20 November 2012

The Republican Urinal

Visitors caught short in Alcalá will search in vain for a public convenience, but ´twas not ever thus.  During the short-lived Second Republic of the 1930s, the town's socialist administration provided the good people of Alcalá with a number of facilities previously lacking: a museum, a covered market, a library, and a public urinal.  However, it was nearly as short-lived as the Republic itself.

Here is its story (an abridged translation of an article by Jaime Guerra Martinez on the Historia de Alcalá de los Gazules blog).

The hexagonal public conveniences, a short hop from the bus stop

What disappointment was suffered
By the sons of our city
Over the public urinal
Built opposite Bernal's

This verse, sung by a band of street musicians during Alcalá's Carnival in the 1930s, reflected the popular reaction among the less prudish citizens to the introduction of a charge for using the recently-opened public urinal in what was then the Paseo de la República.

The urinal was a symbol of liberty for some, offering an essential public service and demystifying a natural physiological necessity, while for others it was affront to decency, bringing into public view something which should be done at home. But one has to wonder how many houses had adequate facilities for such functions, apart from the tin bucket in which the “doings of the stomach” were kept until nightfall, zealously protected from the flies.

Either way, what is certain is that our public convenience was born, lived and died during the most hazardous decade of 20th century Spain, the 1930s. Today it survives only in the memories of the elderly, a few photographs and the not insignificant records held in our Municipal Archive, which I choose bring to light to indulge my curiosity over what went on in that ill-fated hexagon, what was written on its walls, what comments and presumptions were ingrained in its encrusted yellowing basins .... 

The work was part of a group of construction projects carried out under the local Republican administration to improve the infrastructure and facilities of the town. It was agreed to build a “lavatory” opposite the house of Don Domingo Bernal on the Paseo de la República [now the Paseo de la Playa]. It was built in the spring of 1932, in the form of a hexagon whose sides corresponded with the six urinals inside. It was finished with decorative brickwork, in a reasonably harmonious vernacular style.

Nevertheless its location wasn't ideal, and the level of cleaning wasn't up to scratch, provoking irate protests from various citizens, some of whom regarded as too public certain things that ought to be more private. The objections came to a head when users were obliged to pay a charge towards its maintenance and the cost of an attendant.

So in September 1933 Don Andrés Jobacho, master builder, wrote to the council offering to demolish it and replace it with an underground one nearby, in exchange for the materials used for the original. The reasons given were the lack of hygiene, the loss of visibility from the Paseo, and the unaesthetic appearance and layout of the hexagon. The new location would be underneath a house he was building, which later became a shop [today it is the Cafeteria Siglo XXI].

Andrés Jobacho's proposed underground loos
The council appointed a Committee to report on the proposal, which found some important details were missing.  Jobacho was given the opportunity to revise it, and in February 1934 he delivered a new plan of the underground toilets, with separate cubicles for men and women, using the existing materials, sewerage disposal and water supply.

On 7 February Jobacho's proposal was approved, with just one opposing vote, a local builder called Gaspar Muñoz, who had pointed out the shortcomings in the original proposal.

By September Jobacho had all his permits, including the approval of the National Body of Engineers for Roads, Canals and Ports of the Province of Cadiz, and the Town Hall gave its authorisation on 26 September 1934.

The new toilets would have been underneath the
building in the foreground, now Siglo XXI

Nevertheless, the hexagonal urinal was not pulled down and neither was the underground one built. The reason was the change in Alcalá's [socialist] municipal government after the victory of CEDA [Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right] in the October 1934 elections.

In March 1938 it was proposed to build a new installation on the corner between the bull-ring and Calle Sánchez Flores, on a plot where a ruined house had been demolished. It would have six toilet compartments and the tiles from the original construction would be re-used. The budget rose to 1407 pesetas.

The 1938 plan, which never came to fruition

But this project did not go forward either, temporarily prolonging the life of the much-maligned hexagon.  On 9 June 1938 it was agreed that the “kiosk of necessities” should instead be turned into a bar or cafe, and the proceeds from its lease would contribute towards the planned indoor market. But the resolution was not well received and there were no takers for the lease, mainly because they would have to refurbish the building themselves.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Juan Cubo Cid, the attendant, requested retirement (not before time - he was 87). His request was approved,  the Management Committee abolished the post and the facility was closed.

On 29 December 1941 it was agreed to proceed with its demolition, a job which was given to Gaspar Muñoz Márquez, the builder who had voted against the original construction, who bought the materials for 450 pts.

This finally brought an end to the controversy, breaking definitively with that symbol which at that point in history had to be removed at any cost – the Republican urinal.

