‘Rankings and Resistance: how travel listicles obscure local realities' / Ingrid Rzechorzek
Recently named the ‘coolest’ neighbourhood in the world by Timeout magazine, Madrid’s Embajadores has risen to prominence as an exemplary multicultural nucleus of the world, “where people from near and far live side by side, cooking up a bustling cultural life.” The magazine describes Embajadores as one of the most fascinating capitals, boasting diverse cultural facilities and demographic vibrancy. Yet, when passing through the streets, there is a large breach between this flippant representation and the reality of domestic life.
Two disparate worlds cohabit: one of affluence and recreation; and the other riddled with poverty, drugs, and tension. Since 1998, Embajadores has been a site of targeted rehabilitation — 46% of the public budget between 2003 and 2012 was directed towards urban revitalisation. The disparity that exists is accepted as a natural outcome of gentrification policies that aim to renew urban spaces so that they attract investment and tourism.
Having lived in Embajadores post the phase of heavy investment and commercialisation, I witnessed a myriad of cultural sites that contribute to this sense of “bustling cultural life”. For instance, the famed ‘Tabacalera’, a converted tobacco factory that is now one of the most reputable self-managed cultural spaces. Yet, the persistent realities of neighbourhood tension that arise from gentrification seem to have been overlooked by mainstream media outlets like Timeout, where the vague accolade of ‘cool’ has been inscribed without much consideration of the city’s complex dynamics. We should question the legitimacy of these sorts of claims, and why so many of us routinely subscribe to these forms of journalism.
If you are a conventional digital consumer and casual internet browser, you may be well acquainted with the quotidian format of internet editorial journalism: the ‘list’. Whether it be a categorisation of ‘the best’ or ‘the worst’ lists, we’ve all engaged with this enticing and modest form of cultural broadcasting in some way or another. Despite being an age-old medium of data organisation, there is something uniquely modern about the practice of listing, as nowadays it has become one of the prevailing agents of filtering and regulating knowledge on digital platforms. Lists appeal to us as media consumers because, in this age of information-overload, they are heuristics for dissecting the incomprehensible into the simplistic.
The list, being a broadly consumed cornerstone of contemporary journalism, arbitrates the mainstream through impressing societal standards and values. Having integrated effortlessly into the new media ecology, the material effects of list culture are often overlooked and barely given much consideration in terms of the tangible influences. Yet, this trope of ‘inclusion’ versus ‘exclusion’, which is present in many ‘best of lists’ or ‘rankings’, has become a rather compelling means of delimiting cultural aesthetic conceptions. In the case of Embajadores, this designation of ‘cool’ disseminates an obscured understanding about the suburbs’ domestic realities, which has enticed unwanted attention and manifested in palpable changes to long-standing societal dynamics.
“Embajadores, the coolest neighbourhood in the world
Madrid’s Embajadores tops the list as the world’s coolest neighbourhood right now with its exciting nightlife and fabulous food, street art and high culture.”
Though this headline appears rather characteristic of the of the light-content list title archetype, the embedded implications of denoting something as ‘cool’ or the ‘best’ by some arbitrarily subversive means in fact facilitates a global culture mediated by subjective media informants determining what is ‘included’ and ‘excluded’ from the mainstream. Designating something as ‘cool’ is a commonplace and effectively deployed practice that has historically been activated to fulfil a range of purposes. Yet, the aesthetics of ‘cool’ remain a rather elusive concept to pinpoint.
For something to be ‘cool’, it needs to fulfil certain criteria based on social constructs. In this way, it is culturally subjective, but at the same time, this also means that it can be manufactures by cultural stakeholders. What this means is that although ‘cool’ is an illusory and transient essence or aesthetic marvel, it can be contrived and embedded into the mainstream through a process of administrative manufacture.Thus, how legitimate is the claim that Embajadoresis the “coolest neighbourhood in the world”, and what sort of effects does this impressionistic prerogative have?
Justified as the “coolest neighbourhood” due to its “effervescence” and cultural vitality, the suburb has recently seen an intensification of tourism, new residents, and migrants. But what tenets of ‘cool’ does this suburb possesses that validates this global accolade?
Urban geographer Chris Gibson attributes ‘coolness’ (in a socio-geographic sense) as a by-product of cultural infrastructure, a developmental tool that governments and city planners mobilise as an urban revival stratagem. Cultural infrastructure is a vital aspect of the contemporary urban overhaul and often operates as an active and ongoing entrepreneurial line of development intended to augment the attractiveness of a city on the global scale. Thus, a new sense of competitiveness has arisen around the growth and investment in new creative spaces whereby ‘talent’ and a fabricated idea of ‘cool’ is sustained by local knowledge, cultures, and traditions.
Embajadores has been praised for its multiplicity of cultural centres and cooperative creative spaces that encourage collaboration between different social groups, but what have been the resulting demographic shifts that now undermine the integrity of this once very unique environment? These strategies of decentralising small-scale cultural infrastructure to facilitate urban regeneration lead to the customary process of gentrification. Within Embajadores, there has been widespread displacement of local populations in place of wealthier social groups or foreign investors, representing a symbolic battle between the original local community -- that undoubtedly established this essence of ‘cool’-- and the cultural hijacking and re-appropriation of this essence by external communities. In accordance with the generic off-shoot effects of gentrification, the inflation of housing prices and displacement of local businesses is coercing the relocation of the long-standing social groups that have inhabited the area; threatening the longevity of local identity and cultural expression. Consequently, many of these urban transformations and socio-cultural changes have been met with local resistance and debate, which remain somewhat futile in contestation with the forces of economic vigour that richer populations marshal. The effects of deeming something as ‘cool’ compel a range of informative techniques that implant and guide societal opinion, perhaps enforcing more consequences than one would imagine.
In response the subsequent processes of gentrification and touristification that have occurred as a result of mounting interest in commercial potential and investment, an alliance of social collectives launched a series of organised protests against the proliferation of foreign investment and tourist presence. One of these groups, “Lavapíes,¿dónde vas?" classifies themselves as “the precarious, unemployed, evicted, migrants, hard-working or mortgages impoverished…. in danger of extinction”. Whilst this coalition fights to maintain the authentic essence of Embajadores, magazines like Timeout simultaneously aggrandize the perks of ‘coolness’ that the suburb bestows on its visitors. Next time you are duped by a seemingly harmless ‘best of’ list article, think about how this saturated and comparatively superficial form of editorial journalism may inflict real, tangible effects on how contemporary actors interact, and live.