Turning into guirilandia: Experiencing gentrification in Valencia, Spain
– Jonna Tolonen

It is the sixth consecutive day that I am photographing here. After so many long hours of shooting, the neighbourhood finally starts to feel familiar. As I am crossing a road the warm and salty Mediterranean sea breeze catches me, and I hear someone behind me calling ‘Cariño, espérame.’ And then again, ‘Sweetie, wait a moment, please’ (again, in Spanish). I turn around and notice an old lady waving at me. I greet her in Spanish; ‘Hello, good afternoon. How are you?’

The woman introduces herself as Concha. She explains to me that she has seen me a couple of times during the week, walking around the neighbourhood and taking pictures of the houses. Concha is eager to know what I am doing here. ‘Are you hired by a real estate investor? Taking pictures of the abandoned houses? Hoping that the owners might want to sell them? And then, turn these properties into apartments or hotels to guiris?’ Concha demands with an anxious tone in her voiceX. After I tell her my background—a postdoctoral researcher from Finland who is investigating neighbourhoods in the midst of gentrification process—Concha calms down. Then, she grabs my hand and insists in Spanish, ‘Well, come, follow me. You have to see this.’ Concha starts taking me to the east side of El Cabanyal.

1. The handwriting on this ‘want to buy an apartment’ poster is exactly the same that that I have seen on other posters around the city, but they are signed with a different name. This one is signed by ‘MARIA’ but actually is a property investor disguised as a normal citizen. This is because many people would rather sell to an individual instead2.

We walk about five minutes into one of the many narrow alleys of the neighbourhood of El Cabanyal. Concha stops and points at a big empty slot between two houses. ‘I used to live here with my husband and our three children. We were so happy here. Come and have a look at this place now,‘ Concha says. She continues, ‘Here it was, our four-storey house. And now, there is nothing left of it. We only have our memories.’ Concha and I enter the site through a hole in a brick wall, and Concha proceeds with her story:

    When the real estate investors bought the building we were living in, the first thing they did was to raise the rent immediately over three hundred percent. Some of our neighbours moved away right away. It was too much money. They were priced out. Some of us resisted for a while, but then, they started to cut off the electricity, then water, and finally, there were no garbage collection. We had no electricity, no light, no running water, and the area began to stink because of vast amounts of uncollected rubbish. Our family was the last one to leave. And then, eight weeks later, the building was demolished to the ground… One of our old neighbours is an artist. She came to paint her family here—look, you can see their faces over there. This place will be a luxury hotel for the guiris. Our neighbourhood is turning into guirilandia—a land for foreign tourists; for people who eat, sleep, drink, and party in a different way and at different times than we do.


2. The portrait of the family that used to live in the apartment ‘third floor left’3.

Concha has tears in her eyes, so I hand her a paper cloth from my bag. She looks at me and affirms ‘Oh, no, I’m not blaming you, darling. You seem such a nice person.’ I am saddened that Concha seems to be alienated from the neighbourhood she once was part of. She tells me her local butcher downstairs in her new flat has already turned into a fruit juice bar and the bakery next door into a trendy hamburger joint. Now, every morning, Concha walks twenty minutes to get fresh bread. She does not know any of her new neighbours nor does she necessarily speak the same language as them. Most of her friends have moved away from the area.

As I stand there, looking at the spray-painted portrait of the people that used to live here, I recall the words of a woman who offered me a ride to El Cabanyal when I asked for directions to get here for the first time. She explained me how El Cabanyal­ historic fishing quarter from the thirteenth century—is an officially protected historical zone. However, in recent decades, it has undergone a total abandonment of public investment, resulting in profound degradation of the area. During the drive this woman told me stories about severe inconsistencies with running water and waste collection, an absence of social services and restoration projects, and an increasing number of drug-related crimes. ‘Then few years back everything in the neighbourhood started to change’, she continued, and explained in detail, how the city of Valencia financed a substantial restoration of the buildings, parks, and streets, and how private real estate developers began several housing projects. As a result, the neighbourhood’s image started to transform, and new people—both foreigners and locals—were setting up new businesses and moving into El Cabanyal. ‘I guess we [Spanish] conquistadors deserve this, since we have been invading other countries since the 16th century. So, now, it is imperialism to the imperialists, eh?’ she said and shrugged her shoulders, when I got out of the car.

3. This house—one of the hundreds of abandoned in the area—conveys a simultaneous sense of the past and of the future. Who lived here and what happened to them? How will this place look after restoration and what will become of it?

