When I landed in Madrid in September ’16, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted in a neighborhood. I’d been stalking blogs for almost a year prior, so my expectations were set pretty high. I wanted to live in the city center near all the hustle and bustle; with the kind of views that a postcard couldn’t even compete with. So while I spent my first few days in an Airbnb, I was apartment hunting like my life depended on it.
Too bad life has a funny way of reminding me I’m not in control. I got denied apartment rentals at least 10 times a day. It even got to the point that I considered temporarily living in a hostel. Fortunately I met two equally desperate American auxiliares, so we soon began looking for apartments together. When I found a gorgeous 3 bedroom piso online, I scheduled to see it the very next day. We were so impressed at the end of the tour that we were drafting potential leases that same night. There was only one source of hesitation: the neighborhood. It was completely unfamiliar. More distant than we imagined. Not quite as hip as the streets of La Latina or Malasaña. I scoured the web for more information about the area, but found no mention from students or other English teachers. When I finally asked Spanish natives for advice, the overwhelming response was disapproval. They called it ghetto, boring, dirty, and even dangerous. Not one person had anything positive to say. Nevertheless, we moved forward with renting the apartment. I was determined to learn more about my future community and make the effort to form an opinion of my own.
In a building between metros Oporto (L5) and Opañel (L6), I live in the district referred to as Carabanchel. It’s split into seven barrios, or neighborhoods: Abrantes, Comillas, Opañel, Puerta Bonita, San Isidro, and Vista Alegre. With an estimated 270,000 residents, it’s the most populated district in the city of Madrid. It also, like Lavapiés, is known for its diverse population; home to many North African, South American, Asian, and East European immigrants.
Though part of Madrid, it is considered a suburb by many – forming the most southwest border of the city. Surrounding districts are Latina (west), Arganzuela (northeast), and Usera (east). Further south is the (actual) suburb of Leganès. Well-known attractions in the district include Cárcel de Carabanchel, Parque de San Isidro, Puente de Toledo, and Islazul.
I’ve seen my fair share of neighborhoods. I’ve inhabited suburbs and inner-cities alike, from the South Side of Chicago to the North Suburbs of Atlanta. I know what it’s like to be friends with everyone on the block, and I know what it’s like to be afraid of your neighbors. Carabanchel is the “hood” of Madrid, but not by the dangerous (and often fallacious) standards we typically think of. Much like the South and West Side of Chicago, there are economic factors stratifying the population. Poverty is perpetuated by a lack of resources, which puts the district low on the totem pole for new developments. Residents express frustration with poor citywide representation, like being excluded from the bikeshare program BiciMadrid. There have also been protests against the influx of cemeteries, when gymnasiums or health centers are much more needed in the community.
In stark contrast to the state of Chicago, I have NEVER felt unsafe living in Opañel. In fact, I’ve walked the streets at 3 am without even bothering to take out my headphones. Due to differences in economy and legislation, there isn’t as large a presence of violence and drugs. I’ve seen examples of what I guess could be “gang-related” graffiti, but with names like Ebola Criminals, I’m far more amused than concerned. The truth is, Opañel is a neighborhood of families. You’ll see a senior citizens, school-uniformed teenagers, and adults eating tapas. These have become the familiar faces of my community. I’ve made friends with local business owners, and the regulars on my commute. I get called hermana and hija, and it my warms my heart.
The streets aren’t at glamorous as you’d expect of Madrid. There are no grand palaces or plazas to claim. The sidewalks are littered with flyers for anonymous prostitutes, and the buildings are covered in elementary graffiti. I’m convinced tapas bars and chinos make 80% of the economy, not including the peddlers who sell kleenex, tamales, and fake Nikes every day.
But if I had the chance to start over, I wouldn’t change a damn thing. I love living in an area that most tourists avoid. I love getting to know the “ugly” and “boring” part of town. I love the views that I get when I stand on my balcony. I love the diversity represented in the faces I see – the Colombian bakery across the street and the afro peluquería just up the block. When I walk through Opañel, I feel like I’m home, not just an expat in a foreign land.