Drug trafficking and violence. Illiteracy and unemployment. Streets and squares paved with garbage. Blocks of houses that have come down with donkeys and goats peeking out of shattered windows. Clan fights and shootings. Sometimes even referred to as “no-man’s-land”. Does that sound like anything that’s going on in Europe? Does that sound like the Spanish city of Seville?
Certainly not to 99 percent of the tourists that visit the city every year. They dream about strolling through the romantic streets of the old quarter, having tapas in one of the nice little restaurants of Santa Cruz, visiting the cathedral, the Plaza de Espana, the Torre del Oro and all the other famous and beautiful sights the city has to offer. But to “Sevillanos” and to most Spanish people it does sound like Seville. However, not like the Seville they live in. More like the part of Seville everyone is trying to avoid. It’s located in the southeast of the city and best known as “Las Tres Mil Viviendas” which means “The 3000 Homes”.
When people use the term “Las Tres Mil Viviendas” they usually refer to the whole area of the district of Polígono Sur. However “The 3000 Homes” are only a part of the satellite city that was built in the 60s and 70s in the southern part of Seville. The official name of the neighbourhood the 3000 Homes are located in is Barriada Murillo, though rarely anyone uses it.
Around 40,000 to 45,000 people live there today, it’s hard to get official numbers because a lot of them don’t have papers and don’t show up in the statistics. Many different cultures and ethnic groups come together in this quarter. A lot of people started to move there from the countryside, hoping to find a place to work, just like a lot of sub-Saharan immigrants. A total of 10 to 15 percent of the people who live in Poligono Sur belong to the Roma ethnic group. In some of the blocks their share is even 58 percent.
How the game started
The original plan was to offer public housing to those in need, due to rural immigration. But also due to floods and an earthquake in the 60s a lot of people lost their former homes. A large part of the population was also evicted from their dilapidated houses – especially from the neighborhood of “Triana” in the historic center of Seville – to Poligono Sur where they were provided with very cheap or even free accommodation. Most of the people who moved there were working class families and therefore didn’t have many options, the majority being of Roma ethnicity. Over the years the area had little by little turned into an abandoned and dangerous neighbourhood.
Francisco José Lopez has been working as a postman in the area for a while. He describes it as “an area where there don’t seem to be laws. They have their own laws here. Even taxi and bus drivers, postmen, dustbin men and other members of public service would refuse to work here.” His work here is optional. “They ask you, and you can say no if you don’t want to work here”, he explains. Francisco José Lopez agreed to work in most parts of Poligono Sur because the situation has improved a lot there, but he doesn’t work in the neighborhood they call “Las Vegas”. It is still considered as the most dangerous neighbourhood of the district. It didn’t get the name because of the many similarities with the well-known gambling paradise in the United States. It’s a neighborhood of dilapidated concrete blocks, criminality, drugs and clan fights. “A lot of NGOs work in that area”, he explains. “The mail for example is dropped at the post office which is run by an NGO and then they have volunteers who help to distribute it.”
From the beginning Poligono Sur was considered as an unsafe area. The lack of public service and other infrastructure were very visible. The ground was covered with waste, broken stoplights, crosswalks that had faded away and in many of the apartment blocks basic things like hot water or elevators weren’t working anymore because the engines had been stolen. Kids were out on the streets instead of going to school. Circumstances which soon made illiteracy, unemployment, drugs and criminality the biggest problems of the area. Poligono Sur became a district that didn’t only function anymore physically, but also socially it became isolated.
How to win the game
The city of Seville has been trying to work on these problems. After five failing attempts the “Plan Integral” was born in 2005. This time, all administrations with competences in the neighbourhood (the central government, the regional government (Junta de Andalucía) and the local government) and all the associative and civic organisations of the neighbourhood work together. The main contents are to renovate the houses and apartments, create working spaces for the inhabitants, education, equality, social welfare and improving the health of the people living in the area.
