Inside, people of all ages and colours mill about with cheerful purposefulness. Some stop to examine a high wall of posters listing events and activities, while others know exactly where they are going-to a drawing class, perhaps, or a storytelling meeting, or an African dance workshop.
Overpowering the buzz of activity is a steady, pulsing sound of drums beating in unison. The rhythm emanates from the building’s cavernous central nave. There a group of Madrileños young and old dance in a circle, bells on their ankles and grins on their faces, the smoke of fragrant incense spiralling skyward above them.
I spot a grey haired man leaning against a pillar watching.
“I thought this place was deserted,” I shout in Spanish over the drums.
“It was,” he says. “Welcome to Tabacalera.”
Madrid is one of Europe’s great capitals, a city with a storied history centuries long. The metropolis is now home to just over 3 million “Madrileños” and has suffered a devastating civil war, endured decades under Francisco Franco’s brutal dictatorship and witnessed a chaotic cultural rebirth in the ’70s and ’80s.
Just when it appeared that the city might be entering a period of tranquility, a housing bubble decades in the making burst, throwing the entire country into an economic depression referred to here as “La Crisis.” That was in 2008. During a downturn that affected all of Europe, Spain was one of the countries hardest hit. Youth unemployment soared to above 50 per cent. Foreclosures of mortgages reached the tens of thousands. Those who still had jobs saw their wages slashed.
By 2011, unrest reached a boiling point. On May 15, 20,000 Spaniards took to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza and for weeks refused to leave, demanding an end to austerity and economic inequality. The protests would eventually inspire the Occupy movement that swept the globe.
Now, five years later, the numbers say the city is in a modest but fragile recovery. But has its spirit survived close to a decade of dire economic hardship?
Standing in Tabacalera this May morning, I begin to feel Madrid’s pulse, a steady beat of the rebellious, defiant energy that made the city the deserved capital of Spain, a nation populated by arguably the most hot-blooded people on earth.
“It was an old tobacco factory,” says Begoña Torres, the sub-director of Madrid’s Ministry of the Fine Arts. The factory stopped operating in 1999 and was gifted to the Ministry of Culture. Grand plans were made for a dazzling, center for visual art, but by 2010 it was clear there was no money and the plans were halted.
“We had a ruin,” says Begoña Torres. “We decided that we could still do something.”