The lost Madrid where epidemics and death lived | Blog Know You

From Madrid to heaven, but going through the grave first. In the capital, that “poorly built poblachón” as Manuel Azaña called it, most of the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th are characterized by more deaths than births. In a century Madrid has been shaken by four epidemics of cholera, three of smallpox, one of measles, in addition to big shots or flu and diphtheria. It is “the city of death”, read in the press and in official reports, the “sad city”, “that does not laugh”, “without air, without water, without light”.

A hygienist doctor, César Chicote, directs the Municipal Laboratory in 1914. The mayor of Madrid, Luis de Marichalar, has commissioned him to write a report and Chicote prepares it based on the disinfections that a few years before the technicians in charge have applied everywhere in poor Madrid. They have gone into hundreds of crowded houses, in infected alleys and miserable corralas, dodging manure crammed with manure and cesspools. They have been photographed and have taken many notes: the numbers and the streets, the volume of inhabitants, the number of people who share the same water source or a single toilet. Above all, the southern and western areas of the city have been kicked, bordering the Manzanares River, the Hospital, Inclusa, Latina, Audiencia and Palacio districts, where streets with unhealthy homes abounded. “Shacks” and “barracks” Chicote calls those shacks in which the most humble population of the city took refuge.

Its technicians find up to 775 people living in a single “corridor house”, a corrala. Of the more than 600,000 Madrid residents, there are 60,000 living in this type of building, and almost all of them under the roof of 438 unhealthy houses. There are neighborhood houses, inhabited by “workers or indigents” and “houses of sleep”, even more miserable, where pallets are rented for the homeless to spend the night. It is a crude Madrid that cannot bear any customary idealization.

“The unhealthy houses are an instrument of misery and death wielded with impunity by capital for their benefit, without worrying about the number of victims”

“The man exhales 18 liters of carbonic acid through his breath in one hour,” that doctor makes a careful note in his report. “The poor class that inhabits houses without sufficient coverage due to smallness or overcrowding, manages to live because, fortunately, the doors and windows never close hermetically and the stale air is renewed little by little.” That sets aside death by suffocation, but the Grim Reaper continues to haunt those houses whose corners the sunlight does not reach. There are many years to start talking about “social distancing”, but the concept is the same: the terrible “daily” contact of healthy people with the sick is a fact, and Chicote denounces it.

Overcrowding, he estimates, is directly responsible for a “truly terrifying” mortality of between 35 and 48 people per 1,000. And it is synonymous with tuberculosis, the social disease of the time. It is called “housing disease”, illustrates Rafael Huertas, a researcher professor at the CSIC.

Tuberculosis goes by neighborhoods. Chicote notes that the infection barely kills one person in a thousand in the wealthy neighborhoods of Biblioteca or Fernando el Santo, in the Buenavista district. But in the paltry of the Huerta del Bayo (Inclusa district) or Calatrava (Latina), on the banks of the Manzanares, that rate is five times. And the association between economic situation and disease is so close in buildings where the rich and poor live together, it rages against the inhabitants of basements and lofts, and overlooks noble plants, says the researcher, who has studied the relationship between housing and health in that Madrid, alluding to several studies.

But neither is it that the technicians under the orders of doctor Chicote discovered the danger of that infected Madrid of 1914. Much earlier it had already been seen that in the homes of the working-class neighborhoods the disease spread more than in those of the bourgeoisie. And the sub-housing is identified as a possible cause. “It is very important to determine to what extent the mortality of the poor classes is attributable to the poor conditions of the rooms they occupy,” said the city’s mayor in 1874, Francisco Méndez Álvaro, at the time a doctor.

They register 438 unhealthy houses. There are neighborhood houses, inhabited by “workers or destitute” and “sleeping houses”, even more miserable, where pallets are rented for the homeless to spend the night.

Of course, until the end of the century there is no clear awareness of where the problem is. “The overmortality of the inhabitants of Madrid occurs at the expense of the working class,” says Rafael Huertas. Because it turned out that the mortality of bourgeois and nobles was indeed at the European level. The inequality between rich and poor is atrocious within the same city: if the mortality in the modest district of Inclusa is 45 people per 1,000, in the well-to-do of Centro it does not even reach 20. The proximity of hospitals aggravates the problem . At the gates of the current Museo Reina Sofía, then Provincial Hospital, the clothes of the infectious patients who have died on the other side of the walls are sold to the poor.

And if the powerful are interested in the problem, it is because they fear that the public health problem will touch them. “If in the unhealthy houses of the needy they take with much greater origin the diseases called popularly with reason, soon they soon radiate from those foci to the palaces of the princes, embracing the population as a whole,” says Mayor Méndez Álvaro .

Poor and rich, sick and healthy

Historical Library. City of Madrid

César Chicote classified the districts and neighborhoods of Madrid at that time according to their mortality rate in five categories, from the ‘very healthy’ to the ‘very unhealthy’:

(In green) Very healthy: Mortality between 13.43 and 16.91 per 1,000 inhabitants. Floridablanca, Conde de Aranda, Library, Conde Duque, Campoamor, Almirante and Las Torres neighborhoods.

(In light blue) Healthy: between 17.43 and 22.02. Monastery neighborhoods, Cañizares, Fernando el Santo, Príncipe, Tudescos, Retiro, Montaña, Correos, Argüelles, Pacífico, Constitución, Ayuntamiento, San Martín, Puerta del Sol, Cervantes, Las Mercedes, Luchana, Carlos III, Marqués de Salamanca, Góngora , Hernán Cortés and Estrella.

