Can Masdeu

In the twilight of a windy Wednesday afternoon we found ourselves standing outside a Barcelona metro stop in search of the renowned squat Can Masdeu.  We were informed that it was about 15 minutes up the hill.  Go past Karl Marx Plaza and look for the little black stars spray painted along the way to guide you.  After you turn a corner you won't feel like you're in the city anymore, we were told. Exhausted from an overnight train-ride from Paris, lingering respiratory infections from the sub-freezing climates of Berlin and Prague, not to mention two months intensive travel, we trudged uphill against the wind wondering what this final stop on our European tour had in store.

We'd never actually got confirmation on our stay there.  From later conversations with Brian, the visitor coordinator, it seems that his main method of screening out the tourists and the aimless wanderers looking for a cheap crash-pad is by being hard to reach.  Caroline, our Twin Oaks comrade who'd been in Barcelona for several months to attend an international art school, said she wasn't surprised that we'd not gotten a response.  She'd been up to Can Masdeu a few times and said that when we got there they'd probably say, "hey," in casual Spanish style.  As luck would have it, once we turned up the dirt road leading into the Vall de Can Masdeu (the valley where the squat is located), someone came up on a bike behind us.  "Estan los de Twin Oaks?" he asked. "Are you from Twin Oaks?"  It was a Brian the viz coordinator, an american ex-patriot and founding member of Can Masdeu. "I have go meet my mother who's waiting for me.  I'll see you up there."

As we trudged up the hill we got our first sight of the squat, a beige, vaguely fortress-like building, crumbling at the edges.  Unsure which path to take to the building we followed the signs for the "social center."  We found ourselves on a terrace outside the top floor of the building, with stone benches built into the hill and various plastic tables and chairs scattered around.  The door to the social center was locked, but someone came out of an adjacent room to brush water over the loaves of fresh bread laid out on cooling racks (we'd read on their website of the small baking operation.)  Kassia asked in Spanish where Brian might be.  The man disappeared into the social center, and a minute later Brian emerged, showed us where the hidden key was, and officially welcomed us to the community.

community building

Like other communities we'd visited, the building that houses Can Masdeu has a remarkable history.  It was formerly a leper hospital, and had been abandoned for decades before it was squatted.  The building is overlooked by a larger, newer hospital, which has also been unused for sometime - though a security guard with dogs and cameras is employed to prevent it succumbing to the fate of its older sister down the hill.  The land is owned by the Foundation of the Hospital of Sant Pau (a tripartate formed of the Provincial Government, the City Hall and the Catholic Church,) who is not happy about the squatters being there.

The squatting action took place in December '01.  European Youth Forest Action (EYFA) and Rising Tide Europe had been scouting for a location to hold a gathering.  The derelict building was squatted, the gathering took place, and when it was over they hadn't been evicted.  They decided to stay. One of the first things the group did was open up the land to gardening by the local populace.  This and other networking activities came in handy when the eviction attempt came in April '02.

The group had made preparations for an eviction attempt.  They'd rigged a system for hanging various pieces of furniture out the top floor buildings, which would then be occupied.  The story goes that when they did a test run it went very badly.  As they finished up and started evaluating, a call came from down the valley that the police were on their way.  "Right then, back out, everyone!" unfortunately with completely inadequate clothing and provisions.


Dozens of police surrounded the property.  A lawyer-friend who came up to support the squatters apparently said not to worry, the police would leave by night-time.  Instead, the police stayed for 3 days.  This turned out to be a PR disaster for the police department.  Hundreds of sympathizers came up to support the squatters.  Solidarity actions were held in other countries.  In the end a judge ruled that the right to life is more important than the right to property and the police were ordered to withdraw.  Since then Can Masdeu has lost all but one of the court cases (they won the criminal case because the Foundation didn't show up in court.)  But in Spain property owners have to pay for the cost of an eviction and must have the funds for development before the eviction can happen.  Given the current global economic situation Can Masdeu seems to have a measure of security, and each year the community grows stronger.

Every Sunday the community welcomes 100 - 400 people to the PICC (Public Interaction Center of Collserola.) About half of those are new-comers to the Center.  There is a tour of the community, workshops on everything from ecology to activism to contact improv. A delicious meal is offered for about about 4 euros, and the Rurbar (Rural/Urban eco-cafe) serves tapas, homemade cakes and empanadas, home-brewed beer, local organic wine, coffee and other drinks.  There are also local crafts for sale and a freeshop. 


