Souvenirs From A Confident City


Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Like the great mass of international tourists you go to Barcelona, a place you haven’t seen in almost 15 years, and the thoughts come–you can’t help them–what an extraordinary city, relentless city, endless city, confident city.

Ah, too many damn tourists, but can you really fault them?

Street in Barceloneta | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

In fact, it’s a city that keeps rewarding the visitor. If you’re tired of the hordes of other tourists in the Gothic quarter, move over to the Born, eat a plate of Sardines in a nondescript bodega in Gràcia, ride the Metro, escape to the pine terraces of Montjuïc, punch through the Naples-like worker streets of Barceloneta to the beach and walk for miles.

That beach by the way: not only is it spacious, clean, and connected back into neighborhoods, but it’s the symbol of a city playing to its strength and forcing its competitors to follow. Why did Paris a few year ago create a beach along Seine? I’m convinced it was a competitive move to blunt Barcelona’s comparative advantage. (For all those who decry Philadelphia’s mimicking of New York in trying to develop the Reading Viaduct, I say this is what cities do: they learn from each other–like children, sometimes through mimicry–and they try to outdo one another in the fierce competition for people, investment, and ideas.)

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

So is Barcelona perfectly beautiful? No, of course not. I recommend watching Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film “Biutiful” to see why.

We stayed in the apartment of one of Barcelona’s most prolific and dedicated city historians–and where was he? In the US, American dreaming, perhaps because American cities have the potential to deliver the world. In Barcelona there is indeed extraordinarily little ethnic diversity, even by European city standards. Moreover, the newly developing neighborhoods like Poble Nou, where we stayed, lack street life, and the Metro only runs until 11PM.

Telefonica tower by Estudi Massip-Bosch Arquitectes and Herzog & de Meuron’s Forum | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Yet Barcelona makes up for shortcomings with an almost stunningly strong sense of itself, a confidence born of overcoming repressive Castillian kings and Spain’s 20th century dictator, Franco. The confidence is embedded in the idea of Catalan statehood and demonstrated in its penchant for architectural genius. For our purposes, it’s important to remember it wasn’t always that way–that the city most recently emerged from Franco’s oppressive rule in the mid-1970s half-dead–and half-ready to prove to the rest of Spain and the world it could be great again. Becoming great was aided along by the 1992 Olympics, a long period of national growth, and a European Union willing to invest in infrastructure, industry, and culture.

Tram pedestrian-grade light rail on the Diagonal | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

We don’t have anything like that trifecta here so what I bring back from Barcelona–aside from a new faith in at-grade light rail (pictured above), a desire to better market, highlight, and expose the imaginative architecture of Frank Furness (his similarly counter-culture contemporary Antoni Gaudí is just about the most famous Barcelonan), and a vision for a wide and accessible riverfront that draws people to the water above all else–is the Barcelonan sense of pride, inventiveness, and progressivism. It is a city always, it seems, demanding to look forward, and inviting everyone else to follow.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.


  1. Barcelona and most European cities are cities that want to be cities. Philadelphia is a city where 3/4 of residents complain if they can’t park in front of their house.

    That’s the problem. We don’t want to be a city so how can we be confident in the great investments like tramways, density, and parks that make us a city.

    • This is all indeed true, and long been a frustrating thing–the city that doesn’t want to be one.
      Nevertheless, the very fact of this website (and others), this discussion, and some very positive trends in government, demographics, and fashion means this is and has been changing. We are closer than we think to being a serious urban place–and one that maintains some authenticity.

      I’d also say, not to belabor, that this city has seen many historic phases of confidence, innovation, and civic progressivism–this is all in our blood, along with privatism, abandonment, and despair. –ed.

    • “Barcelona and most European cities are cities that want to be cities. Philadelphia is a city where 3/4 of residents complain if they can’t park in front of their house.”

      Although I agree with Nathaniel about the hopeful trends in Philadelphia, I can’t ignore the truth in this statement. Ugh.

  2. I was just in Barca too! It’s an amazing architectural amalgamation, but a confident city beyond its architecture? Nowhere in spain is confident. And there’s a whole boat of concerns from natives–the removal of one of the final bastions of center city working class neighborhoods is nearly complete (the gentrification of Barceloneta) and El Raval is next/in the works (well, it was before the banking collapse in spain). They still complain about the dead zone the olympic village created in Poble Nou (hence its lack of nightlife and that garish port olympic monstrosity that looks like it should be in Seaside Heights). And its position as a critical port for the entire Mediterranean has helped its economy survive in ways Philly’s hasn’t/can’t (it’s port is more than 10x as busy as Philly’s and is doubling in size).

    I love Barcelona–only city I’d leave Philly for that I’ve spent time in–and with regard to what this website hopes to do, it’s an ideal city to emulate. But it’s also got a history of city planning errors and key differences to learn from as well.

    One of the twisted ironies of Franco’s oppression of Catalunya is that the type of urban demolition and “renewal” that helped destroy much of the beauty of cities like Philadelphia didn’t hit Barcelona. That’s part of why it is, today, such an architecturally fascinating city.

    • Barça is the name of the football team, not the city. Saying “I was in Barça” is like saying “I was in Eagles” or “Flyers is the city of brotherly love”.

  3. oops! I’ll have to give my friend who grew up there crap for never correcting me before. lol.

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