(In yellow) Not very healthy: between 22.31 and 22.73. Colón, Muñoz Torrero, Apodaca, Carmen, Jesús del Valle, Espejo, Dos de Mayo, Isabel II, Plaza de Toros, Jardines, Sandoval, Guindalera, San Luis, San Opropio, Alameda, Monteleón, Cardenal Cisneros, Senate, Duque de Alba , San Pablo, Goya, Vallehermoso, Hipódromo, Álamo, Conde de Toreno and Bilbao.

(In gray) Unhealthy: between 28.14 and 34.30. San Isidro. Cava, Doctor Fourquet, Ministriles, Alfonso VI, Gutenberg, Torrecilla, Quintana, San Francisco, Minas, Casa de Campo, Trafalgar, Bellas Vistas, Santa María, San Carlos, Santa Lucía, Amazonas, Delicias, Balmes, Moncloa, Prosperidad, Lozoya , Humilladero, Rastro, Amaniel, Alfonso X.

(In black) Very unhealthy: between 35.19 and 47.53. Barrios de Marqués de Comillas, Cuatro Caminos, Guzmán el Bueno, Aguas, Santa María de la Cabeza, Lavapiés, Arganzuela, Quiñones, Imperial, Argumosa, Gasómetro, Miguel Servet, Huerta del Bayo, Calatrava, Primavera, Jesús y María, Caravaca, Cabestreros and Peñuelas.

What is better? That the workers live in their own neighborhoods, built with decent houses but well on the outskirts? Or that they share mixed buildings with the bourgeois, some in the attics and cellars and others on the noble floors? The dilemma hovered for decades in the conversations of architects. In 1883 they had faced one or the other solution at the first architecture congress to be held in Spain. The first option has the advantage that it will encourage the humble with the illusion of owning a roof. The second, that from the proximity with the bourgeoisie they will be able to be infected – in the best sense – of good customs.

All proposals are always made “from bourgeois budgets that invariably combine the social defense and paternalism of the ruling class,” says Rafael Huertas. “In forced contact everyone would know and esteem each other: the vicious worker would have a brake on what his neighbors would say: if he came drunk he would fear meeting the lady of the second who attended his wife in the last childbirth with his little gift, or to the doctor who treated her for free or to the third party, who gives her used children’s clothes “. The quote belongs to a book from 1892, The worker in society.

Huts in the Ambassadors stream, Gasometer neighborhood.
Huts in the Ambassadors stream, Gasometer neighborhood. Historical Library. City of Madrid

With the new century, the conservative mayor of Madrid Luis de Marichalar follows the same paternalistic guidelines. He misses those mixed houses, which have been disappearing and which are insufficient to absorb the flood of new Madrid residents. “Unfortunately those times have passed (…) when the rich and the poor lived in the same house (…) The hygiene of some affected the others,” says De Marichalar. “There was no calamity of the guards [los pobres] that the residents of the lower floors were not aware, rushing to raise relief in kind or in cash. “Call to organize neighborhood councils by neighborhoods, to count and classify the needy around them, to see how many they are and how much They suspect that private welfare funds are sufficient, if they are well managed. But they also assume that it is time to expropriate and demolish a large building. La Gran Vía will be the clearest expression of that policy, which not only seeks to house department stores and the cinemas, but also to clean up the city center.The works affected 48 streets – 14 of them disappeared – and 315 houses collapsed.

Chicote concludes in its report that unhealthy housing “degrades and kills”. “The unhealthy houses are an instrument of misery and death wielded with impunity by the capital for their benefit, without worrying about the number of victims that the rents that they yield represent – always more productive than those of the habitable housesOn the other hand, in his conclusions, he does not relieve the poor of guilt: “Not all the responsibility in the existence of the unhealthy houses corresponds to the property, and that comes to exist between it and the people who rent them, a kind of interested complicity. It cannot be denied that, in effect, the poor and numerous families voluntarily inhabit homes without conditions. “

‘Hotel la Tinaja’

Old glass fireplace reused as an infra-housing near Príncipe Pío.
Old glass fireplace reused as an infra-housing near Príncipe Pío. City of Madrid

The technicians of César Chicote went to the outskirts of that city that was gaining ground in the countryside, leaving a ragged border of hovels and barracks: the Madrid of the lumpen. Those huts, and number more than 2,000, house 10,000 people. They are struck by a particular construction, the ‘Hotel de la Tinaja’, a chimney, now disappeared, which had been built in 1881 for glass cooking in the Factory and School of Ceramic Arts of La Moncloa. At its closure, and with the transfer of the school to Fernando el Católico, several families took refuge in it.

The team of technicians also went into the center of Madrid. The 1914 report collects images of houses on the streets of Toledo, Arganzuela, Mira el Río Alta, Rosario, Martín de Vargas, Peña de Francia, Ruda, Ventosa, Peñón, Provisiones, Salitre, Tribulete, the Callejon del Mellizo or the plaza from Lavapiés. “We reproduce some interiors because at the same time they give a perfect idea of ​​the unsanitary conditions that are so abundant in the Hospital, Inclusa and Latina districts,” says Chicote. Between ramshackle walls, beaten beams and a toilet, children appear with an intrigued gesture before those men who sneaked in to disinfect their houses and who also took photos of them.


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