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Transforming a neighborhood the TriBall way

Over 100 businesses have opened in a once-rundown area behind Madrid's Gran Vía in the last five years

Miguel Ángel Santa strolls down Ballesta street like he was the mayor of a small town. Every 10 steps he stops to pat someone on the back, shake a hand or exchange a few words. "How's it going, man?" "Hey, we still have to discuss that." "Yes, let's talk this week."

An architect, real estate agent, restaurant partner, facility manager, spokesman for a trade association and license obtainer all rolled into one, this 45-year-old, who wears his long hair combed back, is one of the driving forces behind the change undergone in the last five years in an eight-hectare triangle located in the heart of Madrid, once a refuge for prostitutes, drug pushers and heroin addicts.

These days, the prostitutes remain firmly on its sidewalks, but so do creative restaurants, vintage clothing stores and cultural centers such as the successful Microteatro por dinero, which is open every night. The Teatro Lara has staged a comeback with a program that includes small-scale concerts, and the decaying movie theater Cines Luna has been acquired by the theater impresario Enrique Salaberría and the Larrañaga family, who plan to reopen it in September as a venue for musicals.

"This area has an underground feel to it, with the whores right on the doorstep"

Santa swells with pride as he leads me on a tour that begins at his own restaurant, MUI, until recently co-owned with the chef Juanjo López, who left over "disagreements" and now runs his own place, La Tasquita de Enfrente, right next door. The tour continues with stops at a bar that looks like a loft - La Chula de Valverde - a gourmet hamburger joint - Nimu - and a store selling art that doubles as furniture - Kikekeller. Coincidentally, Santa is behind the reforms at all the above-mentioned places, and his style is easy to recognize: ample spaces, exposed brick and wooden beams.

Although Santa likes to say that TriBall (Triangle Below Ballesta) is an association of 180 establishments (managed by himself and a partner), the fact is that only 80 are currently paying membership fees, now set at 30 euros a month after several price cuts. Yet many entrepreneurs have decided not to pay even that. "Three hundred and sixty euros a year for nothing is still a lot," says Alberto, the owner of a 100-year-old establishment called Jamones López Pascual.

"People who come to my hairdresser's shop come for me, not for TriBall," adds José Navarro, who also stopped paying.

But let us rewind. Five years have gone by since a group of investors embarked on an ambitious plan for an area that backs on to Gran Vía (with a human traffic flow of 7,000 people per hour) and Fuencarral street (6,000 people per hour). Around 40 individuals pooled 20 million euros in bank loans and bought up 60 commercial premises and lots of apartments. Some of the establishments had been closed for years, others were sex shops and others brothels. Shutting them down was a necessary step in order to turn the neighborhood around, and Santa claims this earned them death threats.

Almudena Fernández, a model and businesswoman, invested in the project and lent it her image, which was used in a promotional video with the slogan "Lifestyle Ecochic." In this time, 130 businesses have tried their luck in the area. But the crisis has hit them, too, and some have been forced to close down. A store called Secreto, on Barco street, has a going-out-of-business sale. But a new bar opened on the same street a few months ago. For every business that shuts down, another opens up. A week ago, it was a new creative tapas restaurant called DeCatar on Desengaño street.

Until recently, a large sex shop called Crazy Girls had occupied the corner of Desengaño for 30 years. Now, it is a restaurant with enormous windows and a "Canadian design," explains Antonio Molina, 54, the former owner of the sex shop and now a restaurant entrepreneur. "You have to go with the flow," he says. Next to him is the cook, Alejandro Sepúlveda, a 27-year-old from Venezuela who is friends with one of Antonio's sons. Together, the two symbolize the change in the area. The premises, by the way, were also reformed by Santa.

The TriBall project has as many admirers as it has detractors. The latter, who refuse to adopt the brand name and continue to refer to this place as "the back door of Gran Vía," talk about speculation, gentrification, the closure of traditional businesses and the priority of commercial interests over those of local residents.

Clara León, a graphic designer who has been living on Desengaño street for the last eight years, sums it up like this: "I moved here because on Pez street I was paying a rent of 800 euros for a 40-square meter apartment, and here I pay the same for one that's 70 square meters. To me, for the neighborhood to have improved is a good thing and a bad thing. It's good because it's nice to see cute stores and places to grab a bite, and also because it's less scary. Before this, I never dared go to Plaza de la Luna by myself. But it's bad because my butcher has shut down and because my rent will go up and I'll have to move."

The real estate agency run by Santa and his partner, Rehabitar Gestión, has a sign on the window offering a 40-square meter apartment on Desengaño street for 875 euros a month. Clara León admits that in the last two years she's stopped seeing heroin addicts and drug dealers on the street, but that she is still scared to go home alone late at night. "And when my grandmother comes to visit, I worry that the transvestite who walks around with bare breasts will be down there at the entrance," she confesses.

Despite the proliferation of businesses, at noon on a recent Wednesday in January there were more prostitutes and their prospective clients on the streets than people interested in purchasing trendy clothing. A few Nigerian women chatted as they sat on parked motorcycles, a young Cuban winked at every man that walked by, and Yoana, a veteran of Desengaño street, shrugged when she was asked about the transformation: "I don't care," she said contemptuously.

It was precisely the combination of prostitution and modernity that attracted the designer Papo Kling to this area. This Argentinean was the first entrepreneur to settle down in TriBall in 2008. "As a brand, we try to go to alternative places, far away from commercial circuits, because that gives us added value," he says. "We don't want to be next to the big brands. This area has an underground feel to it, with the whores right on the doorstep. It's hard on the eyes, but it lends a special aura to brands like ours. Besides that, it's a lot cheaper."

Kling also adds that he thought TriBall would end up being a magnet for fashion boutiques. "But we have to accept that Spain is a country of bars. At first we agreed to a balance of businesses in the area, but in the end the bars won out, and they're almost always full."

Ángel Sánchez, who runs the Scandinavian fashion store Gük, explains that despite the improvements, Madrid residents are less likely to come to TriBall than tourists, whose guidebooks describe this area as an embryonic London Soho. Another designer, Carlos Díez Díez, has nothing but good words for the TriBall project, which let him and other renowned designers have commercial spaces for free in order to attract the public and other businesses.

The reform of Cines Luna, the epicenter of one of the biggest trouble spots in the neighborhood, could represent the final, necessary boost to TriBall. Tina Lorenzo, owner of a perfume shop called Heleme, located just across from the derelict building, has a shine in her eyes just talking about it. "You just can't compare the way things were and the way they are now. If on top of all that, they restore Cines Luna, it would be like winning the lottery."