Europe '96: Madrid: Okupa

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That Friday, I went to a small party at Sonia & Luis's place just west of old Madrid. Pleasant, not that much to write about, amazing how many ways the Spanish eat portions of the pig, an animal I just don't eat, but in any case mention of this party is a necessary preface to the real story.

Two key facts: (1) Sonia & Luis had mentioned that we couldn't get together Saturday night because they already had plans. (2) At their party I met a man named Miguel who was talking at some length about an "okupa" (squat) he is involved in: a building had been left vacant in Lavapies (a rather interesting and diverse part of Madrid, quite near the center) for 5 years by a landlord who wanted to tear it down but wasn't allowed to tear down a usable building in a historic neighborhood, so he decided to let it rot till it wasn't usable. The squatters moved in at the beginning of April and are trying to turn it into a combination dwelling and community center.


[Exterior of 
the Okupa (sketch)]

Saturday evening, I was wandering around Lavapies, and saw a poster for an open party at 8pm in an okupa. I thought to myself, "I wonder whether that's Miguel's okupa." I figured it might be a good party either way. I found the place -- Calle Lavapies, 15 -- and there was a sign with the squatter symbol plus two linked male symbols, two linked female symbols, and the text: "Centro Social Okupado: !Lavapies 15! !Aqui empieza la rehabilitacion! Contra la especulacion" (Occupied/Squatted Social Center: Lavapies 15! Rehabilitation starts here! Against speculation [in land values]). I started sketching the building and the sign, and before I finished, there was Miguel. I ended up with a very comprehensive tour of the squat. The top storey needs a lot of work, but the other two are fine. Running water, electricity, functional bathroom! Squat deluxe.

The party was great, equal parts rent party, tertulia, cabaret, and dance bar. Nearly everyone from Sonia & Luis's party the night before was there, plus 75 other people. Two women did a very fine cabaret performance for an hour or so, maybe more, it was not a situation in which you keep track of time. I ended up meeting several people and ducked out for late (midnight) dinner with an Englishman who was there. His name was Mark. He works for a UK think tank with a name something about "social markets" which he describes as "slightly to the left of the Cato Institute." Sounded somewhere in the range of the more socially responsible wing of the US Libertarian Party. Odd guy to meet in a squat, & the sort of Englishman who seems to think the Spaniards should know English, but basically a nice guy. Also of Jewish background, as it happens, spent some time in a kibbutz, and did his undergrad work at Northeastern in Boston. But I digress.

[Cabaret at 
the Okupa (sketch)]

The cabaret performance: gigantic weird wigs made out of insulation material or such, wildly painted; half a dozen long sketches on subjects ranging from watching movies (Gone With the Wind, in particular), to looking for work, to a very funny half improvised extended pseudo-pirate-radio-broadcast. Also a weird almost Brechtian thing with interlocking sob stories about being abandoned by two different guys (or maybe the same guy) in Memphis.

After the cabaret, dancing in one room (where the bar was), miscellaneous conversation in the space that had been used for theater, etc.

Observation: this is a middle class squat. Few if any non-whites (in a very mixed neighborhood). Many partygoers were professionals, or as they'd say here, licenciados: besides the aforementioned think-tanker, at least one doctor, one chemist, miscellaneous computer types (myself included). Insofar as I could identify the actual squatters, some might not hold middle class jobs, but there is no question what class they hail from. Lots of cool post-punk styling, but no working class punks. This is in no way said to censure, just very different than any other squat I've known in the US and any but one in the UK, hence worthy of note. Also, not young for a squatting crowd. Median age early thirties. In any case, I wish them the best of luck in keeping it going.

[Interior of 
the Okupa (sketch)]

[Addendum 2002: I'm not sure of the details of the ultimate demise of the squat, but apparently it lasted about a year and then, as usually happens, normal legal property rights won out, backed by police violence 🔗; by the end of 1999 there was a new building on the site.]

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Originally written: 1996

Last modified: 28 February 2021

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