On my way back to my Airbnb apartment in the neighbourhood of Russafa, about a twenty minute ride by metro from El Cabanyal, I spot new wall writings near my apartment:


Up in my flat, while sipping a Valencian tigernut-based drink ‘horchata’, I skim through a study about Russafa, and it draws a picture of another neighbourhood under gentrification4. According to the local university researchers, only a decade ago, Russafa was a traditional merchant and artisans’ neighbourhood with a lack of some basic services and few problems with crime and drugs. It was home to a few thousand immigrants and many working-class families who were employed by the small businesses in the area and could afford to live in this central neighbourhood. Things began to change when Russafa was ‘rediscovered’. Once the city council implemented redevelopment and, at the same time, made efforts to control immigration in order to attract new businesses, Russafa became a trendy district. Today, Russafa is the cultural centre of Valencia, with art galleries and theaters, vintage boutiques, cafes, gastro pubs, night clubs, and bike rental shops that have replaced traditional and ethnic grocery stores. This process of commercial gentrification led by the local administration has resulted in three main groups leaving the area: the elderly, low income immigrants, and small merchants. At the same time, the prices of housing and everyday living have risen rapidly, and those who can now afford to live in Russafa are mainly people coming from the European Union with higher incomes, along with the Spanish elite.

4. A resident in Russafa has attached a sign wishing no disturbance in the front of the building5.

Later that evening, I ask my Airbnb host why he does not live in the flat himself and why he chose to use Airbnb, and he responds, ‘The baby came, and the neighbourhood became unbearable at night. Too many tourists—foreigners and Spanish stag party groups—drinking, shouting and singing under our window every night. And the money you get from foreign Airbnb guests is way better than renting to locals.’ During that same night, while trying hard not to spin into the hollow in the mattress 103 Airbnb guests have created before me, I cannot help think that many residents of Russafa, like my Airbnb host, have become co-producers of the multifaceted phenomenon of gentrification.

5. Beds outside are a rather common sight in Valencia. The nearly 40% rise in rents has increased the number of people without homes6.

It is my last day in Valencia, and I decide to go for a walk alongside the famous Malvarrosa beach near El Cabanyal. It is early May, almost twenty degrees outside, and for me, coming from Finland, the sun is warm. The locals are wearing light winter jackets, but some of the tourists are already enjoying the day in bikinis. Suddenly, I hear familiar voice calling me—it is Concha. She comes and, a bit unexpectedly, hugs me with a smile. She tells me she has gotten new neighbours, a German couple. The couple is running a new art gallery-cafe in El Cabanyal and has hired Concha to teach them to cook traditional Valencian foods they want to serve at the cafe. I congratulate her. She seems encouraged to be connected again with her neighbours. She tells me that she does not know any German, but the couple is teaching her some. The couple speaks very little Spanish, and she is not sure if they understand everything she says, but she is confident that ‘todo saldrá bien’ [everything will be just fine]i. We hug, and the last thing I hear Concha saying to me is something that sounds like ‘auvidasen.’ I cannot make any sense of it.

I continue walking alongside the ‘paseo marítimo’ the seafront promenade of the Malvarrosa beach, which continues for several kilometres. A herd of wild parrots fly and sing over my head. I repeat aloud to myself the last words Concha said, and suddenly, I think I understand what she was telling me. It was ‘Auf Wiedersehen;’ ‘goodbye’ in German.

1. Guiri is a Spanish slang word referring to a foreign tourist.
2. Text in the poster: ‘I BUY A FLAT, IT IS URGENT, FROM THIS NEIGHBOURHOOD.’ I found identical posters with same text and telephone number but signed with different names around El Cabanyal and Russafa in April, 2019. This is a rather common way of property investors disguising as normal citizens, and is not a new phenomenon in Spain; see, for example, LAVAPIÉS ¿DÓNDE VAS?, Raquel busca tu piso, 7 July 2017. [online] Available at: https://lavapiesdondevas.wordpress.com/miercoles/buscando-a-raquel/ [Accessed 13.06.2020].
3. In Spain an address is marked with a floor level and either with ‘left’ or ‘right’ indicating the side of the block the apartment is on.
4. del Romero Reanu, L. & Martín, L.L. (2015). De barrio-problema a barrio de moda: Gentrificación comercial en Russafa, el “Soho” valenciano. Anales de Geografía, vol. 35, no 1, pp. 187-212.
6. Navarro Castelló, C. (2018). Los alquileres en Valencia suben aún más que en Madrid y casi tanto como en Barcelona, El Diario, [online]. Available at: [Accessed 13.06.2020].
7.There are some studies that have shown more interaction and collectiveness in mixed population gentrified areas than in the initial neighbourhood. See, for example, Davidson, M. (2008). Spoiled Mixture: Where Does State-led “Positive” Gentrification End? Urban Studies, vol. 45, no 12, pp. 2385–2405; and see, also, Steinmetz‐Wood, M., Was, R., Parker, G., Bornstein, L., Caron, J. and Kestens, Y. (2017). Is gentrication all bad? Positive association between gentrication and individual’s perceived neighborhood collective efficacy in Montreal, Canada. International Journal of Health Geographics, vol. 16, no 1, pp. 1-8.

All photographs taken by the author in Valencia between 2016 to 2019. All Spanish-English translations by the author. The author would like to thank Emil Aaltonen Foundation for funding this work.

Jonna Tolonen (D.A.) is a photographer and a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Art and Design at the University of Lapland, Finland. She has presented and published widely on gentrification and street art. Jonna is also a member of INDAGUE, the Spanish Association of Researchers of Graffiti and Urban Art. Her current research interests deal with visual culture, socio-environmental justice and artivism.


Volume 3, No. 2 June 2020