In the heart of La Latina, four tiny plazas merge to form a sprawl of open space, now a battleground for the long-standing conflict between residents and restaurateurs in the downtown district - those who mourn the decline of Old Madrid versus those who celebrate the neighborhood's rebirth as a fashionable area for socializing.
These days, no one is happy. Residents say their quality of life has been compromised by the proliferation of taverns and nightclubs. And they're even more incensed at the popularity of the Sunday-evening botellón (street drinking). Many locals complain that these illegal parties (drinking alcohol in public spaces is prohibited) generate excessive noise and litter.
On one summer Sunday evening, the area is abuzz with activity. Celebrating the sunny season's long-anticipated arrival, three 20-year-old media students, Jorge, María and Azucena, gossip over a liter of beer: "He's cheating on you. We caught him. If I were you, I'd leave him." María wipes away a tear. "Five years together. Five," she mutters, incredulous.
Tales of heartbreak and unemployment woes monopolize many of the conversations in the Plaza de los Carros - a public space that reeks simultaneously of melancholy and euphoria. The botellón starts late at night. Empty bottles roll across the plaza, cigarette butts litter the sidewalk, fleets of empty cans float in the fountain, and, yes, splashes of vomit and urine stain the street. Why does this ritual unfold here and not somewhere else? The answer is simple: "It's in style; everyone comes."
In reality, La Latina hasn't ever really gone out of style. But in the last few years, it has become even more open to the public. Traditionally a social hub for thirtysomethings, it is now a hot hangout for folks of all ages and interests. There is an eclectic hodgepodge of clientele - from old-timers to teens who have just discovered the neighborhood for the first time.
According to business owners, the arrival of new low-price bars has made the barrio more attractive to the younger set. But not everyone is happy to have them around. "They're brats who only come to get drunk for 10 euros," says Laura Falcón, one of the owners of the El 7 de la Cava bar. Falcón, who has lived in the neighborhood for 13 years, complains that she has to deal with vomit and urine in front of the bar every night. "This didn't happen before," she declares, standing protectively in front of the establishment. "The problem," she continues, "comes from up the street," where the four plazas are located.
Just down the block, Shekhar, a 21-year-old Bangladeshi, explains why he is wearing such exotic attire: "I'm illegal. No job." To make ends meet, he sells flowers, colored hats and sunglasses. On a good day, he makes 20 euros. "It's a bad job," he admits. Especially at two in the morning when the bars close down and Shekhar has to endure the jokes and sneers of drunken passers-by... his primary clients.
But there is another new neighborhood enterprise that is raking in the cash. The lateros - people who sell cans ( latas ) of beer on the street - drive local business owners insane. "If someone takes a beer out of my bar, I get a 30,000-euro fine. But they're somehow allowed to sell cans of beer for a euro each on the street," complains Falcón. "And another thing," she adds. "When we close at two in the morning, people hang around, drinking in the street. The neighbors, naturally, complain. But somehow we're the bad guys."
Municipal authorities are working with locals to try to "reconcile their rights with those of businesses."
Madrid's police claim that they can't do anything about the lateros. They say they lack the resources to constantly patrol the zone, fining street venders who are "just trying to make a living." And not a bad one, either. Some of these lateros claim to make 100 euros a night. "If I lived a little bit closer, I'd sell beer too," admits Shekhar.
While they're laissez faire about lateros, the police have declared their intent to crack down on the botellón. "But obviously, if we have to choose between responding to a complaint about street drinking and a complaint about domestic violence, we're going to prioritize the latter."
The day that María found out that her boyfriend was cheating, there were police officers stationed in the plaza. People kept on drinking anyway. And that same evening, 85-year-old Silvio Barroso had trouble falling asleep. His windows overlook Cava Baja, and he couldn't ignore the sounds of yelling and motorcycles from the street below.
This is exactly the type of habitual disturbance that bothers Saturnino Vera, president of the Cavas and Costanilla neighbors' association. For the last four years, the group has opposed the steady proliferation of bars and eateries. According to Vera, the number of establishments has grown from 15 to 54 in a decade. Moreover, he maintains that many of these new bars play loud music without a license.
Municipal authorities contend that they have spent the last two years working with locals to try to "reconcile their rights with those of businesses." Between April and May, there were a thousand inspections of local establishments. And just last week, 10 new cases were opened.
Last September, City Hall declared Madrid's center a special low-noise zone. This area encompasses 524 acres and 150,000 habitants, including some of the city's most vibrant barhopping neighborhoods: Huertas, Alonso Martínez, Malasaña, Chueca... and La Latina. The new noise policy has generated hostility between neighborhood residents, who want nightclubs to close earlier, and local entrepreneurs, who want to hold on to the already-limited tradition of late-night festivities. Some people have tried to diffuse the tension. "We want people to have a good time, and we want residents to be able to sleep," says one neighborhood landlord, who prefers not to be named. And when folks grumble that the neighborhood is going to hell in a handbasket, he can't help but laugh. "People keep coming here. Cava Baja is still world-famous."
Lucio Blázquez, owner of the illustrious Casa Lucio restaurant, agrees 100 percent. "Deteriorate? This neighborhood is wonderful!" he says as tourists snap photos of his famous eatery. And despite the noise, property values are holding up. According to one agent, apartment prices haven't fallen at all, despite the "horrible racket at night" and a drop of 40 percent in the property market nationwide. An unfurnished apartment in La Latina still costs around 305,000 euros.
Bar owner Toni Bonnato belongs to the La Muralla Merchants Association. Concerned by the recent noise problems, the group devised a code of ethics to facilitate cooperation between neighborhood residents and businesses. The code proposes that restaurants collect tables and chairs from the street before closing, throw out glass bottles earlier in the evening to avoid waking residents, and clean up any mess outside of their establishments. So far, its impact has been minimal. But recently, more businesses have been adopting the code due to pressure from municipal authorities.
Even the assistant pastor of the San Andrés neighborhood church agrees that something must be done to address the noise problem: "On Sundays, young people gather out there and you can hear everything they're saying during Mass because the church is not soundproof."