Casa de Abdul: site of one of the first homes demolished in the Cañada. Photo: Pedro Martínez
I was cutting cheese the night before I went to the Cañada. A friend was over and I mentioned my plans for the following day. He pointed to the knife in my hand.
“You’d better take that.”
His comment, though said with a laugh, isn’t surprising given the picture that forms in the mind of many Madrilenians when they imagine the Cañada Real Galiana, a much-maligned and under-threat neighbourhood in the south-east of Madrid.
The next day, as our train pulls up in the suburb of Coslada, Susana, our guide, says, “Everyone thinks the people who live in the Cañada just throw stones at cops, sell drugs and steal copper.”
Susana Camacho works in the Cañada daily, helping its many marginalised Gypsy families. And one recent Sunday, as part of an international neighbourhood awareness initiative known as Jane’s Walk, she led twenty of us through it.
Seen from the air the Cañada is a strange sight; a narrow 15-kilometre residential strip — a single road bordered by houses and some businesses — that snakes through the landscape, following one of Spain’s centuries-old drovers’ roads.
It fell into disuse last century as livestock began being moved by truck and train. But in the 1950s Madrilenians put the ribbon of land to use again, planting kitchen gardens and orchards. Then, when the garden sheds grew into second homes, the government turned a blind eye. And soon word spread that if you built a house in the Cañada the authorities wouldn’t stop you, or make you pay for the land. Spaniards and immigrants, many of modest means, came in waves.
But now the fact that the 15,000 residents are living on land they don’t — and can’t — own is coming back to haunt them.
At the end of a narrow street in Coslada, a small sign marks the start of the Cañada.
We enter sector one.
The sectors — there are six of them — are a demarcation imposed by tax inspectors trying to make sense of the place in the 1980s. The settlement also passes through four towns — Coslada, Madrid, Rivas-Vaciamadrid and Getafe. The sectors are signposted, the towns are not. Fifteen kilometres from Puerta del Sol, these people live, literally, off the map.
In the early sectors, we pass a strange mix of self-built homes. Some are well constructed, with two storeys and vegetable gardens; others are crooked and precarious, the brickwork messy and sections draped in tarpaulin.
The streetlights and power lines were installed by locals, and electricity is siphoned off the grid.
Barking dogs shove their snouts through gates. Otherwise, the Cañada is quiet. With no footpaths or squares, residents stay indoors. The street is often a corridor, bound in by high walls that are sometimes topped with glass shards — homemade barbed wire.
And behind each home, beyond the Cañada, is open country.
The sealed road soon breaks up and we pick around wide, watery potholes. Susana points out gaps where houses used to be; homes that have been demolished.
In a dim makeshift hut in sector three, Pilar, a Gyspy woman, sits at a table. She and her husband spent the winter in this stopgap shack after the Madrid authorities knocked their house down last year. Behind their hut is an empty lot littered with wood and concrete — the remains of their home. It cost them €30,000 to build and they’d lived there eight years.
The demolitions began in 2007. Susana shows us why: to the west a network of roads twists around large, empty lots. Before Spain’s economy went belly up, residential developments were closing in on the Cañada. This land had become valuable. But the property bubble burst, the apartments were never built and the Cañada survived.
Also, locals started fighting back, hiring lawyers and boning-up on their rights. There hasn’t been a demolition for six months, except in the drug market in sector six.
But anxiety lingers. An old woman stops us further up the road. “Are they knocking a house down?” she asks, likely mistaking us for a social action group.
Services vary from sector to sector and each is fighting its own battles. In sector four, the local neighbourhood association has laid out morning tea. Lidia, the association’s president and a third generation Cañadian, describes life in the sector. It’s a picture of dysfunction.
They have no landlines, electricity is pulled off the grid and there’s no postal service. The lack of mail makes dealing with Spanish bureaucracy — registering your car, enrolling your child at school — all the more painful.
A few years ago locals bought truckloads of gravel to lay a footpath on the sector’s unpaved road. Their children, who walk to school outside the area, were getting to class mud-caked; wearing, Lidia says, the “mark of the Cañada”.
But before they could lay the gravel the Rivas authorities sent trucks and took it all away.
Lidia believes the authorities want to keep the Cañada unstable; thereby making the job easier if they decide to knock it down.
