Valencia’s Missing Homes

Valencia is a city that is home to more than 800,000 people, and it hits the spot both in the heart and the head. It is compact to navigate yet big enough to stay interesting, functional and full of beauty, romantic and practical. It balances beaches (plural) with banking headquarters, a UNESCO world heritage historic city centre with a modern 21st century science park, two top league football teams, a basketball team and even two American Football teams with an art and music scene that offers more than enough for even the most demanding of music fans.  It has a Metro, Festivals, cheap housing and Europe’s 4th busiest shipping port – the busiest on the Mediterranean sea, no less.  It is a great city to both spend and save money, and a great place to visit and live.

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Yet the feature that has taken much of my imagination since moving here is the one that many people would either ignore or would prefer to ignore if they could, and this is it’s proliferation of demolished buildings. I say demolished: in truth they are 95% demolished, with mostly bits of the side walls intact, and sometimes with the front or back wall still standing proud. Sometimes, as if to defy logic or the laws of physics, the whole building is missing but the front door and it’s frame stands proud. Rarely are all 4 walls still intact – but then if they were, the building would not fall into the category of being demolished: it would still be a home. And it is this transition from home to former home that fascinates me the most.

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I have moved homes 4 times in my 31 years of my life, aged 20, 21, 23 and 27, and every single time it followed the same path: the giddy buzz of checking out a new area, finding the potential new home, multiple viewings of the eventual candidate, late night and early morning pillow chats with the missus about whether the property ticked all of the boxes for us, the phone call made with dry throat and heavy beating heart to the estate agent to say that we will sign the rental contract (x3) take on the mortgage of the property (x1), and the agonising wait before finding out that we were successful. Upon finding out that we had secured the property there were the e mail messages to friends to let them know that we had secured somewhere, the thrill of the congratulations from these friends, and the re-adjustment of forgetting the last postcode and installing a new one in our memories. Old keys were given back with the key-chain that was so familiar and new keys were handed over with instructions for what ones were for the main front door and what were for the back door.  Time for a fresh start.

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Upon moving in when the removal firm had dumped all of the boxes into the sitting room (they always seem to pile them high in the sitting room) and despite us carefully labelling a box that contained tea bags, a kettle and a bag of sugar in anticipation of a home-welcoming cup of tea, my partner and I would inevitably survey the empty property that we had inherited and decide to spend the next 45 minutes at our new local pub, or head out to buy 6 beers for £5 at a local off licence and order a takeaway by way of a self indulged moving in present from us, to us. The person waiting on the end of the phone to take the order would need to have patience while we remembered the new address, the delivery driver would be greeted to an echoing hallways, and when the order was delivered, prawn crackers or garlic bread would be eaten on a cardboard box-chair.

Over the next few weeks books would be placed on shelves, multi-plugs assigned to sockets and wardrobes divided between partners. Within 4 weeks the house would become a home, and before we know it we are chatting to the local shopkeeper about the weather, remembering to not slam the door when we come in late for the sake of the neighbour, and had reached the stage where we no longer noticed the smell of the property when we come in – what was once recognized as “musty”, “exotic” or “earthy” has now become “home.”

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And this is the reason why the abandoned and demolished buildings of Valencia fill me with such fascination. There was a time when an architect sat down and designed that building to be a home, and there was also a time when a building crew took on the task of fulfilling that task. Milestones would have included breaking ground, finishing each floor, finishing the exterior of the building, and handing over the keys, and I like to imagine the building crew bringing a 24 pack of beer onto the building site to celebrate the day that the project was signed over, the brass door knob was polished and the project was signed off. They crew would have looked at their handy work and thought, “Wow. Look at that. I did that!”, while clinking bottles of beer with each other. On that day it turned from a building site into a home for someone to live in.

I can relate, for there were times that I had a seriously tough day at work and where my entire 45 minute journey home would consist of me dreaming of reaching my sanctuary; where the thought of me walking in the door, flicking off of my shoes, talking the belt out of my trousers and walking around in my t-shirt and y-fronts while whacking up the central heating, sticking the 6 pack of Hoegaarden into the fridge and eating Italian ham from the packet was my idea of heaven. I was the king of my domain, and my domain happened to be a property that had been built more than 100 years before my parents were even a glint in my grandparents eye. Whatever problems there were at work could wait while I was here. The building by now had been transferred from a collection of bricks held together by cement and gravity to a home that took on a whole other quality. Apparently a lead lined building will reject the majority of a nuclear blast: meanwhile I had paid good money to buy a property that can reject the major effects of the stresses of life, a place I could invite people to, where I could make a statement for what I stood for.

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I suspect that many of the people who took on these properties felt the same way. Yet still there was a transition from the property being a home that was the very foundation of that person’s life, to being a pile of bricks that was deemed not worthy of even existing. How did that happen? Most likely it was a bomb that hit it in the Spanish Civil War between the intense period that Valencia was bombed between 1937 and 1939.   Were the occupants home at the time, within the house when it was hit by the bomb?  Did they hear the plane overhead, and did they have a chance to consider if this was the day when it was their turn to be hit?   If the occupants were inside, more than likely the life of the house would not have been the only thing that day that came to an end.  A few hours earlier they may have opened to the door to the sound of a yapping dog, of children screaming “Mummy!!” or “Daddy” and of a partner asking how their day had been. Within a few hours police officers and paramedics would be loading their limp body onto a stretcher.

