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Hopeful Stories of Communities Organizing

Neighbors replace toxic plant with community center

Neighbors re-enact taking down factory.

By Cameron Conner - Special Series

In 1976, less than two years after General Franco died and his dictatorship collapsed, residents of the Neu Barris neighborhood of Barcelona noticed that their children were becoming ill and that toxic dust from a Franco-era cement factory in their neighborhood was shriveling their clothes.

They fought to transform the former asphalt plant into a cultural and social center and have paved roads and established environmental protections.

The factory became a space dedicated to circus arts—banned under Franco—music, theater, poetry, debates and exhibitions. Thousands of people attended the opening celebrations a few months after the demolition and they christened the space La Ateneu Popular de Neu Barris.

Ateneus. or "Atheneums," in Catalonia are neighborhood-based associations for the advancement of learning. Particularly popular in the early 1900s, these public spaces fostered many of the leaders behind Barcelona's strong union movement. Ateneu Popular de Neu Barris positioned itself at the front of the next generation of "democracy schools."

Over the years, the role of their Ateneu grew for the community of Neu Barris. As the economic crisis of the 1980s led to a heroin epidemic across Spain, the Ateneu worked to open a youth hub, launching a series of juggling, stilt-walking, trapeze and other workshops to keep young-adults off the streets.

Organizing efforts also led to paved streets for the neighborhood, public lighting and environmental protection of the surrounding mountain landscape.

With fights for women's suffrage reemerging after Francoism collapsed, the center became one of the central hubs for women in Barcelona, organizing for equal rights as well.

As relationships and networks were strengthened through local campaigns, Ateneu Neu Barris began to serve as an avenue for engaging in more global issues. When global free-trade policies led to the closure of local businesses and widespread loss of jobs, the community collectively participated in national strike actions, protested far-right, fascist resurgence and even demonstrated against Spain's entry into NATO.

The political work of the neighborhood—both then and now—constitutes only a small portion of the activity in La Ateneu. In addition to serving as a platform for community organizing, the space brought life back into the neighborhood after nearly 40 years under authoritarian rule. Groups were formed to reinstate the carnivals, which had been banned under Franco. They even invented new festivals such as "La Cultura Va de Fiesta"—The Culture Goes Partying—which hosts hundreds of visitors each year.

The inseparable relationship between this political and cultural work is captured in the Ateneu's motto today: "Action, Struggle and Fun."

The editor of the local Carrer Magazine, described the relationship well when he wrote, "The culture of the Ateneu should entertain but also explain why things are as they are, discuss them and foster the necessary responses." For this to happen, he continued, "The Athenaeum needs to be managed by the residents."

The last part of this statement is profoundly important.

Throughout its 40-year history, Ateneu Neu Barris faced stubborn pressure by the city to convert it into a civic center under the city government and with a public official as director.

Even though that would bring additional funds and relieve the community of the pressure of running such a large organization, the community has fought to maintain its community-led structure.

One resident who grew up participating in Neu Barris explained that community-control is critical, "because we know what it is like to have no control at all," she said.

"Under Franco," she continued, "people, and especially Catalans, had no choice but to do what they were told. We will never give up our freedom again, and the only way we can maintain it is if we stand together."

Much of Catalonia's history relied on a unique culture built over centuries.

What can we in the United States take away from the story of Neu Barris?

There are three key lessons:

• First, we should learn that one of the first steps in organizing is to find, claim or create public spaces where people can come together  across differences and act on shared interests. 

• Second, strong community institutions will focus on fun community activities and political struggles. People cannot have fun if their children cannot breathe. Strong political communities will not last without a shared feeling of culture.

• Finally, the institution must belong to a community, not a city or nonprofit. It is not run by a paid professional staff who provide charity or service.

La Ateneu Popular de Neu Barris is a crystal-clear example of the Iron Rule in community organizing: Never ever do for people what they can do for themselves.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November 2023