Seville’s a funny old place riddled with confusing contradictions. One minute it’s die hard religious tradition, all suits, black veils and pointy hoods. But the next, the very same followers of god are propping up a bar, knocking back cervezas before moving onto a very large whisky and coke. It’s kind of dizzying in its inconsistency, permissive yet conservative, rigid and yet anarchic. I’ve lived here for over 4 years and I am still none the wiser.
These perplexing dichotomies particularly come into play in the current battleground of noise control in the city’s historic centre. Seville is a social city, social in the sense that almost without exception people spend a large slice of their free time hanging outside bars with their friends and family. Back in 2012 it was reported that there was a bar for every 180 of the population, that’s roughly 4000 bars in total. Throw into the mix the Andalucian capital’s weather, which bar five months of the year, is flaming hot. And on a pleasant, balmy night there’s no place anyone would rather be than you’ve guessed it, drinking outside. Someone could open a bar with some ultra cool, stylish interiors and yet it would remain utterly empty as everyone squeezes themselves onto the pavement, doing what ‘Sevillanos’ do best, drink beer ‘en la calle´.
And then there are the ‘veladores’ or outdoor tables. Even I if given the choice on a warm evening, will choose an outside table over sitting inside a bar or restaurant. It’s a no brainer and so most bar owners will squeeze as many tables and chairs outside their tiny bar to capture the trade from their tableless competitors. The trouble is in order to have outside tables, bar owners are supposed to obtain a special license which dictates the number of tables and the time until which they can be in operation, which apart from special occasions such as Semana Santa, is until 1am. As a result, many bars risk putting out tables license free, therefore avoiding restrictions due to their unofficial status and serve their rather loud customers until the early hours.
Emilia de la Serna, spokesperson for neighbours against noise action group ‘Plataforma Por El Descanso en Sevilla’ estimates that about 80% of the cities outside tables are unlicensed. ‘The situation is illegal but it is protected by the council who have stopped inspectors from going out after 2am or at weekends. For them noise that isn’t measured doesn’t exist’. Emilia who has spent a small fortune on turning her smart family apartment into what she calls ‘a bunker’ to spare herself and her family from the relentless noise emanating from the street below says, ‘you are abused in your own house. Someone else, in order to make money, has taken the control of your own life and is telling you when you are allowed to sleep, Someone else has taken the control of your children’s rights too. You have done nothing, you were happily at home and suddenly a new business started serving drinks outside, or organizing concerts under your bedroom’.
Last summer, the local council under the leadership of Juan Ignacio Zoido, announced a series of new regulations designed to crack down on the level of noise and appease the groups of neighbours campaigning for their right to rest in their own home. Numbering amongst the new rules were the headline-grabbing prohibition of playing dominoes outside bars, plus further restriction on public drinking and music in bars, but Emilia de la Serna remains unconvinced saying that the council ‘mocks their organisation’. She goes on, ‘they use us, they say "let´s sit down and discuss" and then throw any recommendations in the bin saying that any regulations have been born out of consensus’. It’s fair to surmise that Ms Serna is not happy with the state of affairs.
What then of the recent crack down by Señor Zoido on the activity of bars in noise hotspots the Arenal, Alfalfa and Alameda? On one of the most profitable weekends of the year, the last weekend before Christmas, the local police backed by the council, temporarily closed down twelve bars, eleven of which for permitting drinking alcohol outside their premises on the public street and one for exceeding its fire limit inside. The operation was, according to the police, as a result of a series of complaints made by local residents in all three areas, who were at their wits’ end following night after night of unbearable noise.
But the bar owners affected don’t quite see things in the same light. Francisco Algaba, owner of Eureka in the Alameda, shut down for ten days over Christmas and fined €3000 Euros, has been left perplexed by the police’s actions. ‘The Police came at 9pm to the Alameda with a list of bars they had already decided to close. They said there were too many people outside and it was dangerous. It was Christmas for god’s sake, of course there were people outside. And why come at 9pm, what danger could be happening at that time? On any one weekend, according to these ridiculous unenforceable laws, you could shut down any bar in this city. So why did they choose us? I just don’t get it’. Algaba estimates that he has lost almost €30,000 due the closure, not to mention the 12 workers who found themselves jobless over the festive period.
The majority of the bars were reopened within two weeks after the police operation, but one in the Arenal ‘El Gallo Negro’ remained closed for two months and was given a fine of €6000. But in the last few days, a judge has overturned the action saying it was an ‘unreasonable case of making an example’, as normally in such cases if a fine is issued, it is not necessary to close down the business as well. So Zoido’s administration will have to cough up and cover all the bar’s costs accrued in the whole process; an expensive night’s work for both the bar owners and the local government.
Since Christmas then, there’s been a palpable air of tension emanating around areas such as the city’s main nightlife district the Alameda, with bars displaying signs urging their customers to consume their beverages sitting down and within the bars’ official designated areas. Something that is rather an impossible task due to your average Sevillano’s innate tendency to drink while standing up, where and when they please. So it was no surprise then that a few weekends ago, one of the Alameda’s most frequented and oldest bars ‘Café Central’ was shut down by the police in a similar operation to that carried out before Christmas.
On an average Saturday night at just after 1am it wasn’t unusual to see people still standing outside of Café Central drinking with friends. On such nights drinking after hours (the bar can serve until 1am) would have been greeted by gentle encouragement by the police to drink up and get on your way, but not this time. On arrival the police allegedly smashed the glasses of anyone in the vicinity of Café Central to the ground and forced them to enter the bar with the threat of a €100 fine for public drinking (regardless of whether they were customers or not). The bar itself has a license for up to 83 people, and following the actions of the police the numbers inside swelled from approximately 40 people to 144, thus exceeding their legal limit and giving the police the perfect excuse to close down the bar from immediate effect. CCTV images have been presented to the local government department involved in issuing licenses, with the hope that the actions can be revoked. But for the moment, Café Central remains closed and its 12 staff without jobs.
With just two months to go until the Municipal elections, it’s possible that these high profile bar closures form part of a campaign to curry favour with swing voters, who might just vote PP if the noise problem is seen to be tackled in some way. And according to the political party ‘La Izquierda Unida’ (The United Left), there is indeed ‘more than a hint of electioneering,’ adding that ‘repression isn’t the solution’ and asking for ‘an agreement between all parties involved in the disputes’.
But I suppose my question is as an outside observer, can there ever be an agreement between parties whose interests are so diametrically opposed? It would seem it depends on who you are and where you live. Both neighbourhood groups and bar owners bemoan an utter lack of consistency on behalf of the council, so if they’re not defending the residents, the bar owners, or the revellers, then the question that begs to be asked, whose rights are they defending?
As an aside here, it’s interesting to note that strong religious traditions such as Semana Santa (Easter) and general religious processions and holidays, receive a ‘get out of jail free pass’ when it comes to noise restrictions. Even though between the marching bands, the rockets going off in the street, the general throng of the crowds and the packed bars, you’d be hard pressed to find anything noisier. Something that to many makes an utter mockery of the poe-faced noise abatement rules introduced in 2014.
Bar owner Francisco Algaba, a young man during the Franco era, sees the tough stance taken by the conservative local government in conjunction with the police as having more sinister tones. ‘This is a persecution, it’s worse than the inquisition, worse than Franco. It’s anti-constitutional’.
It remains to be seen how events will play out between now and the municipal elections in May, but for many it all forms part of a greater fabric of repressive policies being implemented by the Partido Popular at large, encroaching on the civil liberties of those that might stand in their way of their re-election later on in the year.