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The occupiers would be incredibly lucky to have been absent when the impact happened, but even in this case they would have had to have returned to it at some stage. Maybe as they entered the road they would have been met by a neighbour telling them ‘how sorry they were for their loss’, only to reply in confusion as to what they meant?   They may have reached the property with hand in pocket, reaching for their key, to look up and see an empty space where the home that they left hours earlier once was, or maybe they heard the impact from a mile away and knew instinctively when they heard it that it was their home that had been hit. Either way it would make little difference, for they would have gone from having a home to having none in an instant, with clothes and photos lost, paperwork blowing down the street and with their front room suddenly on full view to everyone.

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This is the story behind every single property that suffers such a fate. If the owner is an occupier they would have lost their home, and if the owner was renting it out both the owner would have lost an asset and an income, while the tenant would have lost their home. On the other hand there may have been no dramatic explosion involved, in which case it may have declined at a more sedate pace, but that is equally as depressing for there would have been a transition from the property being good enough for someone to take on a 30 year commitment to pay for it, to it being a pile of bricks that was worthless enough to walk away from, and worthless enough to pay someone to dismantle. Did the amount of repairs needed on it reach the stage where the owners abandoned it, or did some tenants hand the keys back to the landlord who found it impossible to rent it out to the next prospective tenant?   Where once it was a place that meant the world to a family, now it is a place that meant nothing to anyone. At what point did it reach the threshold where it was no longer worth the effort?

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I sometimes think how the builders would have felt if they had of known that the building that they  had worked so hard to build had suffered such a fate. Maybe they wouldn’t have have cared – as long as they got paid, that is all that mattered. I like to think the opposite, that they got a lot of joy out of the thought of multiple generations being brought up in it, and that they felt a sense of loss from the building’s demise. Not only them, there would also be the shopkeeper who is a customer down, the postman with one less home on their route, and the neighbour who would have woken up one day to find a bulldozer demolishing the property next door, with them gaining a new view from their own windows.

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Did the demise of such properties fill the occupants of the neighbouring property with dread for the fate of their own home?  As I sit in a property that is less than 30 years old listening to the baby crying through the wall and with the heater on full blast to counteract the effects of the wind rushing through the gaps around the windows, I contemplate if this property will one day suffer the same fate. Considering the cheapness of the construction and the economies of it’s quality it is almost certain that it will. Seeing as I only have a 9 day stay here it will matter little to me, and that in itself is depressing too, as one moment it will be the property that keeps me safe at night, while the next minute it will be a pile of bricks that I can detach myself from.

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I am able to do this as I have little emotional connection with the place. For me it will have been a place to rest my suitcase, to have an 8 hour sleep and to write on my laptop, whereas for others it will have been a place where they may have decided to have kids, where they painted the nursery blue in anticipation of their baby boy, and where they saw that baby take their first steps. For their children it will have been their first home, a place to mark their height against the door frame, and the first place that they ever felt safe…… and before they knew it the building was suddenly demolished. The stairs that they would have been carried up, would crawl up and would eventually walk up would be reduced to a line on a wall, the front step where they left their shoes would become a trip hazard for workmen and the homeless, and the wires in the wall that would power the radio with songs that filled the air with joy would have been long ripped out long ago by scavengers, with the letterbox that received birthday and Christmas cards, bills and correspondence nailed up. The kitchen where family meals were cooked and children nourished is now the home of stray cats feasting on a pigeon.

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Maybe a former owner has walked past it in the last year, maybe they cannot bring themselves to: who knows. Either way, where once this property would have been viewed for the first time, where an offer would have been accepted, where the keys would have been handed over, and where the occupiers would have woken up on their first day in their new home filled with joy or regret, where marriage proposals were made, deaths of family members learned and where life was lived, now it means nothing to anyone. It was a theatre for someone’s life, but now it’s gone – no more. It is the fate that awaits 99% of properties at some point, and the presence of these empty shells within the city remind me of this. As such they add a valuable lesson to the city’s story: that while progress can be made and lives lived, at some point life will deviate from it’s current plan. These empty gaps act like the knocked-out teeth of a warrior who has endured a bloody battle.

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I find it doubtful that the people who built and lived in these buildings could have foreseen the fate that awaited them, and nor should they have.  In a way it matters little, for their existence was still fulfilling.  While they stood they may have served their purpose adequately, and that is what makes their fate even more stark – that their qualities remained intact but the value of their qualities changed so much. One day we will suffer the same fate, where we outlive our purpose and where the only memory that we leave behind is the reminder of the imprint that we leave on the people either side of us. Like these houses our decline may be slow and lingering, it may be an instant catastrophe that signals our departure.  Eventually something will come along to take our place, with only the people who were there at the time having a reference point for us. These property sink-holes thus act as a history lesson and a future warning – what is considered rock steady and a foundation for security today can soon become a blot on our next generations landscape, something in the way. Expendable. Let these empty shells be a lesson to us all.

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