This post is part of our Love Letter series: first-person accounts of what we love about Madrid.
By my count, I’ve lived in six different neighborhoods of Madrid. Some more central, some further away, but each with their own character. This year, though, I made a big decision: to finally move out of the “central almond.” This strangely-named district, which takes its name from the oval area within Madrid’s circular motorway, is a big deal to madrileños. For a major European capital city, life in Madrid still revolves around its historic center. Live inside the almond, and you’re in the heart of the action. Move outside it, and to a decent number of locals, you might as well be in Cuenca. That’s not how I see it, though. Because a lot of what’s most exciting in Madrid right now is happening outside the center. And nowhere more so than my neighborhood: Usera.
As prices rise in the historic center, there’s been a lot of talk in Madrid over the past few years about where will be the “next Lavapiés:” the next rough-around-the-edges neighborhood to become an arty hotspot. Usera is one of the main candidates. But that’s doing the area a disservice. Firstly, because it glosses over the problems that gentrification can cause for less well-off districts. And secondly, because it implies that Usera needs to change.
Usera is everything I love about Madrid: not particularly pretty, a little chaotic at times, but brimming with energy and dynamism. One of the city’s most diverse areas, over a fifth of the population are foreign-born. Most prominent are the Chinese and Latin American populations. Needless to say, that makes it one of the best places to eat anywhere in the city. Sometimes it seems like every available space in Usera has been taken up by eateries.
Crossing the river into Usera for authentic Chinese food has become something of a ritual for many Madrid foodies. From numbingly spicy Szechuan food at Sabor Sichuan, through lesser-known Zhejiang cuisine at Lao Tou, to the legendary Royal Cantonés, this is one of the best places in Europe for a dive deep into Chinese cuisine. Elsewhere, La Fonda de Colombia is perhaps the best Colombian restaurant in the city (it’s where my Colombian friends go for celebrations), and Javi Pan is the place for incredible Bolivian salteñas on the go.
Cheaper rents have also made Usera a destination for many of the city’s underground artists. The development of Matadero as the city’s main municipal contemporary arts center just across the river has had a knock-on effect here in Usera. Espacio Oculto is the nerve center for events, exhibitions and workshops. And every spring, the Luminaria festival shows work by contemporary artists in the district’s two old-school markets. That gives you a sense of what makes this neighborhood so special, for me: artists, immigrant communities and old-school Madrid taverns not in conflict with each other, but all mixed up together. This is the new, cosmopolitan Madrid.
The big challenge for Usera is still to come. Being named one of Airbnb’s fastest-growing neighborhoods worldwide last year seemed a recognition of how exciting the area has become, but also rang a lot of alarm bells. New arrivals (myself not excluded), tourists and other visitors can bring income to areas like Usera, but they can also kickstart processes which end up with longstanding residents being priced out of the area.
Instead of blaming newcomers, I think it’s important to educate people on how to support the neighborhood. If you’re renting an apartment online, consider taking a spare room from a local instead: not only will you get to meet a real insider, you’ll also avoid contributing to the rise in rental prices that buy-to-let apartments have been causing in the area. Buy as much as possible from independent retailers rather than international supermarkets. That shouldn’t be hard in Usera: we’re blessed with the fine Mercado de Usera for raw produce, and the local shops sell everything under the sun. Essentially, make sure as much of your money gets into the hands of locals as possible. Tourism doesn’t need to be a problem for neighborhoods like Usera, and that’s the responsibility of all of us.