Additionally, the gardening association of locals who grow food on the land holds bi-monthly meetings on Sundays.  One of these happened while we were there.  After the meeting, they took over the community kitchen to cook up a true Catalyunian lunch, complete with omelet competition. The celebratory and raucous scene of communards and local gardeners (complete with homemade beer) was, as Pax called it, any activists dream come true.  This was easily the most profound example we've seen of a radical group successful bridge-building with the local community.

These large Sunday gatherings also happen to be the only income source for the community. Being a squat the community's monetary expenses are minimal.  Utility costs are low and each member pays 25 euros a month to buy the food that they aren't able to grow (or dumpster, or pre-dumpster) themselves.  The Sunday gatherings are actually successful enough that residents can get paid to work the bar.  The bread-making operation is another interesting example of community economics.  Their contribution for using one of the rooms at Can Masdeu for their brick bread oven is to bake bread for the house twice a week in addition to what they bake for sale at the PICC and to local CSAs.  They tithe a small percentage of the earnings to the house.  This is the sole income-source needed for the bread-makers.

The gardens are prolific, covering several terraces down from the building.  They benefit greatly from regular attention on the Thursday garden work-parties.  Their labor-system is one of "minimums," and they only recently created a simple public accounting system.  Each member commits to cooking 2.5 times a month and taking responsibility for one big area or two small areas of the community.  They also take on a cleaning task (either done weekly or monthly depending on the task,) participation in the Thursday garden work-party and the Tuesday house-keeping work-party, and overseeing the cooking and other tasks for 2 PICC Sundays per year.

They have a chart on the wall in the kitchen where members mark a box with an X if they've completed a particular commitment, a slash if they've only done part of it, and leave it blank if it's undone.  The house then reviews the chart periodically and checks in with people who aren't following through.  We asked if anyone has had to be expelled for not working. Only once, we were told, and it wasn't really expulsion.  Apparently there was a couple early on who spent most of their time "sitting around smoking spliffs."  There was a meeting where other members asked them, "do you think living here suits you."  They said no, and moved out shortly there after.

There have been no new members in the community for about 3 years.  The group has officially been closed to new members for longer than that, but has made exceptions for people they know well and really like.  Many current members have been there since the first year of the community's existence, and a handful were founding squatters.  Socially the group is solid, and communication functions very well.  We were told that folks pay a lot of attention to make sure that relationships between members are good.  But it didn't seem like a big deal was made out of it.  Keeping on good terms with each other and resolving issues as they arise seemed to be more a matter of course, a practical matter, rather than mushrooming into process for the sake of process.

The first couple days we spent there most people ignored us, which we'd come to expect.  Some people went more out of their way to connect, certainly in part because of the Twin Oaks association.  Paxus, Hawina, and Willow had actually stayed there back in '04, and had done a talk on Twin Oaks.  We were told early on that the community had adopted a communication board, which includes written dialog, from what Pax and Hawina had told them about the O&I board.  They call it the Twin Oaks board.  We did our Twin Oaks slide-show presentation over their digital video projector (a seemingly standard piece of equipment for European communities); one for the community and another for the Sunday Social Center gathering.  Notably, we couldn't make it 5 minutes without people jumping in with questions or jokes or breaking into passionate conversation or debate about a related issue at Can Masdeu.  After that people paid much more attention to us ;0)

We gave another presentation a week later on other US communities we've visited as well as the European communities we've visited.  There was some lively back and forth with those who had been to some of the communities, as well as lots of questions  (and ogling over Svanholm's luxurious, state-of-art and enormous kitchen!)  People thoroughly enjoyed it.  "I feel like I've been traveling!" one member said to us afterwards.  This kind of sharing, helping bring the international movement closer and more in people's consciousness, is a big justification for all this crazy traveling we've been doing.  It's the best way we can see of giving something back for the amazing opportunities and fantastic generosity we've been granted.  Everywhere we've gone we've talked about our plans for C'ville, and people are generally inspired and excited to hear about them.

So, on December 18th we boarded a plane in Barcelona, heading back for the states, excited and scared at what we would find back on the shifting socio-political sands of our homeland and sad to leave behind all these new friends in Europe.  Our hope is that we are able to strengthen these connections and build what we create in C'ville into this international network (to whatever extent it is practical and sustainable).  We want to hold onto and help spread the idea that the world is both bigger and smaller than we think it is.  It is bigger in the sense that there are so many groups out there doing the same kinds of things we are doing.  And it is smaller in that there are people all around the world, just like us, struggling with the same challenges and finding similar joys as we try to bring a little more beauty and a little more sanity into this world.