Every Tuesday at 20:30 approximately, a group of chairs and sometimes a small table are pulled out onto the Placeta de Sant Francesc in the Barri Gótic of Barcelona. These chairs are populated by neighbors, who have been turning up for the past 10 years “to do nothing” together. Nothing in this case could mean drinking some tea, making popcorn on an open fire, organizing a party, crocheting, jumping rope, but many times, it truly means just sitting around and talking (and sometimes not even talking). What is extraordinary about Cruïlles, which is what this hard to define thing is called, is that it is not organized in any formal way. There is no group or association, no board of directors or decision-making processes, no membership or norms. The only thing there is is a time and a place. There isn’t even a geographical definition of what is considered to be a “neighbor”. Writing above the storefront in the placeta explains that “A neighbor is she or he who neighbors“, so neighboring is a verb and you don’t even have to live near by to be one. In the following paragraphs I will try and give a glimpse as to how these neighbors generated a grassroots kind of power just from their mere constant presence in public space. I hope the readers will note how this practice is both rooted and completely open and responsive to surprises. Lastly I would like for someone out there to join me in trying to figure out new grassroots economic models inspired by this story.
Placeta de Sant Francesc is on Escudellers Blancs, a small alleyway in one of the touristiest quarters in the city. It suffers from drunken tourists going on “Pub crawls” that shout and pee on the street. There are people selling drugs and always some sort of scandal. In the midst of all of this, every Tuesday night for the past 10 or more years, a group of neighbors enjoys a moment.
To better explain the unique nature of the encounter, it might be useful to go into 3 examples from the past.
First Example: Permission
One time, a municipal cop approaches the Cruïlles neighbors as they were putting the chairs in their habitual space. “Do you have a permit?” was the obvious first question. “This is intensive use of public space”. Threatened with a fine, the neighbors had to retreat. The following day, R., one of them, sent a small paragraph to his extensive mailing list. This paragraph was also published in the local free newspaper. It was titled “The neighbors meeting has been declared illegal”. Around the same time, unrelatedly the activists in the area called for a meeting of all of the groups working in the center of Barcelona. An invitation arrived to Cruïlles, and D. who comes every week, went. When he was asked afterwards how it went, he said: “They weren’t too interested in what we do. But they were really excited about the fact that we have been declared illegal.” Faced with the possibility of such criminal fame and glamour, and as an act of defiance against activist norms, the city council was called and a permit for the meetings was requested and achieved.
Several weeks later three of Cruïlles’ mainstays bumped into each other on the very spot of the weekly meeting, but on some other day. They started talking and talking and soon they realized that they in fact were having one of those meetings in an impromptu manner right there and then. “Its wrong for the meeting to be limited to a Tuesday at such and such hour” said one “The meetings should be allowed to emerge spontaneously whenever they happen.” The following days the city council was rang again. A permit was requested and granted to do whatever they wanted, whenever the wanted to do it.
Second Example: Art
Many times upon arriving at the placeta, the neighbors find huge piles of trash and debris blocking it. The usual modus operandi for such a situation would be to call the city and complain. Cruïlles seldom do this. But for several months, a few years ago, these mounds of debris were turned into a game. Every Tuesday upon finding it, the people to first arrive started converting this trash into artistic installations. Depending on what was found, the garbage was piled up and rearranged in constellations reminiscent of Arte Povera, or of some of the work of Barcelona’s own Antonio Tapies. The engagement with the garbage constituted a surprise encounter with an unexpected resource. On one hand the fact of this street encounter between found art and artist is reminiscent of Duchamp. But there are two important things to note: One obvious one is that it brings this practice into the messy context of a Barcelona street, with tourists walking past (usually completely oblivious to the goings on). As opposed to a situation where trash is elevated and brought into the exclusive spaces of art, here the trash is reconfigured, but proclaims its artiness in its own indigenous trashy environment. The other interesting thing is that this dialogic approach is not limited to trash. The surprise encounter is part and parcel of every Cruïlles Tuesday. The people walking past on the street are treated in just as welcoming a manner as the trash. It is at the heart of why Cruïlles never fails to be exciting, not for one Tuesday. The neighbors consider the surprise encounter as the main resource to be found on the street.
Third Example: The Hole of Mystery
There was a kind of hole in one of the walls of an abandoned building on the street. Drug dealers used to hide their stash there, but apart from that it used to get filled up with all sorts of garbage. Every week the Cruïlles neighbors would clean it, and immediately it would be filled up again. One week leaving his house, R. had an apparition: he saw the Virgin Mary emerging from the hole, or at least that’s what he claimed. From that point on, for weeks on end, the meetings would end with the neighbors marching towards the hole, baptized as “The Hole of Mystery”, with candles and ribbons. Each week it was cleaned and decorated in new surprising ways depending on whatever material was at hand. The passers by might have considered that this is some age-old Barcelona religious tradition, and not a tongue in cheek struggle over the appearance of public space.
The Basic Elements of Fermented Economies
There is a reason why I told you this story. Cruïlles is a rare example, but it is worth taking a close look at. What do we have here? We have a repetitive event that never repeats itself. Each encounter is surprising and original, simply because there is an openness to being surprised. There is a welcoming, a dialogic approach towards the other, which enhances a rootedness in geographical space. And it is this simple recipe that brings out the unique flavor of a city corner that most would consider to be suffering from neglect. It is this simple recipe that ferments neighbor-power that bubbles up from below. This neighbor power is not based on a neighbor being from this place or that, but simply from the fact of being neighborly.
Now I’ll throw this one last thing at you: could something be learned from this experience that can inform non-normative ways of doing just about anything? Particularly I would be interested in fermenting economies from below in a similar fashion. Could a sense of openness to surprises help us discover resources that are right here under our noses? Could The Economy be replaced by a biodiversity of surprise economies sprouting up from the street corners? I propose all people reading this should try, and lets meet again in 10 years and talk about it.
If you are interested in having a conversation regarding surprise economies or related subjects feel completely free to write to: email@example.com