One of the institutions working in the area is operated by Don Bosco. “The School of Second Chances” opened in 2011. They offer different programs to integrate people – especially young people – from Poligono Sur to the job market. Jesús Gutierrez, coordinator of the employment programs in Sevilla has been working in the neighborhood for 14 years already. “It looks worse than it really is. It’s a very solid community, where people stand up for each other”, he says about the neighborhood. “The greatest progress would come from good education, that’s the key point. It’s not enough to offer it, people have to actually use it and see it as the chance it is”, he adds. The rate of children and teenagers up to 16 years who don’t go to school has declined from 50 percent to 14 percent since the Plan Integral started. Even though the plan seems to be working in the sector of education, Jesús Gutierrez isn’t satisfied yet. In his opinion the progress is too slow. To him it’s also important to work on topics such as values and personal development. “The priorities are set completely different here. Parents often use the money they earn for fancy cars instead of on food and education for their children” he explains.
In Jesús Gutierrez eyes, the neighbourhood itself isn’t the only problem though. What really has to change is the attitude of the whole city of Seville and the rest of the country towards Poligono Sur. This part of the city is being avoided by most Sevillanos. “The location of the district is already a problem itself because it is limited by large roads in the northern part and railway infrastructure in the southern part which isolate the area not only physically but also socially”, he explains “And the fact that “Las Tres Mil Viviendas” is heavily stigmatised in the whole country doesn’t help either.”
Lucia Sell totally agrees to that. She works at the Factoría Cultural (Culture Factory) – an institution that resulted out of the Plan Integral. “Some months ago even a member of the parliament in Madrid used the term to criticize other members of the parliament who in her eyes were misbehaving. She told them to behave because the parliament isn’t “Las Tres Mil Viviendas”, Lucía Sell explains further.
The intention of this cultural center was to break the stigma of the neighbourhood, and to provide the grounds for the people of the neighborhood to represent themselves through culture and art. Lucia and her colleagues are trying to attract people from the rest of the city of Seville to create some interaction and break the social isolation of the neighbourhood. ”A very own kind of flamenco was born in the area around “Las Vegas” and it’s is mostly practiced by the people who belong to the Roma ethnicity. The fact that it’s the city hall running the Factoría Cultural puts the artist in a different platform. All the different NGOs who have been working here for years and the different initiatives of the people who live here are kind of elevated because we somehow offer them an official status”, Lucía Sell explains. According to her that’s also been quite successful: “people from the rest of the city have an excuse to come here and watch the shows or be part of our workshops. Because really before “Factoría Cultural” was here the only reason why people would come to this neighbourhood was to buy drugs.”
It hasn’t been easy since the beginning though, which is also visible. Parts of the outside of the building have been vandalised even though the people who live here had a say in it. The community of Polígono Sur was asked what they needed, and they decided that one of the needs of the neighbourhood was to have their own space for culture. “It’s a very diverse community. So the people who aren’t from the Roma ethnicity feel like this center once again was supposed to answer to the members of that one community, whilst they would have much rather had a police station and deal with criminality, drug dealing, arms trafficking which is the core reality of the neighborhood. And I totally understand that”, Lucía Sell explains. There is no police station in the district.
The Plan Integral has improved the living-situation of the people in Polígono Sur little by little, so it seems to be working. Because of a documentary about the neighbourhood – made in 2003, by Dominique Abel – pictures of donkeys and goats peeking out of shattered windows are on people’s minds when they hear “Las Tres Mil Viviendas”. In fact they exist more in the memories of the “Sevillanos “ than in reality. Last July the authorities signed a contract to maintain 30 buildings with 620 families which have been restored in the Martínez Montañés area (better known as “Las Vegas”). But even if the Plan Integral did work out perfectly in terms of what happens inside of the neighbourhood, social inclusion would still be the name of the game “Las Tres Mil Viviendas” has to win. And the many people who are working on it together will have to break a lot of stigmas to do so. This is definitely not a problem that’s going to be solved in a few days or years. It will take generations.