There is, though, an inkling of hope. A 2011 law gives the four towns a two-year deadline to find a solution to the Cañada. Locals want their land legalised. But the authorities could decide to clear the settlement.
And the Cañada’s image problem is frustrating. “The press only cover sector six,” says Rosa, the association’s vice president. But here in sector four, she says, their children play in the street and they leave their doors unlocked. “There are other parts to the Cañada, other realities.”
The muddy trail goes on. We pass impressive homes, improvised homes, demolished homes, half-constructed buildings, construction businesses, scrap yards. The hodgepodge of materials and paints make this a colourful place.
Local men, Moroccan immigrants, sit beneath olive trees beside the road in sector five. Others pass on their way to prayer. Up ahead we hear children, a complaining baby, the creak of swings — unusual sounds in the Cañada.
At a small makeshift park, local Moroccan woman are waiting for us.
Last year two associations — Todo por la Praxis and Arquitectos Sin Fronteras — asked sector five locals what they wanted most. Somewhere to gather, they said, somewhere for their children to play. So the associations and residents built this park. “It’s humble,” says one of the architects, “but there are more benches and there’s more shade than the Plaza de Callao.”
It’s the only common space in the Cañada.
Three young boys play on swings made from old tyres. We sit on tyres dug into the ground and eat lunch beneath overhead tarpaulins. The local women pour us soft drinks and an old man offers tea from a beaten teapot.
After lunch, we head south into sector six.
The traffic becomes steady; from crapped-out cundas, crammed with hollow-eyed passengers, to late-model BMWs, to cop cars. Families, mostly Spanish Gypsies, sit outside their houses. They call out to us. They want to know what we’re doing. They laugh when we say we’re taking a walk through the Cañada.
This is the drug market — the decaying two-kilometre strip that taints the entire settlement. The drug clans arrived in 2007 and now each house is a shop, each shop operates 24 hours and each clan takes in around €30,000 a day.
Luxury cars park in the driveways of tumbledown houses.
Addicts drift about like phantoms, some so far gone their faces have collapsed. A man unwraps a tube from his arm and two others sit in the dirt, needles in their hands. Cundas line up in a row, a flash of silver as a passenger smokes heroin, the guy next to him knocked out.
One man, alone in his car, looks in better shape. He hides his face as we pass.
Dunes of rubbish amass beside the road.
We stop to pee at a white church marooned in the waste land. Three boisterous boys hang about, angling for a ride on one of our bikes. Susana knows them and asks how school is. They badger us for a cigarette. Instead someone pulls out a bag of lollies. One boy, about twelve, pretends to flash a gun.
“Give me one or I’ll shoot.”
The Cañada is full of kids. Susana works with many of them, organising play groups and activities, trying to give their lives some normality. Later, one little girl tells us she’d heard we’d come to the Cañada to play with the children.
Then, as abruptly as it began, the drug market ends. The junkies disappear and the road is quiet again, bar the odd cunda hurtling past.
Susana stops at a high point, with striking views of the sierras to the north. Just west of here, she says, is one of the sites Sheldon Adelson is mulling over for his €27 billion gamblers’ paradise. While the prospective plans for Eurovegas don’t include the Cañada, they run close. And it’s clear shanty-town-views are not what Sheldon has in mind for his guests.
The go-ahead would probably mean the dismantling of sector six.
Heading deeper into the sector, the road becomes debris-strewn and is flanked by sad shanty shacks, tyres holding their roofs down.
Section six is half the Cañada and, with public transport a long walk away, these people live isolated lives. Electricity cables run along the ground and many homes have no running water.
We pass three young girls swinging on a tyre out front of a brick house that’s either half-built or half-destroyed.
Slowly the homes and debris peter out and we come into lush country.
I ask Susana what needs to happen in the Cañada. “It’s like any other neighbourhood; it needs a school, services... a local bus even,” she says. “The authorities could do so much if they wanted to.”
She thinks for a moment.
“In fact, that’s something we haven’t asked for yet. A local bus. We'll ask for that next.”
A colony of storks sing cluck cluck from their enormous nests. We pass broad fields of yellow flowers and, after crossing the Manzanares, full from the spring rain, we finally reach the highway.