I’ve always said that communities evolve and that things change – there’s no stopping it. Businesses come and go, people come and go, and the character of the place changes. It isn’t good or bad, right or wrong; but when it happens to you, when it messes with a reality that you’ve held in your head as a high water mark that helped define you as a person and served as a benchmark in your life, it isn’t pleasant.
When Wal-Mart first came to Vermont, the last holdout state in the country without one, there was public outcry from all directions. The end of innocence, many said; if they come our way of life is over, small businesses will be forced to close, entire communities will change. “It will be the same as what happened to small towns when the interstate highway system went in,” said a man holding a STOP WAL*MART sign in front of the newly-opened store. “All the cars will bypass the towns and the towns will die. There’s no upside – everybody loses.” Everybody, that is, except the 200 or so people who got full-time jobs there and the countless people in the supply chain who indirectly found jobs as a result of their presence. But like it or not, in spite of the perceived downside, Wal-Mart’s arrival had a positive impact on the local economy – a net add. The same is true of Costco, and Home Depot, and Linens-n-Things, and countless other faceless box stores that funnel money into the local economy. I may not like certain aspects of the evolution, but after the final accounting, things are in the black.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for my childhood home.
In 1968 my father’s job as an exploration geologist for Chevron took our family to Madrid. This was still Franco’s Spain, a right-wing police state of rules and pomp and circumstance constructed around a core of self-importance. The country was clean and well-maintained, there were monuments to self everywhere, and the only perceived social ills were the omnipresent Gypsies that would rob you blind if you let them (one of them once tried to carry off my dog). Spain was the safest place on earth – you could walk down the darkest, dingiest street in the city at 3 AM without a fear in the world, because the criminals knew: mess with the public order and you will disappear.
I was reminded of this recently when I found myself in a taxi in Chicago and the driver began to extoll the virtues of the city’s mayor. My wife and I were there for a trade show, and while riding back to the hotel from the convention center, we chatted with the driver, commenting about how clean the downtown area was and how safe we felt. “Yessuh,” said the taxi driver, a black man from New Orleans who was as big as a house and who played trombone in a local jazz band. “You can thank the mayor for dat,” he explained. “Dis mayor cares about his city and he spends a lot of money to make it what it is.” Then he paused for a moment and said, rather ominously, “You mess with the Mayor’s city and he gonna f**k you up.”
That’s what Madrid was like in the 60s and early 70s. Draconian? Perhaps. But who am I to judge?
Time shift, now, to February 2012. I was in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress to give a series of talks, and decided to spend a few days in Madrid afterward. The last time I was there was mid-2001, and the tech bubble was on fire – it wasn’t due to collapse for another few months. Spain was happy, vibrant – even the Gypsies were profiting, harvesting riches from the hordes of tourists that swarmed the city. If they weren’t fleecing the public through pity (hungry babies, fake disabilities) they were flagrantly stealing. My wife once chased a group of Gypsy women away from an American woman whose backpack they were rifling, while it was on her back – in a crowd. They were completely unconcerned; she was completely unaware.
This trip, though, the Gypsies are nowhere to be found. In three days I saw two, not the swarms I’ve learned to be wary of. What I did see, though, were immigrants of another sort: West Africans, Romanians, Albanians, all with a game or an angle, street-tough (and street-worn) Russian prostitutes who disappeared into the shadows when the police passed by.
Spain is currently in the top ten of the European economic failures. With unemployment topping 20% and national debt at a staggering € 680 billion, only Greece and Italy surpass it in terms of economic morbidity among developed European nations.
The Plaza Mayor is the historical center of Madrid. Built in the 17th century as the administrative center of the city, it is an enclosed, cobblestoned square with arched stairways leading off in all directions. Architecturally it is a treasure. There are small cafes in each corner, perfect for people-watching, and there have always been clusters of students scattered about, often surrounding a guitarist playing soul-stirring Flamenco. There were artists as well, and under the arches of the inside perimeter of the Plaza there were always coin and stamp vendors, selling to collectors. But now things have changed. Instead of the old Spanish men selling coins and stamps, they have been replaced by north Africans who, at the first hint of a police presence, grab their blankets and bootleg products and melt into the crowd.
The artists have been replaced with marginally-skilled caricaturists. And the guitarists and students are now overwhelmed by an armada of Brobdingnagian cartoon characters. Over there you can have your picture taken with seven-foot Smurfs. Here, Mickey and Minnie Mouse. In that corner, Garfield. And in the center, in the shadow of the giant bronze statue of Felipe III, an extremely fat man dressed in a Spiderman suit tries desperately to look superhero-like, a wedge of hairy belly sticking out between the two halves of his costume.
Leaving Plaza Mayor I stroll up Gran Vía to the Plaza de España, a monument to the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. The centerpiece of the plaza is a tall marble monument with fountains. The monument itself is covered with carved likenesses of characters from Cervantes’ many books, and on the back side, facing the royal palace, is a massive bronze statue of the errant knight himself astride his horse Rocinante, and his sidekick Sancho Panza on his mule. It’s a massive execution, ten feet tall at least. But today it is covered with graffiti, and at 9:00 in the morning four very drunk Russian teenage boys are climbing on Rocinante, making lewd sexual movements with the horse. Two police officers standing nearby watch but do nothing. When I lived in Spain many years ago (and I must say, admittedly, many years ago), that statue was a point of pride in the city, and to touch it or deface it was to risk losing a hand. The Guardia Civil, the state police agency, was a group to be revered – and feared. What the hell happened?
One of the beer bottles falls over and breaks; the teen boys laugh loudly, ask if I want beer. The police continue to ignore them.
But it wasn’t just the Plaza de España in Madrid where I saw aberrant behavior. On March 1st, while I was attending Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the 60,000 attendees of the conference were joined by 25,000 protesters, many of them students, who flooded the city’s Plaza de España in front of the bullring, which is now a covered shopping mall. Protesting the rising cost of tuition, the moribund economy, and bleak employment prospects, the crowd swarmed the Plaza in a Facebook and Twitter-coordinated assault and stopped traffic in all directions. They were loud, a bit rowdy perhaps, but relatively well-behaved until an uglier element arrived in the afternoon (anarchists, I was told). That was when the damage started; they set trash bins afire, broke windows in cars and businesses, and created violent havoc until the police arrived, breaking heads and dispersing the crowds -- An “Occupy movement” of a whole different sort.
As I watched all of this going on, I could not help but draw references to Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. In that book he tells the story of New York City before Giuliani, when the city was garbage-ridden, police were not respected and the subway was for fools – or those looking for trouble of the worst possible kind. The city had stepped over that invisible line, that tipping point, beyond which the decay of social order accelerates rapidly and often, cannot be stopped. But Giuliani did stop it, by identifying and eliminating those elements that empowered the lawless element in New York.
Is this transformation a necessary part of the evolution of Europe, and by extension, Spain? Perhaps. But for someone who remembers a very different place, that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.