I asked for an example. The story he shared is one we would all do well to remember: 

In the early 2010s, the City Council of Barcelona set their sights on demolishing a community-managed center called Can Vies as part of an attempt to increase property value in the working-class neighborhood of Sants. 

Officially known as “The Can Vies Social Service Center,” this entity was originally formed in 1997 when a group of young people from the neighborhood had occupied a city-owned building to protest a lack of public facilities. It quickly grew to become an important hub for the neighborhood, instigating community activities, running a thriving food pantry, and providing support to many in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. 


On May 26, against the express wishes of the community, the City Council issued a demolition order for the Center and immediate eviction of all residents.

Residents and allies, 4000 strong, march to meet the demolition crew and police

Nearly 4000 community members march to meet the demolition crew and police. Their banner reads: Do Not Pass – #WeAreCanVies

The demolition crew arrived on Tuesday with a mobile brigade of Police in tow. As the excavator rumbled down the narrow cobbled streets leading to Can Vies, they were met by a solid wall of several hundred residents blocking the path forward. As police began firing tear gas to disperse the crowds, word spread across the City and soon thousands more joined the blockade.  

Over the next four days, 200 additional police were called in from across Catalonia. Residents erected barricades to block the demolition’s progress. Police violently attempted to subdue them. In the process, the excavator was set on fire and covered with flowers. Neighbors unable to participate in the action below leaned over their balconies above, banging pots and pans and shouting for the officers to get out of their neighborhood

Victor paused his story for dramatic effect and slowly returned my stare before continuing: 

Just four days after the protests started, the people forced the government to back down. The Council City itself called an emergency end to the demolition plans. 

In the aftermath, the street was left littered with signs, broken glass, and masonry from when the excavator had demolished a portion of the exterior walls. 

Four days after the fight began, Can Vies made a call for the community to come and rebuild what had been destroyed. Saturday morning, neighbors gathered again and began to clear the debris. Hundreds of people formed a line nearly half a mile long, to pass rubble from the site and deposit it outside the district hall. The bricks that could be salvaged were used to rebuild, and people from all across the neighborhood came to help. 

Neighbors recycling the old bricks to use in reconstruction. 

Community members pass debris along a half mile human chain to deposit rubble from Can Vies to the doorstep of the doorstep of the District Hall.

Reconstruction work underway at Can Vies.

The City later claimed that the “riots” at Can Vies were the work of a small group of troublemakers. In response, the representative of the neighborhood publicly pointed out that Can Vies has the support of more than 200 community associations

What made Victor’s story of Can Vies so remarkable was that it was one of many. He was clear that they didn’t always end with people winning, but in every case they were strong enough to make the city, outside corporations, or any other player recognize them as worthy of negotiating with.

People here don’t see these stories as out of the ordinary. That’s what had dawned on me when Victor gave his matter-of-fact answer to my question.

I struggle to comprehend a world where that is possible. How have they form a people that is so willing to fight? I asked the coordinator of a neighborhood-owned grocery store owner where this spirit came from the other day. She shrugged and responded in that same matter-of-fact tone: “Well, we know that we have certain rights, and if we don’t fight for them who else will?

Nine years after the Council’s decision to demolish Can Vies, the center is still here serving the community. In 2015, a mural depicting their victory was painted across the North-Facing wall which rises above the surrounding roofs. At the top, in bright yellow letters for all to see are the words “PODER POPULAR.” People Power. A reminder to the City and neighbors alike of what was accomplished.