Once it was one of the swankiest thoroughfares in Europe. When it was built in 1910, 14 streets were scythed away to permit the passage of the motor car. The Gran Via blossomed during the First World War, when neutral Madrid was a magnet for every kind of prosperous activity. "Vulgar and blatant" was how Gerald Brenan, the writer on Spain, found it in 1949.
This week, Madrid's city fathers described the Gran Via and 10 adjacent squares as "the most derelict and socially marginal areas in the city". They say prostitutes, drug dealers and "urban tribes" abound. They reckon it will cost pounds 24m to spruce up the area, and have asked Brussels to pay half.
It is true that the Gran Via has seen better days, that on an evening stroll to the austere 1930s cocktail bar Chicote, you may glimpse a dazed prostitute peeing in a doorway. As you press in with the crowds to a film at one of the 1920s cinemas, as grand and kitsch as the set of a classic Hollywood musical, you may meet a drugged performance artist with a drugged cat on his shoulder, or an elderly man crouched beneath his blanket across the doorstep that he has appropriated every night for almost 20 years. Many regard the area north of Gran Via as a no-go area after dark.
Crucial to the "remodelling" is a proposal to widen the pavements by nearly two metres each side, which is fine for pedestrians, but will compound the street's horrendous traffic jams. More worrying is a proposal to create a "leisure trail", suggesting that the existence of 18 theatres and 19 cinemas within a few hundred yards of each other is not a powerful enough attraction: their facades are to be touched up, walkways created, special signs erected and street furniture renewed.
Let's hope they don't tear down the giant handpainted cinema posters. The Gran Via must be the last outpost of the Western world where this engaging art form survives. Nor should they tinker with the facade of Madrid's finest art- deco building, the Capitol, built in 1932; or with Spain's first skyscraper, the Telefonica building, by the metro station. Hailed as a modern triumph when it went up in 1929, this was the place where journalists went to file, and be censored, during the Spanish civil war.
At the far end of the street, Franco's even taller Edificio Espana, built between 1948 and 1953, is unlikely to be affected by the Town Hall's improvement plan. Its curious mock-Habsburg details have been lovingly restored by private developers. Prosperous youngsters are snapping up the smart modernised flats with their breathtaking views to the mountains, or down the main drag - the Gran Via - to the heart of the capital.Reuse content