A battle over noise pollution being waged in Madrid

Bar owners in the capital feel they are under attack from the council, while many local residents want nothing more than a quiet life

One of the many bars that sit empty in the capital.
One of the many bars that sit empty in the capital.ÁLVARO GARCÍA

Rockers: whoever is not high, get high now!" This was the famous phrase uttered by former Madrid Mayor Enrique Tierno Galván at a music festival in 1984. Every historical period has its zeitgeist: the "old professor" thought that punks could bring a breath of fresh air to a grey capital, which back then was still ruled by the spirit of Franco. But these days, the authorities seem to be more in tune with the residents, who regularly complain about the noise issuing from the capital's bars.

Despite the difficult relationship with local politicians and residents, Madrid's nightlife started out the 21st century with optimism. Although opening hours had been scaled back, the supply of music and entertainment had been transformed, and revenues were good. For proof of that you had to look no further than that cool guy at the office who regularly appeared at work looking hungover, proclaiming that Thursday was the new Friday and Wednesday the new Thursday.

A crisis later, and we have moved on to karaoke in our own living rooms. And the outlook is not good, after the government's recent announcement of a value-added tax hike, plans to scale back the Metro schedule at night, the tobacco ban and tougher local ordinances on acceptable noise levels. The owners of establishments claim that revenues are down to 1997 levels, with a 40-percent drop in profits since 2007. The city has not provided any data on the issue.

Every day the city asks us for more and gives us less," says one bar owner

"Every day the city asks us for more and gives us less," says Germán Hughes, sitting at a table inside his own bar, La Palma. Despite having soundproofed premises, which observe legal opening hours, he says that he has had all kinds of trouble with the law. During a five-year oasis in the middle of the 18 years that his bar has been open, he had no permits whatsoever due to an administrative glitch. "I improved the soundproofing with an investment of 80 million pesetas

[around 481,000 euros], and instead of sorting out the paperwork quickly, I was without my licenses the entire time."

These complaints are nothing exceptional in a sector that considers itself abused despite its economic weight. "Nighttime leisure activities generate 30 times more than agriculture in the region," says Vicente Pizcueta, a spokesman for Noche Madrid, an industry association. "Night activities are one of the few sectors in which Spain is a leader. You cannot attack a productive industry."

The central city district is at the heart of the dispute. There are 150,000 residents in the area and more than 2,400 bars, restaurants, dance clubs and cafeterias. The ratio is overwhelming - six times the Madrid average. Residents are not happy about it, but business owners argue that they contribute a billion euros a year to the district's economy.

Entrepreneurs have reacted against legislation declaring the city center a Special Acoustic Protection Area, which bans noisy businesses from opening up there; existing ones must make reforms and clients must be provided with parking space (up to the equivalent of 27 percent of capacity in some cases). The new laws even leave the door open to forcing establishments to close an hour earlier, although a city spokesperson said that this is not in their plans. Meanwhile, the sector has come together under a special interest group called Plataforma por el Ocio, which has plastered the city center with signs reading "The City Council is switching off Madrid."

A scene of street drinking in the city.
A scene of street drinking in the city.Álvaro García

Establishments are proposing alternative ways to reduce noise levels, such as closing off Gran Vía to traffic (they figure this would reduce acoustic pollution by 10 decibels), improving soundproofing regulations for residential buildings (double pane windows) and creating smoking areas inside bars, since there is no question that the smoking ban has caused a rise in outdoor conversations at unseemly hours. As soon as the ban went into effect, complaints about noise grew by 19 percent.

And then there is the famous botellón , the practice of outdoor drinking. The owners of food and drink establishments were eagerly awaiting a recent legal reform making it impossible to commute fines for awareness courses on the dangers of alcohol, as people regularly did until now. To understand the urgency of the situation, consider what takes place around midnight at Plaza de San Ildefonso, when the sidewalk cafés start to shut down to comply with local laws. Clients can finish their drinks on a chair, and when the waiters take everything away, they sit on the ground with a can of beer sold by a street vendor. This marks the beginning of some of Madrid's great night-time conversations:

"Chinese woman, how do you say two cold beers?"

" Ping pi dio. "

"Well then, ping pi dio ."

To a soundtrack of Spanish heavy rock, which blares out from a tape player, the beers keep flowing until 5am. These are the paradoxes that bar owners say are costing them their business. They fear the lateros (can sellers) because of their services to those who head outside for a cigarette. Often, while they smoke, they buy a cheap can of beer, talk and make more noise.

But these arguments leave some people unconvinced. The neighborhood association Vecinos Madrid Centro accuses bar owners of dodging their responsibilities, and feels that the lateros and the door crowds are their problem. Residents do not buy into the economic argument either, and note that if nightlife generates revenues, so do they - but they need to get some sleep first.

Business owners say they contribute a billion euros a year to the local economy

Business owners do not want trouble, but in private many of them say that residents of the city center need to understand that their location has certain drawbacks, and accept them - within reason. Dionisio Lara, vice-president of Noche Madrid, said at a recent press conference that living downtown "is not like living in the mountains."

While the confrontation plays out, culture is turning out to be a collateral victim. La Noche en Vivo, an association of establishments offering live music, is asking for the law to be more careful, since they are more than just bars. "The city's culture is created every day, not just at the Conde Duque, or any of the other empty cultural venues being built by the council," complains Hughes.

People who are familiar with the issue underscore that the lack of consideration for these establishments has led cities like Barcelona to take the helm when it comes to creating a scene of its own, or even organizing major festivals.

Things are bad. But on the upside, David Novaes, a co-owner of the popular bar Siroco, says that "the crisis is proving to be very tough and it is forcing us to reinvent ourselves."

Siroco, which reopened in September after a major refurbishment to improve the sound system and create a lounge area, has tried various strategies. "For instance, in order to lure people in earlier and increase our business hours, we tried to create afternoon sessions for office workers, but that didn't work because there are no offices around here," he says. Other ideas did better, like their new focus on clubbing and DJ sessions, to warm up the room before the early hours.

"We're doing well because we have a young team, we try out new ideas, we diversify... But you cannot forget that making decisions and making changes in this sector is expensive."

As a result of this positive mentality, Novaes - who lives in the area - says that he has noticed a shift in the popular Malasaña area toward greater variety. "Before this, there were 200 places all offering the same thing; now it is less clone-like."

Refocusing on the afternoon customer, attracting a more mature public, combining shows with drinks... Entrepreneurs have been trying out different formulas, but they know that their future will ultimately be defined by the outcome of their confrontation with residents and the authorities alike.

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