11 November 2012

Suicide or murder? Spain's other banking crisis

Last Friday a 53-year-old woman in the Basque Country threw herself out of the window of her 6th floor flat while the bailiffs were coming up the stairs to evict her for failing to keep up her mortgage repayments to La Caixa.  She was a former councillor, married with a 21-year-old son.  None of the neighbours were aware of the family's financial problems.

On 23 October a young man threw himself off a road bridge in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, after losing his job, his girlfriend and his home in quick succession.

On 24 October a 54-year-old man in Granada hanged himself in his patio after receiving an eviction notice from BBVA.  He had lived in the area all his life, and bought out his brothers' share of the property when they inherited it, but could no longer afford the repayments from the little he earned running a street kiosk.

On 7 July a 56-year-old disabled woman facing eviction threw herself out of the window of her eleventh-floor flat in Málaga city.  She got caught up on some railings and hung there helplessly for several minutes before falling to her death, watched by over a hundred people.  There was little press coverage, leading to speculation that the news had been suppressed.

Asasinos - murderers
There are probably many similar tragedies, but the National Institute of Statistics stopped reporting the reasons behind suicides in 2010.   However it is estimated that a third of suicides in Spain these days are related to the economic crisis.  Some people consider that the blame falls squarely on the banks, and that these "suicides"  are more accurately described as murders, leading to a graffiti campaign in many cities.

Since the financial bubble burst in 2008, over 350,000 families have been evicted from their homes after defaulting on their mortgage payments.  There is no housing benefit in Spain, and no statutory requirement to re-house people who lose their homes, even though Article 47 of the Constitution states that "all Spaniards have the right to enjoy decent and adequate housing".  Care of the homeless is largely left to charities like the Red Cross.

 Meanwhile, the number of jobless is predicted to reach six million next year, more than a quarter of the working population.  For those still working, wages have been cut by up to 20% in some parts of the public sector.

50-year 120% mortgages on offer
During Spain's property boom, banks were handing out  mortgages to pretty well anyone who applied, including construction workers, immigrants on temporary contracts and young couples on low salaries.  They were even offering loans greater than they value of the property; house prices were rising by 10% a year, much more in some areas.

When the bubble burst in 2008, the building stopped, unemployment rose dramatically and many people could no longer afford to make their high mortgage repayments.

Under Spanish law, homeowners who fall behind with their mortgage repayments see their property repossessed by the lender, but are still responsible for paying off the debt.  There is no personal bankruptcy option in Spain, at least not without a long and costly court procedure.  In their election manifesto the Partido Popular included a pledge to change the law to "allow for debtors to be freed of their debts".  Since coming to power, this appears to have been quietly dropped.

Waiting for the bailiffs in Almería, copy of the Spanish Constitution in hand
Resistance to evictions has been vigorous. The Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for those affected by mortgages, or PAH) was set up in Barcelona in February 2009 and has branches all over the country.  Their  "Stop Desahucios" activists have prevented hundreds of evictions, protesting outside banks and blocking the entry of bailiffs.  They have also organised the reoccupation of empty buildings repossessed by banks.  Their long term goal is to have the laws relating to mortgages changed.

Last Thursday, the European Court of Justice’s advocate general, Juliane Kokott, handed down a non-binding legal opinion that criticized Spanish laws regarding evictions, saying they were incompatible with European norms. The ruling came in response to a query from a Spanish court on a 2011 lawsuit over an eviction due to an unpaid mortgage. Kokott said the Spanish system did not sufficiently protect consumers against possible abusive clauses in mortgage contracts.

Non-violent civil disobedience by PAH members outside a bank in Málaga
Meanwhile society is coming up with its own innovative solutions.  Last week the Mayor of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, José Manuel Bermúdez, carried out his threat not to work with banks who failed to negotiate terms with defaulters and withdrew 1.5 million Euros from the city's account with Bankia (the same bank which has been bailed out with billions of euros of taxpayers' money).   Bankia swiftly reversed its decision to evict three families in the town.  One was that of Carmen Omaña, a Venezuelan whose husband had left her and her children after she was sacked from her job as a domestic cleaner.  Carmen had been on hunger strike for five days outside the branch, accompanied by PAH activists and local councillors.

Carmen and her childen will be rehoused at a rent she can afford
Leaders of the Spanish Police Union, the SUP, have just confirmed they will back officers who refuse to take part in evicting people from their homes.

Prompted by the national and international reaction to the suicides (much harder to ignore than street protests), the Spanish government has put together a "task force" to examine the problem of evictions.  It is not expected to report until January 2013.  In the meantime banks are being requested (not ordered) to freeze all foreclosures currently under way.

Changes in the law will come too late for Amaia Egaña in Barakaldo ...
... too late for José Miguel Domingo in Granada ...
... and too late for Isabel in Málaga.